A United Germany at 25

Karen Donfried

The German Marshall Fund of the United States

AGI is pleased to present this collection of essays reflecting on the 25th anniversary of German unification in October 2015. We are grateful to those who have contributed to this collection, all of whom have been affiliated with and supported the Institute in many different capacities. These essays leave us with thoughts not only about the past, but also about the future of German-American relations. Be sure to check back throughout the week for additional insights.

Twenty-five years on, it is hard for many to remember that nothing about German unification was preordained. Leaders at the time seized an extraordinary moment and created new realities on the ground. The twenty-fifth anniversary of Germany’s unification gives us the chance to remember and celebrate the remarkable outcome. Those reflections should also inspire us to look for opportunities today to make our world better.

If we flash back to 1990, the one capital that celebrated Germany’s unity with unbridled enthusiasm was Washington, DC. President George H.W. Bush and his team didn’t share the fears of most of Germany’s neighbors that unification would again lead to a Germany too big and too strong to be balanced by the other continental powers. Instead they saw the incredible opportunity of a Europe on a path to being “whole and free” after decades of imposed division. U.S. policymakers engaged in first-rate diplomacy from the moment the Berlin Wall fell to achieve an outcome of unification less than one year later. President Bush had already espoused the view of Germans as “partners in leadership” back in May of 1989 to mark forty years of the Federal Republic. For Americans, the prospect of unification conjured up images of a future Germany that would continue to be imbedded deeply in European and transatlantic structures, but would be economically and politically stronger and thus a better partner for the United States.

Even today, however, Germans are still reluctant to speak of German “leadership.” “Responsibility” is their term of choice. Bush spoke of responsibility as the “constant companion” of leadership. Leadership remains a loaded term for Germans even seventy years after World War II and 100 years after World War I. President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen all spoke about the need for greater German foreign and security policy responsibility at the 2014 Munich Security Conference. Whatever term one wants to use, Germany in 2015 is in fact exercising greater responsibility, dare I say leadership, especially in Europe.

Today, Germany is taking the lead on managing three simultaneous crises on the European continent relating to the euro zone, Ukraine, and migration. With regard to the euro zone, Germany, as the largest economy, played the decisive role in securing a third bailout package for Greece. Without German support, Greece might have been forced to abandon the common currency. While some argued that Greece, comprising only 2 percent of the euro zone economy, could have left with little impact on the monetary union and the European economy overall, no one could predict accurately what the implications of a “Grexit” would have been and respected economists warned of negative consequences. Greece’s willingness to meet the terms of a deal was paramount, but German commitment to European integration was another key element informing Chancellor Merkel’s support for that third package.

On Ukraine, Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea last year and the ongoing violence in the east of Ukraine instigated by Russian-backed separatists have upended the post-Cold War European security order. In the United States, there was bipartisan unity in support of putting in place sanctions to punish Russia for its aggression. In Europe, the 28 member states of the European Union have different histories and present-day economic and political relationships with Russia; forging a common policy on sanctions was accordingly difficult. Chancellor Angela Merkel became the pivotal figure in crafting an EU consensus to implement successive rounds of sanctions. The chancellor is criticized by those Germans who want to see the country return to a “normal” relationship with Russia, while President Barack Obama is criticized for not doing enough to support the Ukrainians. In fact, many critics in Washington argue that the president has outsourced his policy to Chancellor Merkel. Criticism aside, the balance of opinion on both sides of the Atlantic holds that the unity of response embodied by the close cooperation between Merkel and Obama over Ukraine has been a powerful counter to Russian President Vladimir Putin that he had not expected.

On migration, Europe is facing an influx of refugees and asylum-seekers not seen on the European continent since World War II. The German government estimates that roughly 800,000 people, equaling almost 1 percent of Germany’s population, will seek asylum there this year. That would be the equivalent of 3.2 million refugees to the United States. The numbers are staggering. The entire continent is struggling to deal with the influx, with Germany accepting the largest number of asylum-seekers to date. All eyes are on Germany to see if Chancellor Merkel can galvanize the EU to forge a common policy to try to manage this issue both humanely and effectively.

In her ZDF summer interview, the chancellor noted that the related questions of how to handle the refugees, how to work with African neighbors, and how to find diplomatic solutions to civil wars will occupy us “very, very much more” than the question about Greece and the stability of the euro. All evidence suggests the migration crisis will prove to be even more divisive than the euro zone crisis. The challenge will be for the chancellor and her EU counterparts to make a solution to the crisis the next big European project that can showcase the ability of the 28 to work together effectively. EU citizens need to be reminded of the power of solidarity at a time when populism is running strong at the national level.

President Gauck will visit the White House and meet with President Obama on October 7 to mark the 25th anniversary of German unification. There are few Germans who capture better the incredible evolution over this past quarter century than Germany’s current leadership of President Gauck and Chancellor Merkel, who both grew up in the East. And Gauck’s voice is one of the most forthright on Germany’s role in the world.

German-American partnership was critical to Germany’s unification back in 1990. German-American partnership will be essential to stabilizing the global economy, addressing humanitarian crises of almost unprecedented proportions, and maintaining the liberal world order that both countries have worked so hard to build and sustain over the past seven decades. The challenges to that order are clear and we will be stronger in meeting them if we act together.

Dr. Karen Donfried is president of The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF).  

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.