Magazine article The National Interest

Two Plus Four

Magazine article The National Interest

Two Plus Four

Article excerpt

The Lessons of German Unification

TEN YEARS ago, on October 3, 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany absorbed the German Democratic Republic, creating a single, united Germany. Less than a year before, the people of East Berlin had breached the Berlin Wall, prompting a flurry of diplomacy. Events moved so quickly that they seemed pre-ordained. But were they?

At the time, I was serving President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, as counselor of the Department of State. One of my assignments was to help develop and implement U.S. policy toward German unification. In this article, looking back after a decade, I offer ten observations about American diplomacy during those busy months.

FIRST, the story of German unification underscores the importance of anticipation. Even with the best intelligence, it is difficult to foresee what lies ahead. Nevertheless, officials should seek to identify critical trends so they may then prepare the groundwork to meet various contingencies in a fashion that moves them toward their strategic goals. This precept might seem obvious, but the press of events, a full in-box and a long list of phone calls to return can easily pre-empt long-range thinking and preparatory action. The normal state of affairs is that people turn to immediate and usually easier tasks before facing longer term complex problems.

Consider the world in late 1988, as President-elect Bush was preparing to assume office. Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika and glasnost had made the Soviet leader a celebrity, even a symbol of hope, around the world. The German public seemed especially charmed by this very new type of Russian leader. Elsewhere in Central Europe, particularly in Poland and Hungary, restive publics were stirring; people were just beginning to test the boundaries of the Soviet empire's new rules. In geopolitical terms, the center of gravity appeared to be shifting to Central and Eastern Europe. Hence, for the United States and the NATO alliance, Germany's posture would be decisive in shaping the future course of events.

Yet there was a tension in the relationship between the United States and Germany, and it was about to burst into the open. President Reagan had successfully pressed the Soviets to scrap their deployment of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe. This left principally short-range nuclear missiles in place, situated mostly in Germany, as well as America's ICBMs. In late 1988, NATO was considering a plan to modernize this missile force. But the West Germans were asking why only they and their East German neighbors should have to bear the brunt of nuclear deterrence in Europe. As one West German politician observed dryly, "The shorter the missiles, the deader the Germans."

President Bush was keenly aware of the rapidly changing European scene. He launched a series of initiatives to mold the dynamic environment to America's advantage. At the NATO Summit in May 1989, he advanced a proposal to reduce drastically conventional military forces in Europe. (In doing so, Bush overrode the vigorous resistance of his chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral William Crowe.)

Bush's dramatic move accomplished a number of aims. It seized on Gorbachev's rhetoric about reducing Soviet ground troops and challenged the Soviet Union to cut their numbers further to achieve equal levels with the West. The proposal also shifted the focus of U.S.-Soviet arms control from its traditional concentration on strategic nuclear limitations to the recently launched negotiations on conventional forces in Europe (the CFE talks). By doing so, the United States was directly targeting the Soviet army of occupation in Central and Eastern Europe. It also pushed the debate on short-range nuclear missiles to the background. Indeed, NATO reached an agreement at its 1989 summit to defer the question of the modernization of such missiles, easing a sharp point of contention between the United States and Germany. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.