1989 and All That

The fall of the Berlin Wall twenty years ago is justly remembered as a turning point not just in European history but in world history.

Viewed from these shores, of course, it was a victory. The Cold War was over. We won.

Yes, yes, we had some help from our NATO allies. And pastors in East Germany, laborers in Poland, and intellectuals in former Czechoslovakia, too.

In our triumphant magnanimity, we allow the foot soldiers who took to the streets to topple the regimes 20 years ago this month to keep their primary myth: The powerless have the power that Czech dissident playwright -- and soon to be president -- Vaclav Havel said that they had in his famous essay "the Power of the Powerless." Tyranny and totalitarianism ultimately embolden populations to "live in truth," as Havel put it, and "[break] through the exalted facade of the system and [expose] the real, base foundations of power."

But we all know what really happened, right? It was our warheads. Our subversions. Our Voice of America. The sternest brand of soft power, backed up with ICBMs.

Forgive me the radical snark. What is easy to forget 20 years on is how surprising the fall of the Berlin Wall was in the overall political tumult of 1989.

Just five months earlier, remember, a burgeoning democracy movement in the world's most populous nation was crushed in Tiananmen Square. That "Goddess of Democracy" fashioned by Chinese students in Beijing was literally toppled by a tank. On June 4, 1989, only the most far-sighted of political observers would have bet on democracy's utter triumph in Central and Eastern Europe before Thanksgiving.

So it's only right that we celebrate the Berlin Wall's fall -- and the chain reaction that swept through much of the region by Christmas. But it is also an occasion to reflect on how November 9, 1989 marked another turning point: a precipitous decline in American success in spreading democracy. Save a slight acceleration of a molasses-slow European integration process, almost none of what was predicted in 1989 has to pass. Peace dividend? (Stifle cynical snigger.) End of history? Bwahahahah! We're just getting started here!

But I'm even more interested in why American democracy promotion efforts have stumbled so badly over the past two decades. Despite my snarking at the beginning of this essay, the end of the Cold War revealed that the United States had constructed an impressive and yet supple public diplomacy to win hearts and minds behind the Iron Curtain.

The attack was multi-pronged. Sure there was straight-up propaganda beamed directly into -- and often jammed by -- the nations behind the Iron Curtain. But the U.S. government leveraged the power of culture and labor unions too. It funded magazines of ideas, venues for aggregating information about countries behind the Iron Curtain and allowing American audiences to read and hear about dissidents. Our side could also -- in a less official sense -- marshal a powerful resource of Russian and Slavic departments in universities as a nexus for informational and cultural exchange.

This infrastructure was not rejiggered and aimed at new challenges and opportunities after the Wall came down. Rather, it was stripped down and sold for parts. A little more than a decade after the fall of the Wall, September 11 was yet another wake up call to our government about the power that public diplomacy could wield in America's struggles. But little was done to rebuild that public diplomacy infrastructure or the institutions -- particularly universities -- which play a key role in feeding it.

If we'd heeded that call even then, we would have had two full cycles of graduating college classes ready to dive into the study of Pashtun and Arabic, a new cadre of budding scholars eager to connect with the Muslim world. Instead, the Bush administration hired Uncle Ben's Rice saleswoman Charlotte Beers to do "PR" for America and outsourced a lot of its public diplomacy efforts to private companies.

The results have been disastrous. U.S. popularity among the nations we most want to reach has been at an all time low over the past decade. You can't blame that all on the public diplomats and outsourced labor. You try selling a brand in 2009 that includes naked and misguided aggression, torture and a whole lot of pollution.

But the stripping down and neutering of U.S. public diplomacy that started when the Berlin Wall fell means that when America does have something to sell -- hope, change, Obama -- we can't take advantage of it quickly and comprehensively.

Which brings us back full circle to that myth -- which is not a myth -- of power and the powerless and the end of communism in Europe.

As we veer back and forth between confrontation and negotiation with Iran, what they view as a threat is telling. While we worry about Iran's nuclear capabilities, they worry about street demonstrators and dissident academics such as Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars researcher Haleh Esfandiari and philosopher Ramin Jahanbegloo. Both of these scholars, and a number of others, have been placed under arrest in the last few years and detained in Iran's notorious Evin prison.

The charges? Not stealing nuclear secrets. Not advocating violent overthrow of the regime. Rather, Iran's leaders openly fear that these scholars are plotting a "Velvet Revolution" such as that in Czechoslovakia at the behest of the U.S. government.

In an op-ed in The Washington Post published in August, Esfandiari observed:

In weeks of interrogation during my incarceration in 2007, I came to understand only too well the paranoia that drives Iran?s security agencies and its hard-liners. These men fear that they will be overthrown by a mass movement of their own people, similar to the popular movements, or 'velvet revolutions,' that toppled autocratic regimes of the former Soviet empire in Eastern Europe, Central Asia and the Caucasus. They have convinced themselves that those earlier movements were not homegrown but were planned and orchestrated by the United States. They believe America is scheming to pull off a similar upheaval in Iran.

Only the people of a nation -- and not the power of even a superpower -- can create such revolutions as happened in 1989. But smart and aggressive public diplomacy can set the stage for it. Help nourish its roots. It is a race of intellectual arms that we have definitely lost in the 20 years since its greatest victory.