Thirty Years After the Fall: The Lessons of 2019

Technological progress and the growth of world trade move steadily forward—but Europe and the United States hide fearfully in the shadows without a vision for the future, suggests former American Ambassador John Kornblum.

We need a vision for a new digital world order.

As we commemorate the fall of the Berlin Wall, one lingering question remains. Why were so many people shocked when it happened? We had enough warning. There was no reason to be surprised, but almost everyone was.

The confusion which followed demonstrated one of humanity’s most enduring traits. We ignore uncomfortable truths. We run from them. And we often get burned by them.

In the case of the Wall, fear kept us from facing the truth. Fear of war. The Soviet Union had repeatedly made clear that it would never allow East Germany to liberalize or above all, to collapse.  So we said nothing.

As a result, both sides were poorly prepared. In fact, many West German politicians were so caught off guard that they wanted to work with the new, more “liberal” leader Mikhail Gorbachev to legally recognize the GDR, and thus make permanent the division of Europe.

And on November 8, 1989, even Chancellor Helmut Kohl told then Polish President Lech Walesa in Warsaw: “Don’t worry. Germany will not be reunited for a long time to come.” The next day, Kohl rushed to Berlin to celebrate the fall of the Wall.

If we suppressed reality so completely in 1989, what sort of unpleasant truths are we ignoring today? There are many. Some of them are more fundamental to human society than the Berlin Wall. Either we will recognize and manage them, or, like November 9, 1989, they will explode in our faces.


Read in German in Die Welt


What Do We Mean When We Talk About the West?

But today, a confused West, bereft of political leadership, burdened with social unrest, and above all failing to put its past behind it, stands fearful and uncertain with essentially no vision for the future.

Technology and world trade are booming, but our populations are worried. They fear that their future will be decided by technological auto-pilots. Instead of fighting change, the West desperately needs a new narrative which helps our societies weave humanitarian values and human justice into a new digital era.

Sadly, European leaders seem still fixated on the traumatic narrative of the twentieth century.  Any deviation from the postwar world order is treated as a dangerous rebirth of the past.

Europe has little to say about artificial intelligence, quantum computers, or the rise of left- and right-wing radicalism, not to mention the threat of climate change. But its commitment to a stagnating European “peace project” and to maintenance of “the European way of life” is unshakable.

There are even proposals for a new global Alliance among powerless, medium-sized, “multilateralist” countries who support Europe in its efforts to deny the future. It is as if exporting an eternal European Rubik’s cube can hold off change.

Americans have felt the social and economic upheavals of globalization more severely than Europeans, and the dissatisfaction among voters is greater. Our labor market is changing more fundamentally and our social net is not as seamless as that in Europe.

American society is increasingly becoming polarized between those demanding fundamental redistribution of wealth and those who believe that a nationalist vision for “making America great again” will solve all problems. The excesses of “MAGA” president Donald Trump are contributing to a major constitutional crisis.

The result is anger. Voters are the first to feel the pain and they are mad at their governments for causing the confusion. This anger is also beginning to undermine the solidarity of both the European and Atlantic communities.

This is much more than diplomacy. The inventions of Western society are turning our lives on end.  As Russian election meddling makes clear, if not carefully managed, global networks can also undermine our futures. The road ahead is unclear. Elon Musk, manufacturer of the Tesla electric car, argues that “Artificial Intelligence is a fundamental risk to the existence of human civilization.”

Toward a Global Atlantic

For guidance we might heed the wise words of the eminent late German sociologist Ulrich Beck:

“The birth of the non-belligerent Europe after World War II [… was] made possible by the organizing power and the continental presence of America. […] The historic amalgamation of the Atlantic Community, EU and NATO […] becomes especially important at this historical moment when it is threatening to fall apart. The extent to which a merely European Europe […] is possible is highly questionable.”

In other words, amid the confusion ahead, this “historic amalgamation” of Western societies will offer the best roadmap to a successful future. The openness and justice of Western values provide by far the best operating system for an interconnected world.

The globally networked world will not stop at national borders, regardless of what the Chinese or the German economics minister might think. Neither European “strategic sovereignty,” nor making America “great again” will be useful in a world without strong, universal values.

But success will require a fundamentally new strategy which puts our values to work.  We are no longer a partnership of the new and old worlds rebuilding after two horrible wars. We are an increasingly integrated Atlantic community of nations who are the foundation of modern liberal society. Building these values into a new digital world order is our most important task.

Despite many challenges, Western society is healthy and secure.  Europe and America will continue to flourish. New global structures will unite us in ways not yet imaginable. The lesson of 1989 was to embrace change, rather than fearing it. The lesson of 2019 is that global influence will flow to those who learn how to manage new sorts of challenges, but not by those who look backward to bemoan the disappearance of an outmoded “liberal-democratic order.”


Read more on the Fall of the Berlin Wall from AICGS


The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.

John Kornblum

AICGS Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees.