To Build a Better World

Choices to End the Cold War and Create a Global Commonwealth


By Philip Zelikow

By Condoleezza Rice

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A deeply researched international history and “exemplary study” (New York Times Book Review) of how a divided world ended and our present world was fashioned, as the world drifts toward another great time of choosing.

Two of America’s leading scholar-diplomats, Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, have combed sources in several languages, interviewed leading figures, and drawn on their own firsthand experience to bring to life the choices that molded the contemporary world. Zeroing in on the key moments of decision, the might-have-beens, and the human beings working through them, they explore both what happened and what could have happened, to show how one world ended and another took form. Beginning in the late 1970s and carrying into the present, they focus on the momentous period between 1988 and 1992, when an entire world system changed, states broke apart, and societies were transformed. Such periods have always been accompanied by terrible wars — but not this time.

This is also a story of individuals coping with uncertainty. They voice their hopes and fears. They try out desperate improvisations and careful designs. These were leaders who grew up in a “postwar” world, who tried to fashion something better, more peaceful, more prosperous, than the damaged, divided world in which they had come of age. New problems are putting their choices, and the world they made, back on the operating table. It is time to recall not only why they made their choices, but also just how great nations can step up to great challenges.

Timed for the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, To Build a Better World is an authoritative depiction of contemporary statecraft. It lets readers in on the strategies and negotiations, nerve-racking risks, last-minute decisions, and deep deliberations behind the dramas that changed the face of Europe — and the world — forever.


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Catalytic Choices

Two East German Success Stories

One of the new countries created by the Cold War was called the German Democratic Republic (GDR), or, more informally, East Germany. It was the communist Germany.

With its sixteen million inhabitants enjoying some of the highest living standards in the socialist world, as the year 1989 began the GDR seemed solid as a rock. The standard text on East Germany said that it “is apparently one of the world’s most stable regimes.”1

To pick one kind of GDR success story as 1989 began, consider a scientist, a woman who had established her position in a field founded and dominated by men. She was a researcher working in the GDR’s Central Institute of Physical Chemistry, a part of the country’s Academy of Sciences. She had received her doctorate in physics a few years earlier.

In some ways it was not a difficult job. She did not have to teach. Hardly anyone outside a small circle of fellow scientists could even understand what she did or evaluate her work. Her field was the study of the quantum characteristics of subatomic particles.

The scientist was the daughter of a small-town Lutheran pastor and a former schoolteacher. Her friends used to call her “Kasi” (her last name was Kasner). The communist government did not care much for pastors. But Kasi’s father—who had moved from a parish in West Germany to East Germany in loyal obedience to the Lutheran Church hierarchy—had stayed out of politics. He eventually headed a Lutheran seminary.

Kasi’s father had always been carefully monitored by the efficient and omnipresent East German secret police (the Stasi, short for “State Security” in German). Informers reported that Pastor Kasner appeared to adopt the Communist Party line in the internal politics of the Lutheran Church; he was certainly willing to critique capitalist greed and consumerism.

Life was not always easy. Kasi’s hardworking, “meticulous” father would tell fellow seminarians how “he had left the West out of free will and about how hard he had worked and he nevertheless was convinced that all was in vain and that the Church—even in his lifetime—would shrink and most parishes would lose their pastor.”

Kasi’s mother could not take up a teaching job. She knew how to teach English and Latin. The East German government had little interest in hiring women to teach those subjects, especially not in a small town.

The government-set income was below average. But Kasi’s family made their way, occasionally getting gift packages and money from their relatives in the West.

Kasi was a gifted student in school. As expected from a star student, she had joined the Communist Party’s youth organization. She wore its uniform, with its instantly recognizable indigo blue colors, to school. She won prizes. She studied all the time.

The only foreign language taught was Russian. Kasi devoted herself to becoming fluent in it, enjoying Russian culture. Her other star subject was mathematics, where she was good enough to do well in national competitions.

