The Ripon Forum

Volume 53, No. 6

November 2019

The Fall of the Wall, 30 Years Later

By on November 22, 2019

A conversation with former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats

Dan Coats has had many titles over the course of his long and distinguished career in public service. He has served as a Congressman, Senator, and Ambassador. Most recently, the Indiana Republican served as Director of National Intelligence.

In each position, Coats developed a reputation as a common sense conservative who not only understood the issues and mastered the details, but performed his duties and responsibilities with grace, intellect, and good humor. Those qualities were on full display when he took over as America’s new Ambassador to Germany in early September 2001.

Coats arrived in Berlin the weekend before 9/11. After the attacks, the job became something entirely different – one that would place him in the middle of an investigation (one of the terrorist cells originated in Hamburg) and at the center of a diplomatic effort to win German support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Coats would later call his service as U.S. Ambassador to Germany “the most extraordinary experience of my life.”

With the fall of the Berlin Wall occurring 30 years ago this month, the Forum recently asked Coats for his thoughts on this historic event, some of the key decisions that led up to it, and the state of U.S.-German relations in the years since. We also asked him about the role of America in bringing down communism, and the role of America around the world today.


RF: Looking back on it, what do you see as some of the key events and decisions that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago this month? 

DC: What has come to be the symbol of the collapse of communism in the DDR and Eastern Europe had many roots in the region. The most direct was the Solidarity trade union movement in Poland, begun in 1980 when Lech Wałęsa jumped over the shipyard fence in Gdansk, surely one of the most heroic and consequential actions in our age.  This movement eventually led to a negotiated end of communism in Poland and the first free election in communist Europe on June 4, 1989, five months before the Berlin Wall fell.  It is also important to note that the success of Solidarity was itself a direct consequence of the election of Karol Wojtyła, the Archbishop of Krakow, as Pope John Paul II in 1978.  Before then, the various opposition movements in Poland — among the workers, students, or intellectuals — were divided and crushed serially.  The election of the Polish Pope inspired the nation both spiritually and politically, and the collapse of communism was the result.

This victory in turn inspired liberalizing movements elsewhere in Eastern Europe, led first by indigenous national protests and demands for greater freedom, and then by regimes seeking to survive by loosening some of their political and economic controls.  In a critical way, this was fueled by the Soviet Union itself, as Gorbachev pursued his dual track of perestroika and glasnost — restructuring and openness.  It was widely conceded even within Soviet governing circles that Polish developments forced Gorbachev to choose between two options:  He could either use customary means of Soviet power to crush the freedom movement in Poland, as the USSR had done in the past, or he could choose to continue his domestic reform policies.  He couldn’t do both.  Gorbachev chose his own reform policies, gambling that the Russian Soviet system could not survive without meaningful reform.  Of course, he lost that bet too, but Poland was allowed to follow its own path, as would the other countries in the region as communist systems of control collapsed.

Then-Ambassador Coats with German Foreign minister Joschka Fischer, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and President Johannes Rau during a solidarity demonstration at the Brandenburg Gate on September 14, 2001.

In the DDR, the first response to these events reflected Poland’s linkage of political and religious freedom movements.  Mass demonstrations, begun first in Leipzig and then elsewhere in the country, grew because the people felt secure that the Lutheran Church was supporting them.  These were first provoked by East Germans’ demand for freedom of movement, as tens of thousands left East Germany to go through Czechoslovakia and eventually to the West.  The dam hadn’t yet burst, but it was leaking badly.  Disintegration at the top of the DDR regime led to desperate measures to release some of the growing political pressures generated by people in the streets across the country.  They belatedly and ineffectually tried the Gorbachev tactic to save the regime by reforming it — led by the new Communist Party First Secretary Egon Krenz, who was a staunch advocate of Gorbachev and his reform policies.  Among his first steps was to respond to the loud popular demand for freedom of movement by “opening” the Berlin Wall.  (To this day, Krenz denies that it “fell”.)  The announcement of the decision was famously bungled, which led to a chaotic breaching of the wall as confused border guards stood by.  But it was in fact a deliberate state decision, compelled by rapidly escalating political pressures that had their origins in Warsaw, if not The Vatican.

