Germany's lessons for Korea
April-June 2017
By: Jochen Prantl and Hyun-Wook Kim

Entry points for unification diplomacy

There were both long-term and short-term entry points for German unification diplomacy. Looked at from a long-term perspective, unification had been the key strategic goal of West German foreign policy since the creation of the federal republic. West Germany’s first chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, argued that the rebuilding of German democracy, economic revival and the full integration of Germany into the European and Atlantic cooperative structures would finally produce unification. Western integration was seen as the sine qua non for achieving this goal.

Yet, with the division of Europe deepening in the 1950s and 1960s, unification became more aspirational than real. A complementary approach was necessary that focused more on the acceptance of the status quo, accompanied by rapprochement and engagement to lower East-West tensions. This became strongly expressed in Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik beginning in 1969 and was sustained by the succeeding chancellorships of Helmut Schmidt and Helmut Kohl. As Karl Kaiser, a former adviser to German governments and now a professor at Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, has rightly observed, “[t]o preserve the essence of a common nation, West German policy inevitably had to deal with an East German state.” The explicit acceptance of the status quo was considered necessary and inevitable in order to change it.

The short-term entry points of German unification diplomacy were at least threefold. First, the constellation of leadership at the highest levels was remarkable. In 1989-90, the cast of leaders in key countries had unusual long-term experience, and had previously cooperated and developed personal relationships, which clearly facilitated what would become “the most intensive phase of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy in European history.” Second, both Moscow and Washington expressed a clear and unequivocal commitment to peaceful change. This was particularly important since East German security forces had made preparations to use armed force to suppress mass demonstrations in Leipzig and Dresden. Yet, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev stressed from the beginning that the East German Politburo’s refusal to engage in controlled reform had become an increasing problem for Moscow. Despite initial discussions about a military intervention in East Germany, he was ultimately unwilling to support any action that could have led to a repeat of the Tiananmen incident. Third, the diplomacy of German unification was driven by a range of tipping points, actual and potential, which defined the pace and the dynamics of the process.

In sum, the long-term and short-term entry points of German unification diplomacy produced a number of strategic opportunities that created new momentum for the redesign of the Cold War European order. Yet these strategic opportunities were accompanied by a clear tactical sense about the institutional process that translated strategies into diplomatic outcomes. Equally important was the agreement on a strategic narrative (“One Europe whole and free”) to generate the necessary “buy-in” from the wider international community. In this context, the two-plus-four process, commencing with the first ministerial meeting in Bonn in May 1990, constituted the strategic hub and “pivot” that allocated roles and responsibilities to bilateral and multilateral forums to discuss the political, economic and military ramifications of German unification. The entry point was the jointly developed agreement by the two German states on the external aspects of unification, which was then communicated to and negotiated with the Four Powers. As a result, German unification was not the result of a major peace conference but of the Treaty on the Final Settlement, signed by the six parties on Sept. 12, 1990, in Moscow.

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