CNN’s FAREED ZAKARIA GPS looks back at the fall of the Berlin wall with then-US National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, and former top British foreign policy advisor, Charles Powell. Exactly 25 years from today, the geopolitical landscape changed dramatically and ushered in a new era of diplomacy. Brent Scowcroft and Charles Powell share their perspectives on the post-Cold War international system regarding China, ISIS, and Russia with Fareed Zakaria.
Scowcroft on the WH’s initial reaction to the fall of the Berlin wall: “What we were worried about was that this event would force Gorbachev to violence and all of the hopeful signs would be destroyed.”
Powell on NATO then and now: “But there’s no doubt NATO is not quite the organization it once was. There is no doubt that defense spending in Europe has slipped to scandalously low levels, where it can’t really play a very useful role in standing alongside the United States in dealing with these international crises. At the time of the Berlin — fall of the Berlin Wall, we were still at the height of alliance unity. And President Bush paid a very great part in that. It’s what enabled us to get through the Berlin situation peacefully.”
Scowcroft on his grade of President Obama’s foreign policy: “I think not very high grades. But I do think that he is presiding over a world which is dramatically changing. “
FULL INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED
FAREED ZAKARIA, HOST: On November 9, 1989, the East German minister of propaganda, Gunter Schabowski, gave a press conference that was rather unremarkable, until almost an hour in, he shocked the world by saying that East Germans could, quote, “leave the country through East German border crossing points,” unquote, effective immediately.
That night, the Berlin Wall began to fall.
My next two guests were in the cockpits of power, in the White House and 10 Downing Street and had to manage great power diplomacy through a period of unprecedented change.
Brent Scowcroft was the national security adviser to then President George Herbert Walker Bush and Charles Powell was his counterpart in Britain, foreign policy adviser to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Charles, when you were watching this happen, did you realize that the Wall meant the end of the Soviet Empire?
LORD CHARLES POWELL, FORMER ADVISER TO MARGARET THATCHER: I don’t think I realized immediately, but I did think we were at a crisis point. I think this was the last of the great cold war crises. You can trace it through the Berlin Airlift, the Soviet invasions of Hungary and Prague, the deployment of Soviet intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Europe.
This started out as a characteristic cold war crisis, really, with uncertainty about exactly what would happen, risks because Europe was awash with nuclear weapons. We really didn’t know from one minute to the next quite how it would play out, what the Soviet reaction would be.
We received messages from Mr. Gorbachev around midnight in London time. That was never a good sign in the Cold War. A message from a Soviet head of state at midnight usually presaged trouble of some sort.
So the immediate thought was not so much about what would follow, but how do you contain and regulate and stabilize what is happening at that moment.
ZAKARIA: Brent, what did it look like from the White House, because the stakes there must have been even higher? Any miscalculation by the White House could have had catastrophic consequences.
BRENT SCOWCROFT, FORMER U.S. NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER: That’s absolutely correct. We — when we came into office in 1989, there was a lot of ferment in Eastern Europe. And we decided we wanted to try to make it different from earlier cases where — Berlin in ’53, Hungary and so on — to try to keep the violence down and to keep it at — underneath a level at which the Soviet Union would feel compelled to respond.
ZAKARIA: Charles, Mrs. Thatcher had very famously said that she thought Gorbachev was a man you could do business with. But that didn’t mean, I assume, that she thought he was trying to dismantle communism in any sense, or let alone the Soviet Empire.
POWELL: She — I think she realized that he was trying to reform communism, make it a somewhat more humane doctrine. And she constantly advised him that was a useless task, because communism was unreformable and should be got rid of. She never used to mince her words, as you all remember.
But I think she also believed in Gorbachev’s basic humanity, that he was a decent man, a man who was far less likely than earlier Soviet leaders to crush dissent and repression in Eastern Europe. And indeed one of the miracles of what happened with the wall coming down was the fact that the Soviet Union stood back, did nothing to defend the East German leaders. That was the real change. In any earlier time, they would surely have gone in and propped them up.
But this was an amazing admission of the failure of the system above all in East Germany.
ZAKARIA: Brent, when you look at it, what is striking to me — I was a researcher at Harvard at the time, and we were studying the collapse of multinational empires. And lesson number one seemed to be they always have violence, bloodshed and war associated with them, except this one didn’t.
And if you look at the way the Middle East is collapsing now, you can see how easy it is for these things to spiral into violence.
Why didn’t the collapse of the Soviet Union result in bloodshed and war?
SCOWCROFT: Well, first of all, we didn’t want it to, because what had happened before, every time there was any kind of an outburst in Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union would crack down, kill the leaders and even be more repressive than before.
So what we wanted to do was to keep indications of violence and dissent underneath the Soviet radar, and we tried very hard to do that.
And when the announcement about the Wall came, President Bush Sr. was told by his press secretary, you’re going to have to talk to the press. Everybody is wondering about this. So I said, well, we don’t really know what the facts are.
But anyway, the press came into the president’s office and he described what was happening and how uncertain it all was. After he finished that explanation, one of the members of the press said, well, Mr. President, you don’t seem very elated. I would think you’d want to go over and dance on the Wall.
