Taking Stock in United Germany at 25 Years

James D. Bindenagel

University of Bonn

James D. Bindenagel is a retired U.S. Ambassador, Henry-Kissinger-Professor (Emeritus) at Bonn University, and Senior Non-Resident Transatlantic Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He has published: Germany: From Peace to Power? Can Germany Lead in Europe without Dominating it? (2020) and International Sicherheit im 21. Jahrhundert, Deutschlands Verantwortung (2015), both published by V&R Bonn for Bonn University.

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.

On the night of October 2, 1990, U.S. Ambassador to the German Democratic Republic Richard Barkley gathered his staff as we closed the embassy and celebrated German unification.  In the embassy’s last telegram we recalled the words of President John F. Kennedy when he said: “Two thousand years ago the proudest boast was ‘civis Romanus sum.’ Today, in the world of freedom, the proudest boast is ‘Ich bin ein Berliner.’”  At German unification the freedom Kennedy had hoped for was finally shared in all Berlin. Freedom is the foundation for the Charter of Paris’ new vision of Europe.

On this 25th anniversary, it is time to assess united Germany today. The Peaceful Revolution brought freedom to all Germans. The Charter of Paris, signed in November 1990, enshrined the principles of freedom, democracy, and rule of law as underpinning a new, peaceful European order.

To be sure, the fears of the rise of the Fourth Reich were never realized.  Germany chose its future in a united Europe and NATO and committed itself to a constitutional guarantee of inviolability of human dignity. Still, its power and influence have greatly increased in recent years. It may be a reluctant hegemon, but it is now the leader in shaping Europe’s future.

German history remains an important driving factor in German policymaking.  Germany remains conscious of its historical baggage, and rightly so. It should not let its history become an obstacle to its future.

President Joachim Gauck called on Germany to accept greater international responsibility.  During the past quarter century U.S. and German leaders have consulted, collaborated, and also disagreed on economic, energy, climate, political, and security policies. There was never a one-way street in setting policy and, while also disagreeing on policies, the U.S. and Germany have shaped global developments.

Germany has shown it is willing and able to stand up to Washington on matters Germans consider principled interests and has tried to influence U.S. policy in a way that was both in its own but also in Washington’s best interest.  Differences after 25 years need not lead to divergence. A closer look reveals that Germany has an important and leading role, although it has perhaps played its part in a less visible and open manner than it does—or may be forced to do—today. Consequently, Germany has also long influenced American and transatlantic policies.

Security policy dominates the transatlantic debate.  At unification, united Germany continued its NATO membership, deeper European integration, and transatlantic ties.  The breakup of Yugoslavia revealed a critical security policy divergence. Germany and the Europeans, after having just benefited from the right to self-determination, advocated the same for Slovenia and Croatia. However, as Bosnia descended into Serbian ethnic cleansing, the United States’ policy of “Lift and Strike” (lift the arms embargo and strike the Serbian Army) was rejected.

The U.S. was drawn into that conflict and, together with the Germans, finally reached the Dayton Accords. In 1999, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer agreed to intervene militarily, the first aggressive military action for Germany since the Second World War, in a NATO campaign to end ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. This joint action was instrumental in the creation of the United Nations Responsibility to Protect Principles (R2P).  However, when these principles were tested in Libya, the divergence over the utility of military force resulted in a German abstention from a UN vote over mandating a NATO intervention, and subsequently withdrawal of its naval ships, raised questions about Germany’s reliability in NATO.

Gerhard Schröder and the German people stood shoulder-to-shoulder in solidarity with the U.S. after the September 11, 2001, al-Qaeda terrorist attacks. The Bundeswehr deployed to Afghanistan ISAF’s third-largest military contingent.  Solidarity did not simply follow when Chancellor Schröder rejected German participation in the 2003 Iraq War. Now, in response to the challenge posed by the rise of the Islamic State (IS), Germany has fundamentally revised a core principle of its foreign policy—not to export weapons to war zones—and has delivered weapons to the Kurdish Peshmerga fighting IS.

Germany along with France and the United Kingdom—the EU3—addressed the Iranian nuclear weapons threat with participation from the U.S., China, and Russia to form the P5+1 negotiation. The recently-concluded agreement to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon for fifteen years achieved a key non-proliferation goal.

NATO and the European Union have brought security and market economics to new democracies and called for them to become members of NATO and the EU. Security in a united Europe, particularly to those countries exposed to instability in Central and Eastern Europe, offered by NATO and the EU community allows them to build democracy and achieve prosperity.  Early German support and the reform efforts of the Central and Eastern European states played a critical role in winning the support of the Clinton administration for this strategy of “democratic enlargement.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin may suggest NATO is a threat to Russia, but he has undermined transatlantic peace through his invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken the lead with Putin to stabilize the region through the Minsk Process and kept in close coordination with President Barack Obama. The world is changing.

The U.S. and Germany are working to bolster the Article 5 commitment to come to the aid of their allies in the face of the Russian threat, and Germany has worked to reassure its NATO partners by taking the lead in setting up NATO’s new Spearhead response force.  However, a recent Pew poll shows only 38 percent of the German public would support military action if a NATO partner were attacked by Russia.  That doubt on the use of military force to fulfill the NATO guarantee is worrisome.

Germany’s successes count, but uncertainties remain.  A quarter century after unification, Germany has become Europe’s leading power, deeply committed to the values of the transatlantic relationship, and increasingly wielding its influence on American policy.

The U.S. has addressed global issues.  President Obama has engaged globally with Xi Jinping and China to navigate the tricky waters in East Asia with a policy of economic cooperation with the Transpacific Partnership and security stability of existing agreements with Japan, the Republic of Korea, and ANZUS as well as working with ASEAN.

Both President Obama and Chancellor Merkel have their own strategic policies—the U.S. National Strategy of Strategic Patience and a German strategy of leading from the middle as it drafts a new Defense White Paper.  Now a strategic cooperation is needed. The German-American relationship needs a strategic dialog that addresses politics, security, economics, and information to form a coherent security strategy to secure freedom in the twenty-first century.

J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and currently the Henry Kissinger Professor for Governance and International Security, University of Bonn.  He served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in the German Democratic Republic (1989-1990) and as Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy in the Federal Republic of Germany (1994 to 1997).

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