In this week’s reminiscences about the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it was easy to forget that nothing that followed was inevitable - certainly not the reunification of Germany the following year. One crucial, but often overlooked, factor in the emergence of a stable Europe was careful diplomacy by then-President George H.W. Bush.
Bush was often criticized for being too cautious - “prudent’’ was his preferred term. But the president and top advisers James Baker and Brent Scowcroft had good reason to practice restraint, as rebelling masses in Central Europe began to take history into their own hands. The Americans wanted to avoid any gloating that might provoke a violent crackdown by Soviet hard-liners.
But when the chance came to reunite Germany, Bush seized it. While many Europeans viewed the prospect with suspicion, Bush saw a chance to create a new structure of European security by absorbing a single Germany into NATO. So, the United States backed German Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s drive for unification and rebuffed opposition from British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand. Bush and his advisers had approached the fateful turning points of 1989-90 with a clearly defined goal: to end the Cold War by getting Soviet troops removed from Eastern Europe.
As President Obama and his advisers cope with challenges from Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the Middle East, they could benefit from both the caution and the well-timed audacity of Bush, Baker, and Scowcroft.