And he said, well, I’m just not that kind of a person.
What we were worried about was that this event would force Gorbachev to violence and all of the hopeful signs would be destroyed.
ZAKARIA: And Bush got a lot of criticism for that statement that you describe, Brent.
Charles, do you — do you think it was the right thing to be — you know, a lot of people felt that Bush should have gone to Berlin and made a major speech celebrating the victory of freedom over communism.
POWELL: No, he was absolutely right not to do that. What he needed — needed to do was to defuse the situation. Speeches at the Berlin Wall were for a different era. They were for the time of President Reagan or President Kennedy, when you could deliver that sort of speech.
Once it came to the fall of the Wall, you needed extreme caution. You needed to avoid any possible provocation for Soviet forces in East Germany. The whole thing had to be handled very carefully.
And, you know, coming back to a point that Brent was making, it wasn’t just us who didn’t know what was happening. Chancellor Kohl of West Germany didn’t have any idea what was happening. Every day running up to the fall of the Wall the West Germans briefed us on events.
And by the same evening, every single day, by the same evening, everything they said had been overtaken by the time of the evening news.
The situation was quite extraordinarily fluid and fast-moving.
ZAKARIA: When we come back, more with these two great statesmen on foreign policy today — Russia, China, Iran, much more.
ZAKARIA: And we are back with former National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft and Charles Powell, who was Scowcroft’s counterpart as foreign policy adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. He is now the Baron Powell of Bayswater.
Bret, when you look at the world today, does it look more dangerous, more messy than the kind of world you confronted as national security advisor?
SCOWCROFT: Well it certainly is more messy. I wouldn’t say more dangerous, because in those days, if we made a mistake, we easily could have brought down a nuclear war. That is not the case now
But there is no unifying sense to the crises around the world today… not one solution fits them all. Whereas in the cold war, we had one goal, and that was to hold the line until the Soviet Union changed. And that’s — that was the strategy.
And we argued about how — about the tactic, but the strategy was quite clear and there was no difference of opinion about that fundamental thing.
ZAKARIA: Charles, when you look at the Middle East, for example, today, and you see this crisis and ISIS and all the instability and violence, do you think there is a clear foreign policy or strategy that the United States or the West could have that would — that would be successful?
POWELL: Well, what I would really like to see was a much closer unity preserved between the United States and Europe. I think there have been faults on both sides.
But there’s no doubt NATO is not quite the organization it once was. There is no doubt that defense spending in Europe has slipped to scandalously low levels, where it can’t really play a very useful role in standing alongside the United States in dealing with these international crises.
At the time of the Berlin — fall of the Berlin Wall, we were still at the height of alliance unity. And President Bush paid a very great part in that. It’s what enabled us to get through the Berlin situation peacefully.
Everybody worked together. Everybody was on the same side. That is, sadly, no longer quite the case.
ZAKARIA: Brent, what about Russia? How would you deal with Vladimir Putin? You have dealt with Russian leaders for 30 or 40 years in various ways.
SCOWCROFT: Well, he feels apparently very deeply about the end of the cold war. And he says the collapse of the Soviet Union was the fundamental event of the 20th century. So he — he has his feelings on his sleeve. And he reacts very sharply. But I don’t think we should try to cast him into outer darkness and — and refuse to talk to him.
ZAKARIA: Charles, what would you do with the Russia-Ukraine situation?
POWELL: We’re right to punish Russia, we’re right to punish President Putin, particularly for the invasion of Crimea, for destabilizing the eastern parts of the Ukraine. But we all know, at the end of the day, we’re going to have to negotiate with him. It’s not a question of whether we like him or not. He is the Russian president and he is one with popularity levels that any Western leader would give his eye teeth for.
So he’s a — he’s a factor and we have to deal with him and deal with him in a sensible way.
ZAKARIA: Charles, when you look at the world, we don’t have the single threat from nuclear war and the Soviet Union that you had during the cold war. What is the thing that worries you the most?
POWELL: I would say rising nationalism, accompanied by increasing military power, and not just in the Middle East, or even in Russia. I even worry these days, you know, about the Asia-Pacific. We’ve become very used to stability in the Asia-Pacific since the end of the Vietnam War.
But some of the recent developments there do worry me — the more forward Chinese line on these disputed islands and waters, the fact that Japan is reacting very sharply to them, the rising defense expenditures of both China and Japan. The tensions there worry me a lot. And I would like to see, in particular, the United States engage more with China.
ZAKARIA: Bret, what kind of grade would you give Barack Obama on foreign policy?
SCOWCROFT: I think not very high grades. But I do think that he is presiding over a world which is dramatically changing.
The whole kind of communication that we have now makes everything easier, makes it easier to have violence, easier to get people together on extreme positions. And it has politicized parts of national entities that never before were involved in political matters. And that makes it a very, very complex and confusing world.
And we need to be careful but thoughtful and work together in trying to cope with it.
ZAKARIA: Brent Scowcroft, Lord Powell of Bayswater, thank you very much, both.
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