Robert B. Zoellick: Lessons of German Unification

Roundup: Talking About History

[Robert B. Zoellick is the 11th President of the World Bank Group]

Twenty years ago, on October 3, 1990, the Federal Republic of Germany absorbed the German Democratic Republic, uniting Germany. In the 11 months after the East Germans breached the Berlin Wall, diplomacy raced toward what now seems a preordained result. But was it? Perhaps there are some lessons that might be useful today.

First, anticipation is vital. It is nearly impossible to predict precise incidents, but one can perceive trends and lay groundwork for contingencies. This need may seem obvious, but the daily press of events usually preempts thinking far ahead.

In early 1989, President George H.W. Bush felt that the geopolitical center of gravity was shifting to Central and Eastern Europe and that Germany's posture would be critical. In his first six months, Bush shored up NATO's cohesion -- and Germany's place within the Alliance -- by deferring the contentious issue of short-range nuclear missiles and by advancing drastic cuts in conventional forces in Europe, over the objection of his Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush visited Germany, Poland, and Hungary to signal that the Cold War had to end with a Europe whole and free. (I was lead U.S. negotiator at this time during Germany's unification.)

Second, the United States approached German unification with a strategic and historic perspective. To avoid a "Versailles Victory" that invited its own destruction, we sought to mesh German unification within the unification of Europe in peace and freedom. We resisted efforts to restrict a united Germany's sovereignty, so as to avoid future grievances and to encourage Germany to be a full partner. We welcomed a unification of Europe that could be a democratic partner for the United States. And we offered the Soviet Union an opportunity to participate in a new security system based on a changed North Atlantic Alliance, seeking to address legitimate concerns with respect, so as to limit the likelihood of future irredentism.

Third, the United States combined strategy with practical judgments about events: We believed the East German public would be a driving force for national unity. Our diplomats in East Germany, in touch with courageous dissidents, thought the East would opt for a "Third Way." But the desire of East Germans to have what their western cousins enjoyed meant that unification would be a takeover by the legitimate German state, not a merger. The human momentum also posed risks if the diplomatic process stalled.

Fourth, the United States and West Germany urged the creation of the "Two-plus-Four" process to manage change while avoiding delaying tactics. The Soviets, after all, had treaty rights from World War II and 380,000 troops in East Germany. It appeared we could influence their thinking. During times of flux, counterparts may be uncertain; in the right circumstances, negotiators can help others determine how to achieve or even define objectives. Yet negotiators must be disciplined in linking process to goals, because diplomats can fall into a trap of treating talks as an end in themselves.

Fifth, the strategy and negotiations depended critically on the investment President Bush and Secretary of State James Baker made in building trust with their counterparts. These ties were fundamental to the partnership with Germany, of course, but also vital for reassuring the Poles and the West Europeans. Early on, when France's President Mitterrand suggested to Soviet President Gorbachev that they work together with Britain to block unification, Gorbachev worried that he was being set-up against Chancellor Kohl of Germany and President Bush. Although Bush paid a price at home, his non-triumphal response to the opening of the Berlin Wall earned dividends in his relations with Gorbachev. By July 1990, trust had developed to the point that Baker alerted Soviet Foreign Minister Shevardnadze to U.S. initiatives at NATO, enabling Shevardnadze to preempt opponents with a positive statement when NATO announced the changes.

Sixth, the United States was aware of the special need to communicate with the public so as to generate support for its diplomacy. We needed to assure Germans that we stood with them, while addressing the anxieties of publics throughout Europe and the Soviet Union; if their concerns were not addressed, political leaders would have less room to work out solutions. We were aided immensely that the American public instinctively associated with the desire of Germans to unify in freedom.

Finally, timing -- seizing the moment -- is at the heart of diplomacy. A few months after Germany's unification, Shevardnadze was gone. The next year, coup plotters struck and both Gorbachev and the Soviet Union were finished. Even on the U.S. side, by the time of the final signings, attention had shifted to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait and the need to create a new coalition.

Bismarck, who unified Germany a century before, said that the sign of a statesman is to recognize Fate as she rushes past, so as to grab on to her cloak. Though Fate changes her appearance, she is still with us.

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Arnold Shcherban - 10/5/2010

Dear Mr. Zeelick,
In your article you mention that "we offered the Soviet Union an opportunity to participate in a new security system based on a changed North Atlantic Alliance..."
Would you, please, specify exactly what was that opportunity and how and in what form it was offered?