While Kasi was young, the family could vacation and visit relatives in West Germany. That changed when she was seven years old. When she returned from an August 1961 holiday in Bavaria, East German soldiers were unrolling the barbed wire to fence off the border for good behind what the government called its “antifascist protection wall.”

Kasi remembered how, in church that Sunday, “people cried. My mother cried too. We couldn’t fathom what had happened.” Later, in 1968, her parents were upset by the Soviet-led invasion in Czechoslovakia, a country her family had visited. The invasion crushed that country’s experiment with “socialism with a human face.”

As a schoolgirl, Kasi was no athlete or social standout, but she had friends. She was well organized and helpful to her classmates. Her skill in the Russian language won her a trip to Moscow. She received a place in an elite high school. Again, her grades were excellent. She was invited to go on to a university and receive a rare, prized higher education provided by the state.

At the last moment, though, the precious opportunity to go to a university almost collapsed. With her graduating high school classmates, Kasi joined in staging for the school an anti-imperialist school play. The expected theme would attack the American war in Vietnam. Instead, the students, in a sort of end-of-school rebellious way, performed a play praising the anti-Portuguese liberation movement in Mozambique. They even worked in a quote from a satirical writer who vaguely alluded to a “wall.”

Those in charge were not amused by this play-acting about liberation and references to a “wall” (like the one that now enclosed the East Germans). The school authorities planned to punish all the students by taking away their university admissions. They had used such a punishment before.

Kasi’s father, and other well-connected fathers, all desperately pulled strings to get the decision turned around. They succeeded. The students’ teacher lost his job, but Kasi was able to go on to the University of Leipzig.

She had originally thought of studying medicine. Instead, she decided to concentrate on physics. This was a field as far from politics as she could possibly get. Naturally she had to take her required classes in Marxist political economy. She also did a little work on the side as a barmaid in the student watering hole, the Thirsty Pegasus.

Ninety percent of her classmates were men. One became her boyfriend, then her husband. As a married couple, it was easier to persuade the state housing office to assign them an apartment. She and her husband both pursued advanced studies. His field was optics. She stayed with physics.

At an initial job interview, the Stasi recruited Kasi to become an informant. She would have become one of millions planted in practically every workplace. Kasi dodged this duty. She found a way to put the Stasi recruiters off without getting in trouble. “My parents always told me to tell Stasi officers that I was a chatterbox and someone who couldn’t keep my mouth shut. And I also told them that I didn’t know if I could keep this secret from my husband.”

She did manage to keep at least one secret from him. It was a big one. He was quite surprised when “suddenly one day she packed her bags and left the apartment we shared.” The couple had grown apart after a few years together.

Kasi kept her husband’s last name, by which she was now known. She completed her doctoral work in 1986 after eight years of not-too-hurried postgraduate research. She published an article in a peer-reviewed Western journal, Chemical Physics.

Again a single woman, childless, she made a quiet life for herself. The GDR did not have much resources and infrastructure for lab research in subatomic particles. She and her friends at the research institute, including a skeptical fellow physicist with whom she became close, would frequently talk politics. They were not “political” people, but they were attentive.

Kasi was not outspoken. But she was observant. She was careful. And she had a dry sense of humor. Being scientists, she and her friends had unusual access to books and travel, although their activities were carefully monitored. She was even allowed to make a trip to the West, to visit West Germany.

In the late 1980s, in private conversation, she and her friends would analyze the arguments of East German dissenters. These dissidents were usually in prison or exiled to the West. Their books were banned in the GDR but illegal copies were smuggled around. Kasi and her friends also would discuss the unrest and martial law in nearby Poland, which they had visited. They would discuss the fascinating news coming out of Moscow, about the reform plans of the Soviet Union’s new leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. With her Russian, Kasi could herself read the Soviet newspaper Pravda to dissect the latest developments. She and her friends could usually tune in to a West German radio station or TV, if they were lucky enough to share a TV.

