Before we consign President George H.W. Bush to the dustbin of history books, I would like to shine a light on his stellar achievement with the reunification of East and West Germany in 1991. In fact, I rate this as the most significant diplomatic feat of the 20th century.
Certainly, there were other claimants: the San Francisco United Nations conference in 1945, John F. Kennedy’s deft avoidance of a nuclear war in the Cuban Missiles Crisis of 1962, the opening up of China in Richard Nixon’s Shanghai Communique of 1972, and Jimmy Carter’s Camp David Accords that established peace between Israel and Egypt in 1978.
As impressive as these other cases were, the problem of Germany stood at the heart of the three cataclysmic conflicts of the 20th century. The rise of German industrial and military power led to the 10 million deaths of World War I (1914-18). Ultimately, the failure of the Treaty of Versailles (1919) to solve the problem of Germany triggered the far more bloody World War II (1939-45) with its 50 million deaths. Even with the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945, the victorious allies still found themselves at loggerheads over Germany. The result was a division of Germany into different occupation zones — East and West — and a larger division of Europe between two hostile alliances — the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allied with the United States and the Warsaw Pact of Eastern European countries linked to the Soviet Union — glaring at each other across, what Winston Churchill dubbed, an Iron Curtain. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed over a two-year period (1989-91), and the Warsaw Pact with it while Germany emerged fully reunified, the international system came to a soft landing — no war, no soldiers killed.
In the course of world history, when two power groupings come into conflict, the near universal result has been cataclysmic war.
Rome destroyed Carthage in 202 B.C.; the British sank the Spanish Armada in the 16th century; and Britain then attained imperial supremacy over France in three simultaneous global engagements, one of which was the French and Indian War (1754-63) in North America.
The key player in this unique historical exception of the reunification of Germany in 1991 was, according to then-German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, President George H.W. Bush. The details of this accomplishment echo the dictum of the 19th century German Chancellor Otto Von Bismarck that “diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.” The reunification resulted from the “ways” of three players: President Bush, Chancellor Kohl and the president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev.
For Gorbachev, when the Soviet Union’s military-driven economy collapsed, he recognized the need to reorient the Soviet economy to one of international trade and its access to Western technology. Kohl, naturally, was committed to German reunification, even as he remained wedded to the NATO alliance in the face of opposition to continued membership by the German public.
Bush had two desires in these negotiations: He and Gorbachev had established a relationship of mutual trust when he was vice president, and Bush now wanted to help him out; but he also had a firm belief that lasting peace in Europe had to be built on German reunification.
The path to this goal was torturous. When Bush offered Gorbachev a trade deal, Gorbachev agreed to the peaceful redirection of his economy. In return, Bush agreed, tacitly, that, in the post-Cold War era, NATO would become more of a political organization that would cooperate with the Soviet Union. But, in exchange, Gorbachev had to agree not to stand in the way of Germany’s continued membership in NATO. In the pivotal moment of these negotiations, Gorbachev accepted this condition — which was tantamount to surrendering the Cold War.
Bush then told Kohl that the dream of reunification could now come true, as long as Germany remained in NATO. Here Bush was giving Kohl cover from his domestic opposition, so the German chancellor happily agreed. In fact, he was so grateful that he offered to pay for the complete withdrawal of the 380,000 Soviet troops still in East Germany, plus build apartment buildings in Russia to house them when they returned home. By 1994, all these troops had left, without a single shot fired. This truly was Bush’s finest hour: He let others have his way.
Clearly, there are important lessons today from Germany’s reunification 28 years ago for the hopefully upcoming talks between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un over nuclear weapons and the reunification of Korea. To glean some of these lessons, Trump would do well to dust off the history books — and make time to read them.