Updated: 22-Apr-2002 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 41 - No. 2
p. 15-22


Bregor Schöllgen,
Professor of Modern and Contemporary History
at the University of Erlangen, Germany

As 1990 ended and 1991 began, Germany's foreign policy was in a difficult position. A year earlier, on 9 November 1989, the Wall - the very symbol of German division - had come down. Then, following the signing on 12 September 1990 of the so-called Two-Plus-Four Treaty by the allies - victors of the Second World War - and the two German states, German unification was celebrated in Berlin only a few weeks later on 3 October 1990.

This all occurred at a time, half a century after the Second World War, when very few people, even few Germans, thought this could ever come about. But it was not only the actual event and the timing of the fall of the Wall that were surprising; the greatest surprise of all was the speed of unification which virtually no one at the end of 1989 would have believed possible.

Events came fast and furious. Quite suddenly - and thoroughly unprepared - the Federal Republic of Germany found itself playing an unfamiliar and unwanted role: namely that of a European great power. And, as if that were not enough, it was also asked to play its new role immediately. The difficult international crises of the winter of 1990-1991 in Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly in the Middle East, clearly confronted German foreign policy with an almost insoluble task. Conclusions can be drawn from these experiences and an understanding gained as to what the foreign policy objectives of the great-power Federal Republic ought to be, what they cannot be, and what should be avoided, following unification.

It would seem reasonable, therefore, to begin by looking back at German foreign policy during the crises of January and February 1991; then examine the historical and political reasons for at least the partial policy setbacks; and finally draw some conclusions for the future.

Crises in early 1991

Less than four months after unification, some of Germany's allies and neighbours had become irritated, even enraged by the Germans. What had happened? During the night of 16 January 1991, an allied coalition of 29 countries had entered into military confrontation with Iraq. The coalition was acting upon a unanimous resolution passed by the United Nations Security Council in which Iraq had been given an ultimatum to withdraw from Kuwait, a country it had taken by force on 2 August 1990. The recently united Federal Republic of Germany - including its public, its media and above all its political representatives - was obliged to adopt a stance and decide how to react.

There was no dispute about the fact that, in the political circumstances, and in view of the provisions of the German Basic Law, no German army units could be despatched to join the allied coalition, in other words, to take part in military operations outside the NATO area. However, the fact that leading exponents of German policy had nothing to say, temporarily leaving the international image of the Republic in the hands of a noisy minority which was critical of the allies, was surprising and indeed damaging to Germany. What was expected of Germany concerning participation beyond its borders, was not just measured in terms of the possible. That level of participation was taken as read, and was indeed provided, and in no small measure, ranging from the provision of German territory for coordination centres for supplies to the Gulf, to the delivery of massive quantities of weapons and materiel and, after some discussion, the payment of considerable sums of money.

It was, incidentally, just this indirect support which led the foreign media to deride German policy as 'cheque book diplomacy'. And yet Germany's activities were in no way limited to material support. German army units took part in NATO's preventative military measures to deter an attack on Turkey, an Alliance partner. Finally, a few weeks after hostilities had come to an end, but before the signing of the final ceasefire, German minesweepers were sent to the Persian Gulf. It is indicative of the deep-rooted insecurity of German policy during this crisis that these measures were decided upon and carried out in virtual secrecy, hidden from the public, and in those cases where this was impossible, for example when participation in NATO activities was involved, it gave rise to a very unconvincing public debate.

As already mentioned, the Alliance took all this support as read, but more was expected. First of all, it was felt that there should be a prompt, public declaration of solidarity with the Allied forces by leading representatives of all the political parties and, in particular, by the Federal Government, which could have taken the form of top level visits to London, Paris, Washington or Rome.

Astonishment grew as a considerable amount of time passed and still there was no clear, public declaration of support for the very Alliance and Allies on which the Germans, for their part, had been able to depend for more than 40 years, and which ultimately supported the agreement on German unification - a decision which had weighed heavily on the hearts of some of its neighbours.

These irritations are perceptible to this day. The fact that they caused no damage to Bonn's relations with its Allies was clearly a result of increased self-confidence as the West emerged supreme from the diplomatic and unexpected military crisis in the Gulf. Furthermore, there was also the notion that the larger Federal Republic of Germany would in future serve as a stabilizing factor in Europe. Just a few months later, this was to be confirmed by developments in south-east Europe, but above all by the dramatic events in the Soviet Union - the failed coup, the dissolution of the Soviet Communist Party and the collapse of the USSR.

