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Algora Publishing - When the Wall Came Down, Pundits' Crystal Balls Proved Cloudy
                                               For a Kinder, Gentler Society
When the Wall Came Down, Pundits' Crystal Balls Proved Cloudy
By Robert G. Kaiser Washington Post Service

WASHINGTON - When young Germans danced through the final breach in the Berlin Wall 10 years ago Tuesday, American thinkers great and small tried to make sense of the Wall's fall. Many tried to forecast what would happen next. The predicting proved perilous.

Looking back at them now, those prognostications share a certain quaintness. They were nearly all rooted in the Cold War realities that had created the American frame of reference for nearly half a century. But the prognosticators could not grasp the fact that this frame of reference was as doomed as the Wall itself.

Many of the forecasters realized that a different world was coming, but none successfully escaped the constraints of the old reality to imagine a new one. A computer-assisted search of the archives - extensive but not exhaustive discovered no analyst or statesman who understood then that the hole in the Wall would be quickly followed by the collapse of European communism and the Soviet Union.

Many prophets foresaw the end of the Warsaw Pact, but usually in conjunction with the end of NATO, too; none predicted then a revived North Atlantic Treaty Organization with new members who had recently been Warsaw Pact members.

Reading what smart people said and wrote a decade ago is a stiff reminder that prognostication can be a fool's errand. This is not to say, though, that running the errand has no value; the prognosticator's art can be provocative, entertaining and even illuminating. Sometimes the effort is so bold as to evoke awe. Consider the predictions of William Safire, The New York Times

The pundits' Cold War frame of reference was as doomed as the Wall.

"Economic crisis will be transferred to Turkey as West Germany absorbs its Eastern German unskilled workers and sends back the legions of Turkish workers. "

"Germany, already the world's largest exporter, will dominate the economies of Central Europe and invest heavily in the Soviet Union."

"The phaseout of U.S. troops stationed in Germany will begin soon. "

"Germany, tired of apologetics, will stare down its own Greens and become a nuclear power with Star Wars rocketry making it an Uberpower before the turn of the millennium."

"Other Europeans will work together to 'stop the Germans,' less out of historic fears of militarism than from the competition of militant industriousness. "

Well, not quite. Turkish workers were not expelled from Germany, Germany has not become a nuclear power, nor does it (yet) dominate the economies of Eastern Europe. Some U.S. troops left Germany, but nearly 70,000 remain. Rather than trying to stop Germany, the other Europeans sought comfort from the strength of the Deutsche mark by creating a common currency, the euro. The Germans' "militant industriousness" has produced an economy lately less successful than France's.

The problem with trying to see the future is the present. What we know usually overpowers our ability to see what might be coming. What is is; it has the advantage of tangible existence. This makes the present hard to shake, no matter how smart you are.

Such inertia explains the most common miscalculations in the prognoses of a decade ago. One was that Soviet communism and the Soviet Union would survive the dramas of the autumn of 1989 (and of course they did - but only for two years). Another was to presume that even without a wall, two Germanys would have to exist - the Russians would demand it, or the French, or the Germans themselves. In both cases, it was just too difficult to imagine that what was would no longer be.

Yet some did rise above the present to see part of what was to come. Martin Malia, a university of California professor, published a self-consciously anonymous article (signed ''Z") in the scholarly journal Daedalus that was excerpted on The New York Times op-ed page in January 1990. He wrote: " 1989 will enter history as the beginning of communism's terminal crisis." Mr. Malia understood that there was no hope that the Soviet system could be successfully reformed: "There is no third way between Leninism and the market, between Bolshevism and constitutional government." Reform would inevitably lead to "the liquidation" of the party-dominated system.

But Mr. Malia did not think the liqidaction that the Soviet system could fall over time. Mr. Kennan, former ambassador to Moscow, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the beginning of 1990.

The security of Europe, Mr. Kennan observed, was tied up in the complex realities inside the two Germanys, where NATO and the Warsaw Pact confronted one another with large military forces. The delicate arrangements in the Germanys, including nominal four-power control of Berlin, would be threatened by any consideration of German unification, Mr. Kennan said.

He recommended that the major powers agree to a "binding moratorium of at least three years' duration" that would freeze European realities in place %u2011 no changes in NATO or the Warsaw Pact, no "alterations" of borders and states. In the meantime, statesmen could prepare "in a careful and deliberate" manner a "new European security structure."

This advice from a scholarly retired diplomat had a certain tidy logic, but it showed scant respect for the energies already loose in Central Europe. Even Mr. Kennan, Whose original mind often took him to unexpected conclusions, could not escape the spell of accepted wisdom. He thought the situation was delicate, but the forces ripping down the Iron Curtain were anything but delicate.

Rapid German reunification was just too much for many to imagine. A smug Newsweek article in late November 1989 ridiculed President George Bush for saying that the United States would welcome early reunification: "His blithe announcement, " the magazine wrote, "was premature and unhelpful. He may well come to regret having made it. "

Many German experts could not imagine East Germany choosing self-destruction. One was Ronald Asmus of Rand Corp., who wrote in The Los Angeles Times days after the Wall fell: "Having rejected the Soviet model, East Germans do not simply want to blindly embrace the West German model." ? Asmus opposed reunification: "It is everyone's interest that East Germans given the hope and the necessary incentives that will persuade them to remain and to rebuild their society."

Why would two Germanys be everyone's interest"? Well, this w more consistent with the way things h; been %u2011for 45 years, and therefore mo orderly, less threatening. But events quickly demonstrated that no conceivable incentives would persuade East Germany to maintain a separate identity and state.

Henry Kissinger, born in German, saw this at once. Three weeks after the Wall crumbled, the former U.S. secretary of state wrote in Newsweek "German unification in some form has become inevitable, whatever the misgivings of Germany's neighbors and World War II victims. " The driving force, Mr. Kissinger foresaw would be German public opinion,

But he was less clairvoyant about the Soviet Union. From 1985 onward, when Mikhail Gorbachev had become the Soviet leader, Mr. Kissinger was skeptical about Mr. Gorbachev's intentions; lit held to that skepticism even after Mr Gorbachev gave up any pretense of control over Eastern Europe.

In his Newsweek article, Mr. Kissinger entertained the possibility that the Russians might still try to use their nuclear superiority over Germany and Japan to coerce both into helping rebuild the Soviet economy.

Predictions %u2011are doomed if they are based on a misunderstanding of underlying conditions. Some of the prognoses made a decade ago that look most foolish today started from flawed premises. For example, Jerry Hough of Duke University argued in congressional testimony at the end of 1989 that Mr. Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were in a stronger position than most Americans realized. Quoting CIA estimates (which we now understand were wildly off the mark), Mr. Hough said the Soviet gross national product was $2.8 trillion, "bigger than that of Japan and the two Germanys combined," and predicted that Soviet multinational corporations would soon be exporting cheap manufactured goods all over the world." Gorbachev is doing very well," Mr. Hough wrote in January 1990, "and 1990 - 91 will be years in which we will have to come to grips with that reality."