As 1989 began, the thirty-four-year-old scientist had her usual routines. She took bike rides on country roads. She had her weekly sauna and drinks with a friend. She did nothing to worry the Stasi, nothing to call attention to herself. The head of her department at the research institute thought she was a good worker. “One gets the impression,” he said, that “she is on to something, she works diligently toward a goal but she is also a woman who has a mind of her own.”

As 1989 began, another young professional was carving out a successful career in East Germany. He was an intelligence officer. He worked on the Stasi’s side of the street. He and his Stasi friends were making a good living watching the East German people and any foreigners who happened to be passing through, including the Soviet troops and civilians based in the country. Though he was not German, this particular watcher was fluent enough in the German language to be able to pass as one. “I have two natures,” he would say, “and one of them is German.”

With his wife and two baby girls he was living in the East German city of Dresden, in the southeastern corner of the country, not far from the border with Czechoslovakia. The watcher lived in an apartment complex shared by Stasi families.

He was Russian, a citizen of the Soviet Union. He was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet secret service, then called the KGB. The lieutenant colonel was living the dream.

When he was a boy of fifteen, young Volodya had been entranced by the most popular movie in the Soviet Union that year, called The Shield and the Sword. He had watched it again and again. The movie’s fictional hero was a Soviet secret agent, a major. The major had pretended to be a German in order to infiltrate the ranks of the enemy forces. There the secret agent changed history, a heroically successful spy and saboteur. Decades later, Volodya could still remember the lyrics of the movie’s theme song, “Whence Does the Motherland Begin.” He recalled being inspired by the film’s story of how “one man’s effort could achieve what whole armies could not.”

Volodya was a child of the working class. His family was from a great city once called St. Petersburg, renamed Leningrad by the new Soviet Union.

Volodya’s parents’ lives were molded by war. In 1941, the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union. Their armies reached the outskirts of Leningrad. Returning to military service, Volodya’s father had barely survived the initial months of fighting. Badly wounded, he made it back to a hospital in Leningrad. There he was reunited with his wife.

The Germans besieged Leningrad for nearly three years. Volodya’s father and mother both almost died. They endured some of the most extreme experiences humans can suffer—of shelling, bombing, and near-starvation. Two of Volodya’s uncles, on his father’s side, died in the war. Another of his uncles, on his mother’s side, lost his life in the war too—but not at the hands of the Germans. Like many thousands of others, he disappeared after being tried by a Soviet military tribunal for alleged dereliction of duty.

Volodya’s eldest brother died before he was born, succumbing to illness before the war. His other brother also died before Volodya was born, a victim of malnutrition and illness during the German siege. Volodya was born after the war. The father, still limping from his wound, became a factory worker and loyal Communist Party member. The mother did all kinds of menial labor. The parents doted on their only surviving child.

Volodya’s childhood was poor, rough-and-tumble. But as he entered his teenage years, everything started turning for the better for him, as he found a focus pursuing two passions.

One of these life-changing passions was sports, specifically judo. He joined a sports club and became a skilled competitor, staying with it through his college years. It could be rough, he remembered, as “people would break their arms or legs. Matches were a form of torture. And training was hard, too.” If Volodya could avoid serious injury, he might go on to compete regularly at the national and Olympic level.

His other passion took precedence, however. That was his determination to find some way to get into the security services. His dream was to get into the KGB itself.

Having disciplined himself through his sports training, Volodya studied hard to get into the prestigious local school, Leningrad State University. Most of the places at the university were reserved for army veterans. There were few chances for kids straight out of high school. But Volodya made it. His favorite subjects in high school had been German and history.

At university, he studied law. He had heard that this was a favored subject for KGB aspirants. As he was completing college, his dream came true. A KGB recruiter asked him, “How would you feel if you were invited to work in the agencies?”

Volodya’s answer was ready. The KGB’s background, and the memory of the massacres and purges of the Stalin era, meant nothing to him. “My notion of the KGB came from romantic spy stories. I was a pure and utterly successful product of Soviet patriotic education.” He joined in 1975.

Volodya quickly found that the work “wasn’t what I had imagined.” His first assignments were in counterintelligence in Leningrad. That meant his job was to watch fellow Soviets and foreign visitors. He remembered once asking whether an operational plan followed the law.