Foreign policy paralysis

There were four reasons why the demands placed on German foreign policy seemed too heavy in the first few weeks of 1991:

  1. It had been made clear to the Germans at the end of the Second World War that the age of active great-power politics was over once and for all - in other words that no one had forgotten Germany's ambitions in the first half of the century. For its former war-time adversaries, the Third Reich, and the war which Hitler had unleashed, were only the most recent expressions of a long and seemingly unbroken tradition beginning with Frederick the Great and the emergence of Prussia as a great power. Thus, the Allies' aim had not only been to eradicate National Socialism, but also to crush the great power that the German Reich constituted together with its Prussian origins. Accordingly, Germany's consciousness of power had been systematically eradicated, firstly from the outside by the victorious allied forces of the Second World War, and then from within by national feelings of guilt, the extent of which, instead of fostering an appropriate process of coming to terms with the past, did precisely the opposite, actually preventing this from happening.

  2. This development was barely noticed at first because the room for manoeuvre for German foreign policy, even after the 1949-1955 period, was severely limited. Until October 1990, foreign policy, as far as Berlin and the country as a whole were concerned, was subject to allied reservations, thus Germany's ability to act on certain vital questions was, at best, constrained. Furthermore, since the defence of the Federal Republic was unthinkable without the Alliance, this in turn gave rise to clear foreign policy constraints. Changes of direction or corrections to foreign policy - as with Ostpolitik (1) and German policy during the 1969-73 period were, therefore, always made after close consultation with the Western powers and with their agreement. So it should come as no surprise that German foreign policy seemed helpless and overtaxed in 1990, when the country unexpectedly had to act as a sovereign state and a major European power.

  3. There was also a very conspicuous and deeply felt scepticism among some of Germany's neighbours about the rapid pace of unification, despite the events of 9 November 1989. Old fears, which had led to the eradication of the German Reich as a great power, were resurrected and, in some quarters, publicly articulated. It cannot be refuted that, for these reasons, from the point of view of the Allied nations (not to mention Israel), the prospect of German troops being engaged outside NATO territory during the weeks and months following unification was scarcely desirable, even hard to envisage.

  4. There were also political reasons why German foreign policy, confronted in equal measure by these old prejudices, reservations and impediments and by new challenges, appeared to be paralysed in January and February 1991.

In the difficult international situation during this period, there were in fact two crises from a German point of view, the dramatic developments in Eastern and Central Europe being no less explosive than the war in the geographically more distant Persian Gulf. In any event, Germany, at the crossroads between East and West, was particularly affected by the events in Eastern Europe and by the progressive collapse of the Soviet empire. At that time, there were still some 350,000 Red Army troops on German soil, equipped with state-of-the-art weapons as well as tactical nuclear arms; and this was the same Red Army that had only recently been deployed in great numbers to try to put down the struggle for independence in Lithuania. After all, the Two-Plus-Four Treaty and the treaty on the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Eastern Germany were not ratified by the Supreme Soviet until 4 March and 2 April 1991 respectively.

Furthermore, from a Western point of view, the Soviet Union had committed major violations against the spirit and letter of the first Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, signed on 19 November 1990 in the margins of the Paris CSCE Summit. At the beginning of February 1991, one of the consequences of this became apparent when the US postponed ratification of the Treaty. This affected Germany too, because the bargaining chip to win Soviet agreement to Germany's unification, and in particular its membership of NATO, was for Germany's entire armed forces to be considerably reduced. Finally, the dissolution of the military structure of the Warsaw Pact - agreed on 25 February 1991 and effective as of 1 April 1991 - was in no way a source of comfort: the danger of a military vacuum in Central and Eastern Europe could not be denied, given the events in the Balkan states of Yugoslavia and Albania. It is clear that all of these developments had major consequences for Germany as one of the most eastern partners in the Western Alliance.

Limits and challenges

The Germany of January 1991 was not the same as the Germany of January 1990. This was not only due to its new status under international law but also to a side effect of the unification process - which at first was grossly underestimated - namely, that in the eyes of many observers, the larger Germany was inevitably seen to constitute more than a prosperous medium-sized power securely positioned on the leeward side of the East-West conflict. This leads to a number of conclusions concerning Germany's future foreign policy, including both its opportunities and limitations.