RF: Angela Merkel called the fall of the Wall “a victory of freedom over bondage.”  To the extent that the United States has been a symbol of freedom around the world, what role did the American example have in the Wall’s collapse?

DC: From the founding of our republic, America has always been acknowledged as a beacon of freedom, with a system of government to be emulated by others.  “The flames kindled on the 4th of July, 1776,” Jefferson wrote, “have spread across too much of the globe to be extinguished by the feeble engines of despotism; on the contrary, they will consume the engines and all who work them.”  Promoting freedom and democracy elsewhere has always been at the heart of American foreign policy and national security strategy.  Ronald Reagan famously calling for Gorbachev to “tear down this wall!” put that exclamation point on that appeal, turning it into a demand.

“From the founding of our republic, America has always been acknowledged as a beacon of freedom, with a system of government to be emulated by others.”

America’s role in a more immediate sense in the events of November 1989 are not as obvious, since things developed on their own with such lightning speed.  Our critical role in bringing about German reunification would follow.  But before November, the American contribution to those broader regional developments I described earlier was essential.  Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that, after Wałęsa, Gorbachev, and John Paul II, the fourth person with the most critical role in bringing about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe — and thus five months later in East Germany — was the American Ambassador to Poland, John Davis. With the full backing of his government, Ambassador Davis was a key participant in all of the events and much of the decision-making in Poland that led to the Communist Party retiring its flags and turning the Central Committee building into Poland’s first stock exchange.  With his critical help, an entrenched power elite — with all the means of coercion at its disposal and the Red Army at its back — voluntarily and without violence relinquished power to democratic forces through peaceful negotiation.  It was the first time such a thing had occurred in all of human history.  Quite an accomplishment for American diplomacy!

RF: In a speech to 200,000 Germans at the Brandenburg Gate on September 14, 2001, you said “the U.S. couldn’t wish for a more loyal and reliable friend.”  Talk for a moment about the U.S.-German relationship in the years following 9/11, and what you see as the state of that relationship today.

DC: The German response to the 9/11 tragedy — both from the government and the German people — could not have been better.  It was consoling, comforting, and importantly useful — exactly what you would expect from a staunch ally with shared values.  I recall with considerable emotion talking with a German woman of my generation as she laid her flowers on the mountain of bouquets at the Embassy’s entrance.  She said that Americans had helped Germany at its time of greatest need in the trying times after World War II.  She talked about the Berlin air lift, the Marshall Plan, and the firm defense against Soviet aggression.  This woman represented the immediate post-war generation marked by deep gratitude toward the United States and for our contributions to Germany’s peace and prosperity.  This generation continues to love America.

Since then, we need to acknowledge a generation shift in the U.S./Germany relationship.  The next generation is aware of America’s contributions and — because of modern media and shared cultural norms and preferences — remains mostly pro-American.  But it can be critical of American policies and American leaders too.  And the most recent generation of young people no longer find the touchstones of their grandparents’ epoch all that compelling.  America is not rejected so much as it has just become a lesser influence in defining a German — and a European — cultural and political identity.  We don’t matter as much.

“After Wałęsa, Gorbachev, and John Paul II, the fourth person with the most critical role in bringing about the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe was the American Ambassador to Poland, John Davis.”

On the other side too, things have changed.  During a span of over 30 years, nearly 500,000 American soldiers and their families lived among Germans for 2-3 years at a time, for a total of maybe 25 million young Americans having direct experience living in Germany, among Germans.  That shared experience also has largely faded, with the vast majority of those deployments having ended long ago.  The absence of that shared experience will also have an effect on the relationship between our two countries.  We see that today in Congress and in the Administration where Germany increasingly is seen as just another ally among many, not the firm rock in the transatlantic relationship it once was.

Relations between German and American governments have also changed in complex ways.  Immediately after 9/11, the German government was strongly supportive.  Later, when we were preparing for an invasion of Iraq, German political opinion was firmly against us, but nevertheless, the government lived up to all of its alliance responsibilities, including facilitating preparations for the Iraq invasion, even though as a matter of policy they opposed it.  They took their alliance responsibilities seriously because they saw — and continue to see — the long-term value of such alliance structures and the state behavior that supports them.