His supervisor “was taken aback. ‘What law?’”

Volodya cited the law.

“‘But we have instructions,’ his supervisor said.… The men in the room didn’t seem to understand what Volodya was talking about.

“Without a trace of irony, the old fellow said, ‘For us, instructions are the main law.’ And that was that.”

Volodya remembered that he “was never a dissident. My career was shaping up well.” He was able to get training in foreign intelligence work at an elite KGB school near Moscow. His fluency in German was a clear plus.

At the KGB special school, he was rated as a good officer, but not a star. So back he went to Leningrad.

Finally, Volodya did get a posting outside of the Soviet Union, and it was to Germany! But it was inside the Soviet bloc, to the GDR. There, he was assigned to a relatively minor post out in the provinces, to join the half dozen KGB men in Dresden. They were well away from the main action in the capital, East Berlin.

Arriving in 1985, Volodya went about his work in partnership with the hundreds of East German Stasi officials covering that region of the country. As 1989 began, he had been in Dresden for nearly four years. He had been in the KGB for almost fourteen. He was thirty-six years old.

Though his office was always on the lookout for traveling foreigners or others who might offer information about the NATO adversaries, an important part of the work was to follow up possible security issues in his part of East Germany. He and his colleagues could look for possible foreign spies (they found none). Or they could try to recruit interesting foreigners at one of the universities in their region, or track misbehaving Soviets who were stationed or traveling in their area. Or, working with the Stasi, they could follow activities among the East Germans themselves.

“Everyone thinks that intelligence is interesting,” Volodya recalled. “Do you know that ninety percent of all the intelligence information is obtained from an agent’s network made up of ordinary Soviet citizens? These agents decide to work for the interests of the state.” In East Germany, the only big difference was that “a large part of our work was done through citizens of the GDR.”

Volodya’s work record was satisfactory. He was promoted. By 1989 he was the deputy head of the KGB’s small rezidentura in Dresden. He had a medal for “outstanding services” to the East German army, not an unusual award for someone in his position.

He was more uneasy about developments back home in the Soviet Union. Sometimes a fellow KGB officer would visit and tell disturbing stories, like the ones he heard from a veteran of KGB operations during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. The disillusioned veteran confided to Volodya, “‘You know, I judge the results of my work by the number of documents that I did not sign.’ That really stunned me,” Volodya remembered.

Volodya’s boss had been outraged at the end of 1986 when the new Soviet leader, Gorbachev, had released the famous dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov. Volodya was not so bothered. To an office mate, he confided that it might take the “military superiority of the West” to “bring the unconstrained masters in the Kremlin to their senses.” To another friend, he even voiced support for the idea that the next Soviet president should be elected.

Volodya and his wife liked life in the GDR. Their second daughter had been born there. His wife, Lyudmila, remembered, “The streets were clean. They would wash the windows once a week. There was an abundance of goods—not like what they had in West Germany, of course, but still better than in Russia.”

It did seem to Volodya that the GDR was “a harshly totalitarian country,” like the Soviet Union had been a generation earlier. He wondered, “If some changes in the USSR begin, how would it affect the lives of these people?” On the other hand, at the time he thought “it was hard to imagine” any abrupt changes coming to the GDR.

It was indeed hard to imagine. The Cold War had created the GDR. As the Second World War came to an end in 1945, in first Europe, then much of Asia, and then around the world there were warring camps of rival ideological systems. For generations, divided Europe was also an armed camp, partitioned by barbed wire and minefields, with millions of soldiers readied for war, massing tens of thousands of armored fighting vehicles and thousands of nuclear weapons, regularly conducting large exercises to prepare for apocalyptic confrontation. It was hard to imagine great change, hard to envision just how the Cold War might end. If it did end, then one would have to dream up some notion of what might happen after that, including in the “harshly totalitarian” GDR.