It is here that the history of Prussia and Germany has something to teach us: a country that is geostrategically so prominent and that has the economic potential of Germany with a powerful, hi-tech army (despite many self-imposed restrictions), and which has considerable territory as a result of unification of the two German states (357,000 square kilometres), and which by European standards has an above average number of inhabitants (80 million), is no medium-sized European power. If one also takes into account the enormous appeal - for many different reasons - that Germany has for a growing number of people, countries and regions, then Germany, following the dramatic and radical changes of 1989-1990, undoubtedly now finds itself in the position of a potential great power. This also applies if one compares the situation with traditional European great powers such as France and the United Kingdom, and even if one takes into account the fact that Germany, unlike France and the UK, has no permanent seat on the UN Security Council, nor is it a nuclear power.

But the collapse of the Soviet empire, the destruction of Yugoslavia, the breakup of Czechoslovakia, as well as other developments, inevitably mean a further relative increase in the weight of Germany within the European community of nations, even if the problems of the unification process and the onset of a recession would at times seem to paint a different picture. Here, the dramatic nature and speed of the radical changes on the international scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s become particularly apparent. If the division of Germany after 1945 was one of the causes of the Cold War with its dangerous crises and decades of tension, then the united Germany - the major power in the middle of Europe - now represents for many people, a guarantee of the continent's political and economic stability. Germany's foreign policy must be based on this new situation and on the risks and opportunities it entails, but also, and above all, on the responsibility that it brings with it.

It is true, however, that this new Germany is firmly bound together with the European and Atlantic communities and, as such, is still unable in some respects to take decisions and actions in isolation. Equally, we cannot tell for the time being whether, when, how and to what end Germany will deploy and use its power. For that, the country's new status arrived too unexpectedly and too quickly: a 'thirst for power' which played a central role in Prussian-German foreign policy up to 1945, and which used to be seen as a necessary component of great-power politics, is not so far discernable. More importantly, the debates concerning a German immigration law or the future role of the Bundeswehr reveal considerable insecurity, even impotence.

The ability to adopt great-power policies is there, however, provided the given preconditions for a targeted display of power are met; but such a demonstration does not necessarily need to be belligerent. This is a fact that seems to be well known to those near and far-flung neighbours who, through the division of Germany and the implementation of other measures, dismantled this potential after 1945 because they wanted to prevent, for all time, the re-emergence of a German great power.

There are therefore hidden dangers in the new role, but also, and not least, opportunities; the role is primarily, however, bound up with expectations and demands from outside the new greater Federal Republic. But one thing is certain: while the division of Germany was forced on it from the outside, which could, for example, be used as an argument for restrained action in the face of international obligations, then unification was a deep-rooted German aspiration that had existed since 1949 - indeed it was very nearly the main single aim of post-war German foreign policy. Federal German politicians had consistently pointed out that the German people had not forfeited the right "to bring to completion the unity and freedom of Germany in free self-determination". These politicians may or may not have believed this, even wanted it or striven for it. But then, suddenly, it was there: unity, and with it the new challenges and obligations as well as the expectations of other nations. Germany will have to come to terms with this and it must be a conscious act.

The opportunities

German foreign policy has much to do, but can also achieve much in counteracting the re-emergence of old images of Germany. This includes for the new greater Germany the recognition of the fact that a German great power may not always, and only, do what others perceive to be 'normal' and which for them is a matter of course. The political leaders of the German Reich, which had been united since 1871, had already been confronted by this same problem, particularly in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, and they, too, had been unable to deal with it. There are economic, political, geographic, military and historical reasons for this problem which should be recognized.

It goes without saying that Germany's commitment to the United Nations should increase; this would include the placing of German troops under UN command and the participation of German military units in allied actions with a UN mandate, as is the case of the NATO AWACS mission in Bosnia. A country that, to a large extent, owes its existence and the achievement of its most important aim - unification after decades of separation - to the development of peace since 1945-49, should not refuse to participate in the defence or restoration of that peaceful world order, if that is what the international community demands. In the final analysis, Germany, too, has a vital interest in combatting the causes of mass migration - systematic genocide, the expulsion of large numbers of people, or mass starvation - where this is possible using economic or humanitarian means or, in extreme cases, by taking joint military action.

Above all, Germany's new status means that cooperative efforts in Europe must be continued and intensified to achieve European integration, where this is meaningful and possible. The Federal Republic of Germany, since the beginning, has supported European Union because such a Union promised, on the one hand, to make a major contribution to resolving the problem of the division of the country, while, on the other, it held out the prospect of economic prosperity. As Germany shared this second goal with all its partners, it was and remains important to draw attention to the most notable successes in the field of economic integration. In this respect, the European Community has had some difficulties, but it is in general a convincingly effective community, and, as has been shown by the creation of the European Economic Area (EEA), a highly attractive one.

