In studying this speech, the timing and political tactics of it, particularly when viewed in historical context, are extraordinary. Reagan could have delivered this speech at any time, but chose to do it only after 6.5 years in office. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but perhaps Reagan saw signs that by 1987 the USSR's economy was teetering on the precipice of a downfall. Perhaps Reagan saw in Mikhail Gorbachev the first Soviet leader who truly wanted the USSR to reform. It was thus the ideal time to remind the world, now in an era of cable television, that the USSR was not willing to let East Berliners interact with the Western world. It was the ideal time to demonstrate that communism could not attract people to it by their own free will. It was the ideal time to gain a psychological monopoly on the universal concepts of aspiration and hope, in a speech audible on the other side of the wall. If Gorbachev was truly a reformer, there was only one way to indisputably prove it.
But did a mere speech really have such an effect on a powerful empire? Just because the Berlin Wall fell just 2 years later, and the USSR itself peacefully dissolved just 4 years later, does not mean the speech was anything more than well-timed and inspiring. The trend of nations migrating towards democracy was evident long before Reagan became President. Yet consider that in just 20 years, the number of genuine democracies in the world has risen from under 60 in 1987 to 90 today. The number of unfree regimes has thus dropped correspondingly.
In particular, it is the nations of Eastern Europe that transformed the most in the years following Reagan's speech. Now, almost all the nations of Eastern Europe, including former Soviet states, are full democracies. This would have been unthinkable just 20 short years ago, ensuring that this speech become a symbol of the watershed moment when cracks in the Soviet Union became just too numerous to cover up.
Lastly, Reagan's speech contains lessons that modern leaders, particularly George W. Bush, would do well to learn. The public is fickle, and cannot be expected to put in the effort to become fully informed about the complex geopolitical issues that affect their societies. A leader's job is to package an ideology into simple, attractive terms that capture the public's basic aspirations. This use of soft power should never be underestimated. George W. Bush could do just as much to overcome rogue states than any military expenditure would achieve, by simply going to South Korea, getting as close to the DMZ as he can, and invoking Ronald Reagan :
General Secretary Kim Jong-Il, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for North Korea and Eastern Asia, if you seek assistance from America, come here to this border. General Secretary Kim Jong-Il, open this border. General Secretary Kim Jong-Il, tear down this demilitarized zone!
While Kim Jong-Il is an evil psychopath, and certainly should not be compared to Mikhail Gorbachev at any level, this would still bring the spotlight of the world on the oppression and suffering in North Korea, and force Kim Jong-Il to do something to try and save face, which means he either has to make a small concession to the winds of freedom, or react negatively and look even worse. Either way, the onus squarely is placed on him.
I believe this template has a role to play once again.