No one could see how the Cold War might end in a way that extinguished East Germany, the entire socialist system of which it was a part, and then even the Soviet Union itself. It was hard to imagine how a divided world would disintegrate and a different one would take its place.

As their world fell apart, Kasi and Volodya would have to build new lives in this different world, along with millions of others. A handful of leaders might change the surrounding structures. Then it would be up to people like Kasi and Volodya to remake and rechart their lives.

They did. In fact, these two onetime East German success stories would eventually meet and get to know each other. By that time, they were among the handful of leaders making the big choices.

Kasi is now better known by her full married name: Angela Merkel. She made choices that would eventually bring her to the summit of political power—in a new, united Germany.

Volodya is now better known by his formal name: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin. He too made choices, choices that would eventually also bring him to the summit of political power—in a new, diminished Russia.2

One is a chancellor in reunited Berlin. The other is a president in the Kremlin in Moscow.

Ups and Downs

History can seem like it has its ups and downs. People try to solve problems. Sometimes they do. All the solutions eventually have problems too, some old, some new.

Perhaps, when we succeed, the new problems are not as terrifying as the ones that went before. Perhaps, when we succeed, the new problems offer more scope for people to realize more of their human potential, more scope for freedom and the pursuit of happiness.

The Cold War certainly had its ups and downs. As it recedes into history it looks like it was a frozen standoff. But lived at the time, it was more like a frightening roller-coaster ride. The West had its scares in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

In the mid-1950s, after the 1953 death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin, the communist world was riven by doubt and fierce debate. There were huge protests and even violent revolts in East Germany, Poland, and Hungary. The revolts were crushed.

Communism evolved. By the late 1950s it again seemed to be on the upswing, reaching new frontiers in science and new adherents in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

By the end of the 1950s it was the freer, capitalist part of the world, referred to in shorthand as “the West” (though it very much included countries like Japan) that was full of doubt. Western leaders were alarmed. The communists—first into outer space—seemed to have both know-how and might on their side.

In the early 1960s, some of this gloom dissipated. Capitalism and the West seemed to revive. The peak of Cold War confrontation seemed to have passed.

Yet by the end of the 1960s and the early 1970s, the West felt it had descended into an even more profound, pervasive crisis. There was the awful war in Vietnam. A pro-democracy movement in Czechoslovakia was crushed by Soviet tanks. Once-flourishing capitalist economies sputtered with inflation and unemployment. Riots burned city centers in America. Terrorism plagued countries across Western Europe.

Yet by the late 1980s, the Atlantic world and East Asia had once again regained much of their confidence. That is the story we begin with in chapter 1. Some of these choices were made by leaders in Europe, China, and the United States. Others were made by judges and civil rights lawyers or activists on both sides of the Atlantic; still more were made by American innovators who pioneered a liberating idea of personal computing.

The communist world seemed to have been riding high during the 1970s. More states—in Africa, Latin America, and Asia—came under communist rule, welcoming troops or advisers from the Soviet Union or its allies.

Yet their roller coaster dipped down again. By the 1980s it was the communist world’s turn to go through another of its phases of disappointment and doubt. The crisis of communism became general.

What then changed, more profoundly, was the whole system itself. Instead of a seesaw tipping back and forth between the rival sides, a truly global system replaced the divided world that had gone before. Most of the crucial design choices for this new system were set between 1988 and 1992.

This book is about how Kasi and Volodya’s world collapsed. It is about the design of the new world in which they would become leaders. Unlike some other “end of the Cold War” books, even one that we wrote nearly twenty-five years ago, this book is less about endings and more about acts of creation.

What to call this new system? To call it a “post–Cold War system” says, literally, almost nothing. Dry references to a “liberal international order” are not much better.

Instead of a system designed for rival blocs to compete in a divided world and prepare for a third world war, the new system designed at the beginning of the 1990s was meant to be truly global. Its designers hoped they were laying the foundation for a global commonwealth of free nations. They sought an open and civilized world, where people everywhere might find a sense of identity, security, and material well-being.