Whether, when and in what form 'monetary union' can be achieved, including the setting up of a Central European Bank or the introduction of a currency acceptable to all member states, is unclear. The same applies to 'political union', the creation of which has been of particular interest to German foreign policy since the early 1950s. Germany was active in proposing European Political Cooperation (EPC) and the Single European Act. Just how little has been achieved in terms of a common European foreign policy since this obligation was first laid down on 1 July 1987 is demonstrated by the lack of a coordinated plan in the build-up to, and during, the war in the Persian Gulf as well as the failure of a European policy in the war in the former Yugoslavia.

Ultimately, both wars have reawakened thoughts of a European Defence Community which failed back in 1954, but which, since that time, has continued to exist albeit in a rudimentary form, in the Western European Union. Crises and war in Yugoslavia have shown that here, too, progress must be made. It was in this context, in the summer of 1991, that a few European countries - France and Germany for example - began calling for the creation of the political conditions for the formation of a European intervention force. The joint initiative of 14 October 1991 by the German Chancellor and the French President was intended to be an initial step towards this goal. The proposals, which included intensification of Franco-German military cooperation and creation of a "Eurocorps", were aimed at creating a coordinated security and defence policy for Europeans within the framework of the WEU.

What was remarkable, and indeed characteristic of the situation, were the perceptions and reactions of Germany's partners with regard to this initiative. Some partners, including Italy and the UK, immediately voiced their reservations, seeing among other things, the danger of an erosion of the NATO Alliance and thereby an effective, disproportionate strengthening of Germany - in the long term - at the expense of some of its European partners. The prevention of just such a development with a simultaneous strengthening of Europe under French control at the expense of the Atlantic Alliance could, on the other hand, have been France's motivation for the initiative. This is somewhat reminiscent of the situation in the early 1960s and the then insoluble German dilemma of having to choose either the Gaullist, French option or the Atlantic, American option, while being unable to do without either.

It was, and is, no coincidence that the main objective of France's German policy has been firmly to link the Federal Republic to a multi-dimensional European community. French initiatives to found European institutions that included Germany were also attempts to bind Germany permanently and thus to prevent it from ever again becoming a great power. This was true of the European Coal and Steel Community founded in 1951, the failed European Defence Community (EDC) of 1954, and the founding of the European Atomic (Euratom) and Economic Communities in 1957; and it is also true of France's policy on Maastricht. Even today, Europe still signifies a form of protection against Germany - and not just in the view of the French. The developments of 1990-1991, i.e., the unification of Germany, the collapse of the Soviet empire and the radical change in Central and Eastern Europe, were accompanied by a relative weakening of France's great power position in Europe, a position established with some difficulty after 1945.

Among the conclusions which can be drawn from these facts is, first of all, that Franco-German cooperation, which was laid down in the January 1963 Franco-German Treaty, and ultimately considerably expanded with the creation in 1988 of a joint Defence and Security Council, will remain a central pillar ofGerman foreign policy even after unification. However, this is likely to prevent the Germans from adopting those special political initiatives and national profile-enhancing actions in which major powers tend to engage. This applies to German foreign policy in general but to Ostpolitik in particular. Of course a country such as Germany, especially now that it is united, is unable to forgo an active Ostpolitik; it is part of this country's destiny because of its geographical proximity tothe countries of Eastern Europe, the long tradition of good political, economic and cultural relations, as well as by the moral obligation imposed by the legacy of major conflicts, deep crises and costly wars. History moulds our future, affecting Germany's relations with the Czech and Slovak Republics and the new states on the territory of the former Soviet Union; it also has a particular bearing on Germany's relations with its neighbour to the East, Poland, which are likely to prove just as important as its relations with France, its neighbour to the West.

Cooperative approach to Ostpolitik

In the future, Germany should avoid going it alone as far as Ostpolitik is concerned, even if this possibility is open to it. There are four reasons for this:

  1. The strong economic support required by the countries of Eastern Europe, in particular the new states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, can only be organized at an international level. Here, Germany - acting quite understandably in its own self-interest - must press for a concerted aid programme, evenly spreading the burden to all the leading industrial countries, including the US and Japan.

