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.
Gorbachev's Biggest Mistake: 'He Was a True Believer in the Soviet Union'
SPIEGEL: Kohl's point was always that the NATO problem could be solved by throwing money at the Russians.
Rice: I never believed that. Gorbachev is a complex man, but his biggest mistake was that he was a true believer in the Soviet Union. He was really convinced that if you got rid of Stalinism and you got rid of coercion, then it would emerge as the modern communist state. I think he could not be bought.
SPIEGEL: Did Moscow even follow any kind of strategy during the negotiations over reunification?
Rice: The Soviet Union was so disoriented that they couldn't define where their interests really were. We had an arms control discussion with the Russians about a month after this May meeting, and the general staff was holding to questions about intermediate range cruise missiles. I remember thinking: your power has been completely destroyed in Europe. The Warsaw Pact has collapsed. Germany is about to unify. And you're worried about the 600-kilometer range of cruise missiles?
SPIEGEL: But you did not want to provoke the Russians.
Rice: Definitely not. We were trying to avoid confrontation with the Soviet Union and any triumphalism. We did not want to put Gorbachev in a position where he had to say no.
SPIEGEL: Kohl wanted to quickly push through an economic and social union. At the end of 1989, then-US Secretary of State James Baker also traveled to East Berlin and seemed to warn against a rushed reunification process. Did the speed with which Kohl acted worry you?
Rice: I don't think we were worried that Chancellor Kohl was pushing too fast. As a matter of fact, by the time the wall fell, I felt we had to go as fast as possible because the window was a very narrow one. The Soviet Union had to be strong enough to sign away its powers and rights but not strong enough to stop it. If you just do the thought experiment and you think a year later when effectively the Soviet Union collapses, would you have been able to do German unification under those terms? We felt it should move very, very fast.
SPIEGEL: Still, you were not happy that Kohl did not consult with you before presenting his 10-Point Plan in the Bundestag in November 1989.
Rice: The problem with the 10 points was we didn't know they were coming.
SPIEGEL: Not even President Bush knew about them in advance?
Rice: No, I don't think anybody knew.
SPIEGEL: What was your reaction when you heard about it?
Rice: I don't think the 10 points were particularly troubing in substance, but we were unhappy. We felt that this was going to have to be very carefully choreographed between the United States and Germany. We didn't know that the chancellor was going to do 10 points and that left us in an untenable position.
SPIEGEL: Did the White House call Kohl to ask him to come to his senses?
Rice: I think that Bush's National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft phoned his German counterpart Horst Teltschik and said: "How could this appear without us knowing?" I think the Germans said they had consulted somehow and they'd let us know, but nobody that I know remembers having been consulted.
SPIEGEL: Was that the only time in the whole process that you weren't informed about something important?
Rice: Yes. Going forward we never had that problem again.
SPIEGEL: Were you concerned that Chancellor Kohl might not get reelected in the parliamentary elections for a reunited Germany in 1990?
Rice: We definitely wanted Helmut Kohl to win again.
SPIEGEL: Because you were afraid of a potential chancellor Oskar Lafontaine?
Rice: We were pretty clear about where Helmut Kohl stood. And that was important. Germany was about to unify. That seemed unthinkable for so long -- and you sure don't want anything to go wrong with a German chancellor who suddenly might decide that maybe Germany ought to unify more slowly or in some kind of transitional way. The details mattered. Membership in NATO mattered. The speed mattered.
SPIEGEL: And that would have been jeopardized under a Chancellor Lafontaine?
Rice: It's inconceivable that any German chancellor could have said, "I don't want Germany to unify." But it is conceivable that you could have had some long transition or a scenario where West Germany is not the surviving state and East Germany goes away, which was how we viewed unification. We had similar concerns about German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, who also seemed to think of the unification process as more of a merger. I preferred to see it as an acquisition.
SPIEGEL: Did you consider Helmut Kohl to be a weak chancellor at the time?
Rice: I know there were questions about him in Germany, but sometimes if you act like a strong chancellor, you are a strong chancellor. He acted very strong in the face of what was happening.
SPIEGEL: Overall, how would you characterize his role?
Rice: I think it was dynamic, and it was visionary, and it was both politically risky and politically correct what he did -- right down to the question about the one-for-one exchange rate between the deutsche mark (in West Germany) and the ostmark (in East Germany). I know many financial and economic experts have criticized that move. But I think Chancellor Kohl saw it politically. The "Allianz für Deutschland" in the East had to win that first election in East Germany so that the Allianz and the CDU/CSU could outline the terms of German unification. I actually think that the one-for-one exchange was politically one of the most brilliant strokes in the whole period.
SPIEGEL: In retrospect, what would you have done differently during the negiations about the unification process?
Rice: I'm sure there were small tactical things that could have been done differently, but how could it have come out better? Germany fully integrated and united with its democratic institutions intact, integrated in Europe, integrated in NATO and the American presence is secure in Europe.
SPIEGEL: But the economic price was steep. Did anyone foresee the miserable shape of the East German economy?
Rice: No. I was an East Europeanist, and the GDR was always held up as the most successful of the East European states. It looks like the East Germans themselves didn't know how bad the situation was and how much money they owed.
SPIEGEL: Could the relationship with Russia have been handled differently? Twenty years later, Moscow still appears resentful over the outcome.
Rice: I think the Russian frustration dates more to the collapse of the Soviet Union and the period in the early 1990s when many Russians saw the privatization of the Boris Yeltsin years as deprivation and humiliation and chaos. It is a troubled country and it has not found a sustainable post-imperial identity.
SPIEGEL: As George W. Bush's national security advisor, you expressed frustration with then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's opposition to the Iraq war. Did you perceive the Germans as being ungrateful?
Rice: Allies have a right to disagree. My only disappointment about Iraq was the picture of the German chancellor standing with the French president and the Russian president to protest the war. I have no problem with Germany disagreeing, but the Russian president should not have been standing there, given our history. Friends disagree, but symbols matter.
SPIEGEL: Did the united Germany turn out to be the US ally that you hoped it to be?
Rice: Germany is a terrific ally and an ally whose role is still evolving. I find it remarkable what Germany has done in Afghanistan. I understand the debate about caveats, etc. -- but given where Germany was even 10 years ago, it is amazing that Germany's role has evolved that much. No, I think Germany is a really good ally.
SPIEGEL: Madame Secretary, we thank you for this conversation.