11/10/2014 10:20 am ET Updated Jan 10, 2015

What the Fall of the Berlin Wall Can Teach Us Today

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This year's foreign policy headlines remind Americans of the global challenges facing America. It is easy to forget an era in the recent past when the foreign policy surprises were positive.

A quarter century ago this past Sunday the Berlin Wall came down. While we celebrate its demise, we must remember that it had once seemed impossible that the Wall would ever disappear.

How the impossible became the inevitable should remind us of history's ability to surprise, and of liberty's enduring appeal.

From our vantage point today, the Berlin Wall appears like a historical absurdity, a perverse division of one of the world's great cities that effectively imprisoned the population of an entire country. Yet following the building of the Wall in 1961, it became perceived as a permanent feature on the landscape of Europe and even a stabilizing influence on the Cold War.

When President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate on June 12, 1987, and demanded "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall," his words were largely ignored by the international media. Most foreign policy experts dismissed Reagan's demand as naïve and sensationalist. Even Secretary of State George Shultz and Deputy National Security Adviser Colin Powell had opposed including that line in the speech as unduly provocative and unrealistic. Reagan himself had little idea how soon his exhortation would become a reality.

Why did the Wall come down when it did?

It was a potent combination of American pressure; deft diplomacy by two Texans in Washington, President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker; Mikhail Gorbachev's internal reforms and the accompanying political openings in other countries.

Soon thereafter the Cold War itself ended peacefully, and it appeared for a time that the world was entering a new era of peace, prosperity and freedom.

Yet recent years have dashed these hopes and demonstrated the persistence of dictatorship and conflict. Events such as the Islamic State's conquests and atrocities, the failures of the Arab Spring and the return of Russian autocracy and aggression all serve as reminders that the world is still a dangerous place.

But there are still some insights we can derive 25 years after the Wall's demise.

The first is the resilience of liberty. The Iron Curtain's four decades of communist tyranny had induced many to think that dictatorship was the natural and stable condition for Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The thousands of East Berlin residents who poured joyfully through the open gates on Nov. 9, 1989, bore witness to liberty's persistent appeal, even -- especially -- in societies where it cannot be expressed openly.

The second is that sometimes the people who matter most are the least known. While world leaders such as Gorbachev, Bush, and East German dictator Erich Honecker dominated the headlines in 1989, it was dissident pastors such as Christoph Wonneberger and Hans-Jurgen Sievers, rebellious agitators such as Aram Radomski and Siggi Schefke, and passport control officer Harald Jager who played indispensable roles in the drama of Nov. 9. World-changing events sometimes emanate from the corridors of power, but they just as often start in places like a Leipzig church or a Tunisian fruit market.

The third is history's persistent capacity to surprise. At the outset of 1989 it appeared that the Berlin Wall was a permanent fixture and the Cold War would continue indefinitely. Less than a year later, the Wall was in pieces and Eastern Europe was free. While the surprises of 1989 were triumphs, history's surprises can just as often be terrors, such as the Sept. 11 attacks or the 2008 financial crisis.

All of these surprises should remind us that history rarely moves in a linear direction. It does not enable us to predict the future, but it helps us to prepare for it.