RF: Could you also discuss one of the current flashpoints in the U.S.-German relationship – namely, the construction of the Nord Stream II pipeline to deliver Russian natural gas into Germany and the rest of Europe.  Do you agree with those who believe sanctions should be placed on companies involved in pipeline’s construction and are opposed to the project moving forward?

DC: The two countries are not in lock-step on important policy matters, although it must be said that such consistent conformity is also not the case with any other bilateral relationship either.  There are geopolitical issues that separate us such as how to deal with the Iranian threat, or Russian aggression.  There are also a host of economic and trade issues including tariffs and threats of tariffs, competition in aviation and other business sectors.  And, of course, energy policy.

We do see Nord Stream II as a mistake, and some other European countries do as well.  It seems obvious to us that recent developments in Russia, including its aggressive behavior toward Ukraine and other neighbors, should have given German decision makers pause before they handed over to the Russians the key to a vital energy transportation link that they could turn on or off at will.  But despite that objection, which Germany has ignored perhaps only for pricing reasons, it seems the project is nearly completed.

Continuing American complaints and last-ditch efforts in Congress to threaten sanctions on those companies completing the pipeline are apparently too little, too late.  Germany and others in Europe will live with the consequences and just hope that Russia behaves.  Personally, I have a hard time relying on that thin reed.

RF: What about the German contribution to NATO?  Even though Chancellor Merkel has agreed to increase defense spending, her country will still fall short of the 2% threshold that is mandated by the NATO military alliance.  Do you think the President is right to press Germany and other NATO countries to meet their obligations in that regard?

DC: American pressure on our allies to live up to NATO’s funding targets long predates the current administration, even if the subject has been getting more attention.  The alliance as a whole has accepted these targets — with German agreement too.  I am aware that there is limited domestic constituency in Germany for increasing defense spending, or perhaps even for defense spending at all.  This itself may be a product of reliance on American defense for decades, leading perhaps to some complacency about this most fundamental of government’s tasks.

“America is not rejected so much as it has just become a lesser influence in defining a German – and a European – cultural and political identity. We don’t matter as much.”

Nevertheless, public opinion cannot be the end-all of this debate. Leadership has the task of working to form that opinion when the nation’s well-being requires it.  This is what the U.S. has been looking for — German leadership to work toward a popular political consensus that living up to collective defense commitments is essential and is in Germany’s own best interests.  This, more than anything, will help remove the most painful thorn in our bilateral relationship — a shared commitment for a shared purpose.  In turn, other European nations will follow that lead and a more broadly positive transatlantic relationship would be the result,  not to mention a healthier, more capable defense alliance in troubled times.

RF: This controversy and other flashpoints aside, why do you believe it is important that the United States and Germany maintain a strong working relationship at this time of growing volatility and uncertainty around the globe?

DC: I am a transatlanticist.  Most of my former colleagues in Congress and government are as well, irrespective of any generational differences I mentioned above.  No country, no matter how powerful, can go it alone in this dangerous world.  To whom should we turn in times of danger and uncertainty?  Our allies and friends in Asia, yes, but most of all to our rock-solid allies in Europe who continue to prove themselves even on the battlefield to share our objectives and values.  And to whom should Europeans turn?  The United States remains their natural partner.  There is no other.

RF: And what do you believe is more conducive to achieving that goal – a policy that promotes America first or a policy that promotes the American example of freedom for others to follow and aspire to around the world?

DC: I believe this is something of a false dichotomy.  The old “America First” once attached to pre-war isolationism has led many to misinterpret the concept now relevant to the modern world.  Isolationism was rejected back then as an irresponsible dream.  Since then, American foreign policy has always been centered on American national interests, but as properly defined and accurately understood.

Our core national interests — peace, prosperity, security — have always included nurturing everywhere our core values.  Extending benefits of freedom, democracy, human rights, and free enterprise to others has always served our national interests.

This is the real “America First.”

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Comments are closed.