  2. And then there is the memory of the past which, particularly in the case of Germany's allies, continues to raise the question of German-Russian relations. These memories may seem anachronistic from a German viewpoint, but they do exist and perceptions influence policy. For some Western observers, these relations are all linked to the so-called 'Rapallo Complex'. It was on 16 April 1922 in Rapallo that, to the surprise of the Western powers, the German Reich and Soviet Russia, the two losers of the First World War, signed treaties on such vital issues as reparations and pre-war debts. Contrary to some of the opinions expressed even to this day, no secret military alliance was agreed upon and there were no secret discussions on a joint attack on Poland. From a Western perspective, however, the secret supplementary accord in the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939 seemed, once it became known, to justify the existence of the 'Rapallo Complex'. This then became a preoccupation of the Western media, particularly in France, most recently on the occasion of the July 1990 German-Soviet Summit meeting of Chancellor Kohl and President Gorbachev in the Caucasus. It would seem reasonable to suppose that, in future, the new Germany's contacts with Russia will be viewed even more closely from this historical perspective than was the case with the contacts established by the old Germany with the Soviet Union.

  3. In addition, the CSCE provides a forum that makes bilateral contact possible, even on issues that traditionally are viewed with mistrust by others. In any event, since the mandates issued by the Vienna follow-up meeting (1986-1989), the CSCE formed the framework both for the negotiations on Confidence- and Security-Building Measures (CSBMs) and for the negotiations on the Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. To date, the CSCE represents the only available, and to some extent proven, framework for resolving disputes that encompasses all European countries. A country such as the Federal Republic of Germany, lying as it does so close to areas of crisis, must have a special interest in the future development of the CSCE process.

  4. The US is just as much a part of the CSCE as any other member. This fact is particularly important - and will continue to be so - because it will prevent the US from becoming isolated. It should be remembered that originally, it was primarily Germany that made American participation in a European security conference a condition of its own participation. It is also for this reason that any thought of going it alone in terms of Ostpolitik must be avoided. To date, Germany's security has been guaranteed by the Western Alliance and thus, not least, by the supremacy of that Alliance. For the foreseeable future, this situation will remain almost completely unchanged, if only because of the incalculable and potentially dangerous developments - for Germany too - in Central and Eastern Europe and on the periphery of the continent. The dramatic hours at the beginning of the failed coup in the Soviet Union in August 1991 clearly confirmed this once again. Given these circumstances, Germany cannot establish relations, particularly with the states on the territory of the former Soviet Union, without giving consideration to what is still its most important Western partner; and of course in no way can it establish relations that act against the interests of that partner.

This may be more difficult for a larger Germany to accept than for a smaller one but it cannot be avoided. Indeed, it has seldom been the case in history that the weaker partner has dictated the stronger partner's foreign policy, and when on one occasion this did happen, as in the case of Germany and Austro-Hungary starting in 1908, the consequences were catastrophic. Moreover, on some issues, the direct interlocutor of the American Superpower can only be the Superpower that is the successor to the Soviet Union; and despite everything, it is still Russia that fulfils this function, and it will continue to be Russia for as long as that nation remains the only other country, apart from the United States, that possesses strategic nuclear weapons and thereby the capacity for global annihilation. This is demonstrated by the bilateral START Treaties.

None of this implies that there can be no active German Ostpolitik within the European context, quite the contrary. In future, Germany's Ostpolitik will be just as indispensable a contribution to international crisis management as it was in the 1970s when it played a central role as a regional expression of a global policy of détente. At that time, too, it was operated in close consultation with Germany's partners; but this means of course that all the partners must treat each other as true partners.

What this precisely means for Germany is that discussions which took place during the Gulf War concerning the limits of obligations towards Turkey, a NATO Ally, were misguided. The question of whether to send a Bundesmarine destroyer into a crisis zone as part of a UN inspection mission within the framework of a WEU action and as part of a NATO unit must not be the topic of endless discussions as in the summer of 1992. Finally, it was rather difficult to understand Germany's long deliberations early in 1993 on whether to leave the Bundesluftwaffe crews on board NATO AWACS planes carrying out UN resolutions concerning the protection of the peoples of Bosnia.

It was also not easy to understand, at least for many foreign observers, why genuine political decisions on obligations towards the UN, WEU or NATO are being pushed off onto the Constitutional Court. Even the Hohenzollerns in the 17th and 18th centuries emphasized that alliances represented indispensable guarantees for the existence and security of the power in the centre of Europe. Of course these alliances never came free of charge: Bismarck, looking at the great power that he had formed in the German Reich, argued that alliances were based on reciprocity. And despite all the other changes that have taken place, that argument is still as true today.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.