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German reunification gave Europe strategic purpose

Robert B. Zoellick

On the evening of November 9, 1989, Berliners from the east poured through the wall that had divided them from West Germans for 28 years. Within a year, the two Germanies had unified, and the cold war in Europe had ended peacefully. Thirty years later, the US and the rest of the world can draw useful lessons from the diplomacy of 1989-90.

The German people drove those historic events, and West German leaders guided unification masterfully. The US president George H W Bush and secretary of state James Baker orchestrated a supportive international policy, working with Soviets, British, French, Poles, Nato and the European Community.

That era’s US diplomacy embodied both historical and strategic perspectives. Scholars have focused on what happened to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union — but the American priority was Germany. From the 1600s until 1871, the “German question” referred to the dangers of the many small German states, in the centre of Europe, being manipulated by outside empires. After German unification in 1871, the question changed dramatically as Europe coped with a powerful German state at its heart. The world fought two bloody wars in the 20th-century against Germany and then during 40 years of cold war, two hostile German states faced off on the frontline of a divided Europe.

From 1947 on, the US supported the rise of West German democracy and its economic recovery within an architecture of European integration and transatlantic security. In 1989, Bush and Mr Baker stressed that the US would stand by its promise to assist in a democratic unification. But they also reassured Germany’s anxious neighbours, east and west, by advocating German unification within Nato and what became the EU.

The US also wanted to avoid a “Versailles victory” — a treaty that, like the one after the first world war, planted the seeds of its own destruction.

For Germany, the US resisted discrimination that future generations might resent. For the Soviet Union, America offered reasonable security, borders, economic benefits and political standing. Mr Baker created the two-plus-four process in which the two Germanies and the four second world war powers negotiated a final settlement and steered complementary negotiations on conventional forces, Nato and the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe changes, and weapons of mass destruction.

The diplomacy matched strategy with a practical feel for realities on the ground. Germans, east and west, had created momentum for unification and could trigger a crisis if negotiations stalled. Americans and West Germans used that pressure to force the other countries to face decisions they preferred to avoid.

I recall visiting Nikolaikirche in Potsdam in December 1989, shortly after the fall of the wall, to meet courageous Lutheran leaders who had made it a safe space for political dissenters. In discussing their hopes, the pastors related hazy ideas about Der Dritte Weg, a third way between communism and the West. We asked about their congregations. The clergymen replied, “Oh, they want what they see on West German TV!” The answer was instructive. Unification would be a takeover by the west, not a merger among equals.

The diplomacy also required astute timing. By August 1990, Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait had created a new challenge. By December, Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze, a key partner, was gone. The following year the Soviet Union dissolved. The diplomacy of 1989-90 had required quick actions, but not rash moves. That experience contrasts sharply with US President Donald Trump’s impulsive actions and amateur dealmaking, which are devoid of plan, process and historical knowledge. He denigrates allies and treats fellow democracies dismissively; his abandonment of the Kurds in northern Syria warns the world of his unreliability.

Diplomats addressing problems such as North Korea and Iran could also benefit from reviewing the historical experience. Narrowly focusing on nuclear weapons and sanctions will lead to impasse or unsustainable agreements. Instead the negotiations must address complementary topics, as the US did in 1989. Armies, confidence-building, economic prospects and human rights must all be considered in a regional context involving other interested powers.

As Bush and Mr Baker strove to close the cold war peacefully, they kept their eyes on the future. They expected that Germany — by reason of size, economic capacity, and geography — would play a decisive role in Europe’s future. The US wanted a foundation for future partnership with a united Germany, within Nato and the EU. Thirty years later, Washington would be foolish to ignore the growing drift and alienation among the US and Germany and the EU.

In turn, Germans and other Europeans need a renewed sense of cohesion and strategic purpose to become more than an appendage to a Eurasia reshaped by China and Russia.

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