In many ways, Atlanta’s European community spent 2014 looking back, with the centennial of World War I and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall providing sufficiently poignant lenses. Disturbingly, some saw reflections of these conflicts in the geopolitical storm clouds gathering today.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year was, at its heart, a strike against the idea of European unity: Ukraine’s turmoil began when its president was ousted over his decision to put off a trade deal that would have tied the country more closely with the EU. That set in motion a cascade of events that some fear have put the world on an inevitable path toward conflict once again. Looking back, some suggested, is our best chance of preventing history from repeating itself, as the old adage warns.
In Atlanta, there were many chances to pause. Early in the year, EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht gave a lecture at Georgia Tech during which he sung the praises of the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a huge trade deal being hashed out by the U.S. and EU. In the context of Ukraine, he argued, trade is about more than economies; it’s a chance to shore up alliances and set the tone for the world economy. Atlanta, for its part, is seeking to host some of the TTIP negotiations.
A few months later, the Central European ambassadors from the so-called Visegrad Four group were hosted by the World Affairs Council of Atlanta and Georgia State University. They warned of the consequences of letting Russia act with impunity and called for more gas exports from the U.S. to offset Russia’s energy leverage. They also said the U.S. should clarify its support for NATO allies adamantly project its commitment to the Budapest Memorandum. In that 1994 deal, Ukraine and other former Soviet states were persuaded to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for the promise of military backing in the event of a Russian invasion.
To deal with Russia, the U.S. chose the route of sanctions ratcheted up throughout the year, eventually helping contribute (along with a precipitous decline in oil prices) to a substantial drop in the value of the Russian ruble.
In a conference at Agnes Scott College on the 25th anniversary the fall of the Iron Curtain experts asserted that Cold War II is not on the horizon, but that the U.S. should tread carefully. Just as the fall of the Berlin Wall was unexpected, Russia’s course is by no means predictable, especially with Vladimir Putin at the helm.
Still, Atlanta’s European community celebrated the fall of the wall as a triumph over oppression. The Atlanta International School obtained a concrete section that will be displayed permanently on campus, educating a new generation of students on this important moment in history. German Consul General Christoph Sander said his children regard the wall as “ancient history” but described the courage of those in the former East Germany and countries like the Czech Republic in the fight against communism.
Two events toward the end of the year brought up other positive lessons from European conflict. A (still-running) landmark exhibition of Sir Winston Churchill’s paintings at the Millennium Gate Museum showed how his artistry contributed to his diplomatic thinking.
In December, the year’s celebrations ended on a positive note. The German and British consulates organized a football (soccer) match in memory of the Christmas Truce, a brief respite in a bitter where the two sides found time to play together on the Flanders battlefield. Underpinning the match was a lesson: Dialogue can help avoid what Germany’s Deputy Consul General Thomas Wülfing called a “complete lack of understanding” that “plunged everyone into an abyss of stupidity.” The hope is that it’s not too late to bridge similar gaps today.