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Philip Zelikow
Zelikow worked toward German reunification in WashingtonImage: picture alliance/dpa

Reduced role

September 30, 2010

In an interview with DW, Philip Zelikow, involved with reunification for the White House, talks about Germany's reduced role since reunification and the peculiar painting he received from an East German diplomat.


Philip D. Zelikow worked on German reunification as a senior National Security Council official under President George H.W. Bush. Together with Condoleezza Rice, he is the author of "Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (1995)." Zelikow also served as executive director of the 9/11 Commission and as the top adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. He is currently the White Burkett Miller Professor of History at the University of Virginia.

Deutsche Welle: While most German politicians up to the fall of the Berlin Wall rhetorically supported the principle of reunification, few believed it would ever happen in their lifetime. Before things started to unravel in Eastern Europe, did you and other US officials believe Germany would be peacefully united in your lifetime?

Philip Zelikow: By the spring of 1989 several of us had come to believe that this was possible. And therefore we urged in writing that the older President Bush put the unification of Germany high on the agenda and spotlight the issue as a topic that we should look at and consider. And that then led to a series of statements, made both by President Bush and then later Chancellor Kohl in the spring and summer of 1989. President Bush stated again and again before the fall of the Berlin Wall that he supported German reunification and would be glad to see it. In the context of the increasing instability in Eastern Europe those comments had quite an impact in Germany and Western Europe.

Going even further back, would you have thought German reunification was possible prior to 1985?

I thought it unlikely. I think when I was a serving diplomat working in places like the Arms Control Talks in the mid 1980s we were resigned to the fact that Europe was going to remain divided for the foreseeable future. We thought that was tragic. By the end of 1988 several prominent people including Prime Minister Thatcher in Britain were happily declaring that the Cold War was over. That was not my view. Because I believe the Cold War did not end just when you had a divided Europe in which there was an understanding, in other words, a sort of modus Vivendi of Europe that could stably be divided.

The original issue of the Cold War was really not just a military confrontation. The original issue of the Cold War, which in a way goes back to the Russian revolution itself, is how are we going to organize these modern societies in Europe. And will these communities be allowed to freely choose the way they want to organize their lives and their countries. That issue really had never been settled.

But every one began to think that this was possible by 1988, and certainly by 1989, because the whole system rested on the willingness of the leaders of the Soviet empire to use force to keep control. And at the point where it became uncertain that the Soviet Union had the will or the ability to use military force to kill people to stay in the empire, as they had done in 1953, in 1956 and 1968 and in Poland with martial law, all bets were off and everything became possible.

What were the strategic goals of the US going into the talks about the future of Germany, the so-called 2+4 talks?

The strategic goals of the United States in the winter of 1989 and 1990 were to accelerate progress toward getting the reunification of Germany accomplished. And the question was how could the United States and the Federal Republic of Germany work together to accomplish this goal in a peaceful way?

One of the ideas that were developed primarily by [then Secretary of State James] Baker and his colleagues at the Department of State was to create this process called the 2+4 negotiation process. We at the White House were uneasy at that, because although we shared the goal, our worry was that the process would be used as an instrument to delay progress toward reunification. We feared that it would hand a weapon back to the Soviets to block progress. But Baker and his people had worked through this issue, and the Germans were comfortable with it, and we were ultimately reassured about it too.

The 2+4 was an essential instrument for negotiating a process for reunification. It effectively became a steering committee in which there were a number of other negotiations going on on different pieces including the future of the armed forces in Europe and the German army.

President Bush and Chancellor Kohl
President Bush, (left), and Chancellor Kohl were the architects of reunificationImage: picture alliance/dpa

But to come back to your core question: The essential goal of the United States was to accelerate the peaceful unification of Germany and to do that in a framework that would reassure the rest of Europe that a unified Germany was nothing to fear. That meant a Germany that could freely chose to remain in the Western security system and the Western economic system. Germany had made these real historic choices above all in the 1950s that it was going to seek its national identity as part of a European identity and an Atlantic identity. Those decisions were enormously reassuring to a lot of people and were really the foundation for German success in international politics through the 1960s, 70s and 80s.

What was the most surprising aspect or moment for you personally during the negotiations about the settlement of the Germany question?

Oh, there were so many moments. I was actually present in Ottawa with Jim Baker when the 2+4 arrangement was put in place. But I offer you just one anecdote which is not an anecdote about a historic treaty signing or some gripping moment of confrontation. I was present at the meeting of the political directors at the 2+4 as the representative of the White House when the final treaty terms were effectively concluded.

There was one ministers' meeting in Moscow to iron out a couple of last issues, but the basic document was concluded in August of 1990. And at that meeting, the East German representative at the end of the meeting handed out to all of us a picture, not a photograph, these were prints of this painting. And the painting was an office hallway of a very banal and ordinary kind. It was a very peculiar painting. And we were all kind of dazed and puzzled why at the end of this historic meeting he had given us such a curious picture. And he explained and said: "This picture that you are looking at is the scene that thousands of my countrymen, East Germans, would look at, because this is the waiting area in which you would sit if you were applying for permission to try and travel to the West. Many, many East Germans remember staring at these walls and I am handing you this picture because [due to] the work that we have been doing no East German will ever have to see this scene again."

The US had high hopes for the role a united Germany could play on the world stage. President Bush in 1990 famously offered Germany to be a partner in leadership. Looking at Germany 20 years after reunification, what's your assessment of the country's international role?

Well, oddly Germany's international role today is probably less prominent than it was in 1990 or 1989 or indeed less prominent than it was in the 20 years before that. Germany I think has been going through 20 years of debate and discussion of how they will become a normal country. And I think they have become in a way a very normal country, very preoccupied with local affairs, very preoccupied with the tremendous burdens and strains of building a unified nation and incorporating the former East Germany which has been an expensive and difficult process. And with those preoccupations Germany's role in the world, which had been very important all the way through the Cold War period, has actually diminished.

Now to be fair, Germany's role in the European Union has remained vitally important, and Germany is still a pillar in the European Union. But it's difficult to point to any particular diplomatic issues and see where Germany has played a critical role in providing leadership to the rest of Europe. And it has been very difficult for the Germans to be partners in important international ventures outside of Europe. Their intervention in Afghanistan has of course been a very difficult story, as I think most Germans realize. It has been good in some ways, but very constrained in others, and I think it will be looked on by many Germans as a somewhat frustrating exercize.

It has just been difficult for Germany to figure out exactly how to find its place in world politics. It had a very clear place in world politics in the context of the Cold War and now as Germany has become a normal country it has not yet found a world role comparable to the role it played earlier. For all I know many Germans may regard that as a good thing.

As an American, I regard it as somewhat unfortunate, because I actually want Germans to be partners in leadership. I think the Germans have a lot of positive qualities that they can actually bring to the table and help us to build important coalitions to deal with some of the world's most difficult and important global problems. Economic problems, problems of international development and many other things where I think Germany could be an enormously important force for good.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge

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