Condoleezza Rice on German Reunification 'I Preferred To See It as an Acquisition'
In a SPIEGEL interview, former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice discusses America's fight for German reunification, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's woes at the time, Chancellor Helmut Kohl's merits and the later mistakes of his successor, Gerhard Schröder.
SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, European nations like Great Britain and France were very worried about the prospect of German unification. America was the only country that didn't appear to be concerned. Why not?
Condoleezza Rice: The United States -- and President George H.W. Bush -- recognized that Germany had gone through a long democratic transition. It had been a good friend, it was a member of NATO. Any issues that had existed in 1945, it seemed perfectly reasonable to lay them to rest. For us, the question wasn't should Germany unify? It was how and under what circumstances? We had no concern about a resurgent Germany, unlike the British or French.
SPIEGEL: Because a unified German was in America's strategic interest?
Rice: If you were going to have a Europe that was whole and free, you couldn't have a Germany that was divided. So, with the possibility that Soviet power was going to be receding from Europe, it made perfectly good sense to try to achieve reunification on terms that nobody would have thought thinkable, even four or five years before.
SPIEGEL: When did you start believing that unification might be possible?
Rice: As soon as I saw the stirrings in Eastern Europe in August or September of 1989. We were in Poland and Hungary in July of that year, and it was pretty clear that Communist power was done. We felt that it was eventually going to collapse in East Germany, too.
SPIEGEL: Not very many Germans were even thinking about the possibility of reunification at that early stage.
Rice: I went to Germany in October (shortly before the fall of the wall) for a trans-Atlantic conference, one of these dull affairs that were usually taken up with debates on short-range nuclear missiles. But all of a sudden, this conference was now Germans talking to Germans about the prospects for Germany moving forward, and you could just feel in the air that something fundamental had changed. This was about three weeks before the fall of the wall.
SPIEGEL: Aren't you overstating the early US enthusiasm for the unification project? President Bush openly admitted he was rather indifferent to the question of unification.
Rice: We advisers were trying to push the president to really say something about unification, because as events were unfolding in Eastern Europe it was clear something was going to happen.
SPIEGEL: But he remained silent.
Rice: President Bush Senior was and is a cautious man. He did not want to provoke a response from the Soviet Union.
SPIEGEL: Bush made no official statements about the prospect of a united Germany, not even after the Berlin Wall came down. What did he say in private?
Rice: He was very clear that we Americans were going to stand for unification. In those first comments to press people in the Oval Office, the day the wall fell, he was cautious not out of any view that Germany shouldn't unify but that this was not the time for the American president to make bold statements. In internal deliberations, however, the president never tried in any way to prevent German unification. He was quite comfortable with it.
SPIEGEL: But Americans insisted on full NATO membership for the unified Germany. It was very unlikely that Gorbachev would swallow this. Weren't the Americans trying to block reunification this way?
Rice: No. But we couldn't afford in the end game of the Cold War to make a bad misstep. And a really bad misstep would have been to pull Germany out of NATO, which would have collapsed the most important platform for the American presence in Europe.
SPIEGEL: But who could really believe that the Russians would ever agree to that?
Rice: There were debates in the American foreign policy establishment that maybe both the Warsaw Pact and NATO should go away. But we at the White House never considered the possibility of unifying Germany outside of NATO. It would have meant that at the last minute, with everything going our way, the United States capitulated on the essential thing in terms of the American presence in Europe.
SPIEGEL: Were you concerned that Chancellor Kohl might not agree to German NATO membership?
Rice: The president knew that the one thing he had to do was to get Chancellor Kohl to go out and say that Germany would unify in NATO. After a meeting with him at Camp David in February of 1990, Bush knew that Kohl would agree to this.
SPIEGEL: Did the chancellor have a choice?
Rice: It wasn't explicit that the United States would not support German unification unless Germany were unified in NATO. But we left no doubt in the minds of our German colleagues that we expected Germany to be unified in NATO. As to whether the Soviet Union would accept it, you had to slowly but surely bring the Russians to that perspective.
SPIEGEL: So how could you force the Germans to become a NATO member? Could they not have decided to remain neutral?
Rice: We believed Helmut Kohl did not want to remain neutral. We believed that he wanted to be a member of NATO.
SPIEGEL: But you didn't give him any choice.
Rice: As a foreign policy actor, you have to have a view of your interest and you have to try to pursue it. America's interests were that Germany would be united in NATO.
SPIEGEL: So national interests trump the peoples' right to self-determination?
Rice: No. If the Germans had come and said, "We don't want to be a part of NATO," I guess we would have had to accept that.
SPIEGEL: And what would have happened then?
Rice: Fortunately, we didn't have to accept that.
SPIEGEL: But you must have had a Plan B.
Rice: No, there was no Plan B. It was to make Plan A work. We also believed that it was a way to make the French and the British less concerned about German unification, because what was the original purpose of NATO? It was to defend against the Soviet Union, but it was also to give the democracies of Europe a collective security umbrella. No one in the White House was planning for anything but the unification of Germany within NATO.
SPIEGEL: How could you be sure that Gorbachev would agree in the end?
Rice: We couldn't. We had to just work to make it possible for him to accept it. When he came to Washington in May 1990, we actually mentioned the right to self-determination to him. We said the Germans had chosen to become NATO members and should he not accept this?
SPIEGEL: He suddenly did. Did that surprise you?
Rice: I couldn't believe it when Gorbachev made that statement. Right after it happened, during the meeting at the White House, we advisers passed a note to President Bush that said, "Get him to say it again." So President Bush said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Let me just be sure that we both understand. You have said that under the Helsinki Accords, countries have the right to self-determination concerning your alliances." And Gorbachev said yes again.
SPIEGEL: What do you think caused his change of mind?
Rice: That to me is the most remarkable question. We weren't sure whether Gorbachev wasn't prepared for that particular line of argument and just restated what's true in Helsinki without thinking about its implications for Germany -- or whether he decided he wasn't going to be able to stop it and now was the time to show flexibility. Even his aides were taken aback.
SPIEGEL: Were you concerned he might try to take the statement back?
Rice: That night I went to the Soviet ambassador in Washington and said that in the press conference tomorrow morning President Bush is going to say that President Gorbachev and he agree that countries have the right to self-determination in terms of their alliances. I basically told him, "Call us if you have a problem with that." And I waited all night for them to call and say "No, that's not what he said." They never did. President Bush said the line in the press conference. Gorbachev just stood there.
SPIEGEL: Was he in so much trouble domestically that he just gave up?
Rice: So much was going against the Russians. There is a conversation in 1989 between Egon Krenz (the last East German Communist leader) and Gorbachev that I came across. Krenz says to Gorbachev, "So when are you going to defend the German Democratic Republic?" He calls Gorbachev to inform him that they owe West Germany billions of deutsche marks and they had not known it until now. Basically, it's a request for a bailout. And Gorbachev effectively says to him: I now have to worry about the Soviet Union; you're on your own.
- Part 1: 'I Preferred To See It as an Acquisition'
- Part 2: Gorbachev's Biggest Mistake: 'He Was a True Believer in the Soviet Union'
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