Makers of foreign policy seem particularly prone to certain historical touchstones. Some policy makers still see the world through the appeasement at Munich, others through the national tragedy of the Vietnam War. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s touchstone appears to be the destruction of the Berlin Wall. As he frequently reminds audiences, he was an army cavalry officer stationed in West Germany at the time. While he was prepared for Soviet tanks to come pouring through the Fulda Gap, he was totally unprepared for East German students to come pouring over the wall.

This project attempts to use policy makers’ references to the past to help us understand what drives them in the present. Pompeo’s focus on the end of the Cold War, something he experienced personally, is almost nostalgic. It was a clean victory, according to his frequent statements, one achieved by a policy of “peace through strength.” And it’s one echoed by his boss, who welcomes an arms race with Russia because the United States would win easily.

But where does Pompeo’s touchstone lead us? When he looks at North Korea or Venezuela through this lens, he thinks that since it happened in Berlin it could happen anywhere. On North Korea: “I hope one day we all wake up and we get a moment just like the one that the world had in 1989.” On Maduro’s intransigence: “It always seems that way until the day it doesn’t. I remember when I was a young soldier patrolling the then-East German border. No one predicted it on that day in 1989 that that wall would come crumbling down. Predictions are difficult.”

Predictions are difficult, but we have the benefit of historians and hindsight. We know that the wall didn’t just “come crumbling down.” It happened in large part because of popular movements, some very brave protesters, and because of Gorbachev. North Korea has no contemporary version of any of these. Venezuela has something of the first two, but no leader in power who’s ready to take on difficult reforms. Just because no one expected the sudden dismantling of the wall doesn’t mean that there weren’t preconditions that helped it happen.

Hoping that the world gets another day like November 9, 1989, isn’t a policy. It’s using a bright moment in history to cover for the fact that there’s little deliberative policy making going on in this administration. It reveals an administration fairly obsessed with wanting to win another Cold War but without the alliances and sacrifices that helped make that happen. When this nostalgia does suggest a policy, it goes back to the image of the great power standoff, the Fulda Gap, and massive deterrence–and all the while the latest threats are massing on internet servers and in the missile factories of minor powers.

Click to see Secretary Pompeo’s full statements below.

Image: US tanks near a German village during military exercises in 1982. US Department of Defense photo. 

 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: No one expected the Berlin Wall to fall when it did; the same could happen with North Korea

Mike PompeoQUESTION: I mean, you don’t expect that he’s going to denuclearize right away, right? …

SECRETARY POMPEO: Maria, I remember I was a young soldier patrolling the East German border in 1989. No one anticipated that the wall would come down on the day that it came down. I am hopeful that the world gets a day like that here as well, where no one expects that North Korea will take this action. I think the work that we’ve done, the economic sanctions that have been in place, the negotiations that President Trump has led – I hope one day we all wake up and we get a moment just like the one that the world had in 1989.

–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, With Maria Bartiromo of Mornings With Maria on Fox Business Network, Interview, February 21, 2019

Historians: Rate or comment

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: No one expected the Berlin Wall to fall when it did; the same could happen with Venezuela

QUESTION: But it seems as though Maduro’s not going anywhere near this plan, that he’s holding onto power, and the military seems to be staying with him, at least the military leaders.

SECRETARY POMPEO: It always seems that way until the day it doesn’t. I remember when I was a young soldier patrolling the then-East German border. No one predicted it on that day in 1989 that that wall would come crumbling down. Predictions are difficult.

–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, With Jake Tapper of CNN State of the Union, Interview, February 24, 2019

Historians: Rate or comment

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: Bemowo Piskie in Poland is the new Fulda Gap

Thirty years ago, almost exactly, I was patrolling the Iron Curtain in Germany as a young cavalry officer. Things were a little different then. … But some things haven’t changed. In my day, our generals were concerned about a Soviet offensive through the Fulda Gap. Today, the gap in which we stand occupies the same priority focus for NATO commanders that the Fulda Gap did back then, once again because of Russian aggression. As we enter the fifth year of Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, a war he launched on European soil, we take seriously those concerns that Russia may one day try to open a front along a line right here.

–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Remarks , Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, February 13, 2019

Historians: Rate or comment

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo: “Poland’s own history reminds us that strong deterrence measures should be at the forefront of our strategic thinking”

One thing we have done is launch an enhanced forward presence, an EFP, here on Europe’s eastern flank. This EFP embodies NATO’s foundational principles that an attack on one country is an attack on all. Poland’s own history reminds us that strong deterrence measures should be at the forefront of our strategic thinking. This is all the more true in our era of renewed great power competition. Poland’s robust defense spending, now on track to surpass two and a half percent of its GDP, is a clear-eyed response to the threats that we face.

–Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Remarks, Bemowo Piskie Training Area, Poland, February 13, 2019

Historians: Rate or comment

Leave a Reply

avatar
300
  Subscribe  
Notify of