The first free election in Poland, in 1989, produced a government that was led by Solidarnosz activist Tadeusz Mazowiecki. Moscow’s decision to accept the election results paved the way for other countries in the former Soviet bloc to challenge communism. Those tipping points between late 1988 and the summer of 1989 led to cascading effects that needed to be handled with extreme care. For example, in October 1988, during German Chancellor Kohl’s visit to Moscow, Gorbachev stressed that the solution to the German problem would remain on the timetable of long-term history; by June 1989, Moscow and Bonn would issue a joint declaration that highlighted “the unqualified recognition of the integrity and security of every state and its right to choose freely its own political and social system as well as unqualified adherence to the norms and principles of international law, especially respect for the right of peoples to self-determination.” Within a few months, the long-term perspective had turned into a short-term strategic opportunity. The joint declaration opened the possibility of German self-determination through free elections, which were eventually held in March 1990. In essence, unification was a real possibility if the German people would choose it; the bottom-up and top-down processes toward German unification would need to align.
Unification diplomacy in 1989-90 was embedded in the central European institutions – especially NATO and the European Economic Community – created in the late 1940s. The framework was designed to accommodate the enhanced material power of a united Germany without upsetting the European security system. Alternative proposals such as German neutrality or double membership in both NATO and the Warsaw Pact did not get enough traction. Embedding unification within the framework of European security institutions was also a reflection of Germany’s long record of self-constraint to the extent that it had become oblivious to power. Without this pre-existing institutional framework and accumulated trust, it would have been extremely difficult for its Western neighbors to support German unification. As far as Germany’s NATO membership is concerned, even Gorbachev (and the small circle of advisers around him) finally seemed to accept the logic that a united Germany outside the Atlantic Alliance could carry with it the potential for an independent and renationalized security policy, with the possibility of subsequent nuclear armament. This does not mean that the wider military and political elite in the Soviet Union endorsed this policy, but they were too weak to decisively influence policies at that stage.
While the previous subsections highlighted key tipping points of the European security system that were actively promoted by the key stakeholders to achieve peaceful change, other tipping points were carefully prevented, or at least suspended, until unification was achieved. There were serious concerns about nuclear anarchy in the Soviet Union and violent conflict in East Germany, respectively, in the case of an uncontrolled breakdown of government and law and order. As Kaiser highlighted, quoting a White House source, “Every morning a silent prayer was said in the White House to keep Gorbachev alive and in power.” Furthermore, Kohl provided substantial loans to Gorbachev, some of them interest-free, to stabilize the rapidly deteriorating Soviet economy.
The East German economic collapse, accelerated by the mass exodus of skilled labor to West Germany, could have derailed the unification process. Yet, rather than stabilizing the economy through loans, the Kohl government used the downward momentum to mobilize the people of East Germany to vote in favor of unification in the March 1990 general elections; given the dire state of the East German economy, it was effectively a vote in favor of the Deutsche mark.
In drawing potential lessons for the Korean peninsula, three points seem to be in order. First, North Korean contingencies could easily create tipping points that escalate into a direct Sino-US military confrontation on the Korean peninsula, if the risks of misperception and miscalculation are not carefully managed. Consultation and coordination are therefore crucial for effective crisis management. Second, to successfully navigate potential tipping points, South Korea needs to have effective strategic levers in place with the United States, China and North Korea.