All the principal leaders who dominate much of this book, men and women like Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, François Mitterrand, George H. W. Bush, Jacques Delors, and Margaret Thatcher, were part of a “postwar” generation. They never forgot that. To them, the shadow of war was always there.

Imagine the hopes and fears of this generation. To most of these men and women, words like “tyranny,” “freedom,” “war,” and “security” were not empty abstractions. They brought back very real traumas.

Wounded at the start of the Second World War, Mitterrand had escaped from a prison camp, and then later had to literally run for his life, dashing breathlessly through alleys to escape Gestapo agents hunting him in wartime Paris. As a young political leader in the late 1950s, he was forced by France’s internal war over Algeria to again be on the lookout, this time watching for French assassins.

When he was a teenager, Delors’s best friend was arrested running messages for the Resistance. That friend was sent to Auschwitz. He died there, as did his father.

When she was a teenager, Thatcher had walked by the blasted shells of bombed-out streets and grown up with the end of empire. Even when she was a young member of Parliament in the early 1960s, her country was still struggling to recover from the deprivation and damage of past wars, full of obsolete housing, “derelict” dockyards, and antiquated factories, its railways in “ghastly shape.” France’s leader had just brusquely refused to let Britain join the new European Economic Community. As Thatcher attended her party’s annual conference in 1964, the leading Conservative newspaper headlined a speech in which a minister pledged “to keep Britain a first-class nation.”3

Thatcher’s West German counterpart, Kohl, had grown up in a country far more devastated than England. In Kohl’s childhood, ruins were part of the landscape. His friends scavenged for food. He was named Helmut after his father’s brother, dead in an earlier war. He came of age mourning another brother, his own, who never came home from the last war.

Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, also mourned a brother who had not come home from war, one among millions. Other memories were kept quieter. Gorbachev’s family remembered when their region was briefly overrun by German troops during 1942. The Germans were not there long enough to do much harm. But afterward, both of Gorbachev’s grandfathers had been arrested by Stalin’s secret police. Although they were fortunate and eventually released, the family remembered.

Bush had piloted a plane off aircraft carriers. Shot out of the sky during a Pacific island raid, he had to bail out into the ocean. He counted himself lucky, saved miraculously by a nearby American submarine. His crewmen did not survive.

One could go on and on with such examples among many of the top officials in these governments, men and women who spent much of their lives living in the shadow of wars past and the next war to come. They had become successful and prominent. They were politicians, worldly wise, often cynical. Yet, across the years, they still bore the marks of their memories.

None of these leaders were nostalgic about the postwar, Cold War world. They did not yearn to recover the broken world of their youth. They wanted to build something new and different, dramatically and profoundly different, so that future generations would inherit a better world than the one in which they had grown up.

In 1988 and 1989 they saw their supreme chance. The Cold War was ending. Another era was beginning. At such times, leaders with a vision for the future can make a difference.


On Sale
Sep 10, 2019
Page Count
528 pages

Philip Zelikow

About the Author

Phillip Zelikow is is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History and J. Wilson Newman Professor of Governance at the Miller Center of Public Affairs, both at the University of Virginia. A former career diplomat, he was the executive director of the 9/11 Commission. He worked on international policy in each of the five administrations from Reagan through Obama.
Philip Zelikow lives in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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Condoleezza Rice

About the Author

Philip Zelikow is an attorney, diplomat, academic, and author. He has worked as the executive director of the 9/11 Commission, director of the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia, and Counselor of the United States Department of State. He is the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia and was American Academy in Berlin Axel Springer Fellow in the fall of 2009. Zelikow has served in the George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama administrations.

Condoleezza Rice was the sixty-sixth US secretary of state and the first black woman to hold that office. Prior to that, she was the first woman to serve as national security advisor. She is a professor at Stanford University and cofounder of RiceHadleyGates LLC. Rice is the author of No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (2011) and Extraordinary, Ordinary People: A Memoir of Family (2010), both New York Times best sellers, and more recently, Democracy: Stories from the Long Road to Freedom (2017).

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