Answering the “German Question,” 1989-1990 The Historical Pivot of Geography

Volume 45 (2011)

Reviewed Work(s)

The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989. Edited by Jeffrey A. Engel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). xii + 186. Hardcover, $27.95.

1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. By Mary Elise Sarotte (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). xvi + 344. Cloth, $29.95/£20.95.

The Routledge Handbook of Transatlantic Security. Edited by Jussi Hanhimäki, Georges-Henri Soutou, and Basil Germond (London: Routledge, 2010). xvii + 313. Hardcover, $199.00.

The Future of NATO: An International Institutions and Global Governance Program Report, Council Special Report 51. By James M. Goldgeier (New York: Council on Foreign Relations Press, 2010). x + 33. Paper, $10.00.


“When our Statesmen are in conversation with the defeated enemy,” wrote Sir Halford John Mackinder, “some airy cherub should whisper to them from time to time this saying: ‘Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland: Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island: Who rules the World-Island commands the World.’”[1] Writing in the wake of Europe’s Great War and as revolution raged across the crumbling Romanov imperium, the father of modern geostrategy responded to the decisive challenges of the day with his famous doctrine, “The Geographical Pivot of History.”

Mackinder and his cohort at the Royal Geographical Society lamented that British practice had devolved into a worldview in which officers played “on a few squares of a chess-board of which the remainder was vacant.”[2] Rather than seeing the strategic fusion of the world that was emerging, few policy-makers observed the world in grand strategic terms, attending only to the minutiæ of policy.[3] Mackinder believed that the country possessing strategic control of Eastern Europe commanded the helm of the Eurasian landmass and thus ordered world supremacy. In his geostrategical formulation, control of the Great European Plain and the Central Highlands extending into Russia determined the “geographical causation in universal history.”[4]

Mackinder proffered a second truth. Dealing a surprising blow to his intellectual compatriots, he suggested that, in the interest of fruitful academic discourse, they unfasten the mantle of greatness enfolding the scepter’d isle, and consider that European civilization was in fact stimulated by the necessity of “reacting against pressure” from the outside world.[5] Faced with perennial threat by the Danes and the Normans, the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of the south had coalesced into the Heptarchy across the early Middle Ages. “[T]he pressure of a common tribulation and under a common necessity of resistance to an external force,” explained Mackinder, forged those previously disparate dominions into a single, more formidable entity. In like fashion, France had achieved its centralized state power in resisting the Huns at Châlons and in the century-long struggle of the Valois Dynasty to expel the Plantagenet claimants back across the Channel. “Making common cause” against their invaders, those warriors “unconsciously weld[ed] together modern France.” Even the pressures of the war with the British Empire forged a single country from thirteen American colonies, according to Mackinder’s formulation. “[I]t was under the pressure of external barbarism that Europe achieved her civilization,” Mackinder concluded.[6]

Eighty years later, no European could have doubted the powerful truth of the external forces shaping life on the continent and its abutting isles. Indeed, by 1989, the brutal geopolitical realities of Yalta remained in their decidedly intransigent 1945 configurations. From the Atlantic to the Urals, in varying degrees, the legacies of the “Big Three” endured—their creations and reactions of statecraft still expressed in the continent’s political and geographical structures. The Germans remained in penance, neither fully subjugated nor fully sovereign, in their peculiar international limbo. An “Inner-German Border” realized Winston Churchill’s rhetorical depiction of an “Iron Curtain,” cleaving the former power in two. Wedged a hundred miles inside of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) lay Berlin, the centerpiece of the Yalta system—divided by its own wall.

In addition to carving apart one of the world’s great cities and dividing a nation, the Berlin Wall symbolized and conjured up a more elusive specter—that of unrestrained carnage promised by U.S.-Soviet armed conflict. Germans remained ever mindful of their precarious position wedged between the two superpowers. On the soil of the GDR stood 400,000 Warsaw Pact soldiers, prepared to defend the workers and farmers of Europe’s so-called “outpost of peace and socialism” from their capitalist countrymen across the fortified border.”[7] In the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) remained 900,000 troops, the conquering victors of 1945, now defenders of the Western world, present at the request of the Bonn government. The FRG hosted more nuclear arms per square mile than any other quarter of the world, all in preparation for the moment that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Warsaw Pact forces would exact upon the other the strength of their apocalyptic arsenals.[8]

When that precarious system of international relations reached its ostensible ending in the months following the Berlin Wall’s opening, Germany’s position in Europe again was thrown into question. “There was—and still is—a tendency to regard the ‘German problem’ as something too delicate for well-brought-up politicians to discuss,” wrote Margaret Thatcher. “This always seemed to me a mistake.”[9] As Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice later observed, that perennial German problem actually represented a tripartite question of international trust: “Do we trust the Germans enough [1] to let them become unified again, . . . [2] to let them freely determine their own political-military alignment, . . . [3] to feel confident that their national aspirations will not threaten European peace?”[10] But in the weeks that followed the opening of the Berlin Wall, a veil of winter enshrouded Europe, and a fog of incertitude shrouded any apparent, universally agreeable solution to the ancient “German problem.”



Jeffrey Engel, editor of The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989, certainly has assembled a volume where the cumulative value is greater than the sum of its parts. With contributions from five other esteemed scholars, the collection studies the transformative period between 1989 and 1991 in the major power centers of international politics: Europe—treated generally in a single essay—Moscow, Beijing, and Washington. More than a collection of historical accounts, each contributor shows diligent attention to consequence, tracing the complexities of our contemporary state of world politics back to critical junctures in ending the global Cold War.

Engel’s introduction to the volume, “1989: An Introduction to International History”—itself a substantial thirty-five page essay—takes on the difficult task of drawing conclusions from the diverse assessments of the other contributors. Naturally, he paints some of the complexities of the Cold War’s end with some rather wide brush strokes. For instance, he relies on a somewhat jejune assumption that conflates British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s and French President François Mitterrand’s respective suspicions toward German unity (3).[11] While Thatcher’s and Mitterrand’s governments both faced new international challenges with the revival of a single German state, “the demons of invigorated German nationalism,” as Engel writes, hardly determined British and French foreign policy. Similarly, he toes the old line of uncompromising democratic heroism in 1989: “People took power indeed. . . . No longer could discontent be isolated or contained” (4). No such victory could be claimed for the untold numbers of victims of state violence in China’s Tiananmen Square incident—the actual casualty figures for which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) government still refuses to interrogate or confirm.[12] Nor could such an uncomplicated story be told for the hundreds of lives lost in the final struggle for Nicolae Ceauşescu’s totalitarian Romania. Engel’s optimistic tone on peace and democracy ignores the Chinese and Romanian cases, although his contributors do not fall into that same error.

James J. Sheehan’s essay, “The Transformation of Europe and the End of the Cold War,” reaches his customary level of wisdom and scholarly insight. His argument echoes the thesis of his most recent monograph, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe, arguing that, throughout the Cold War, decreased reliance on war as a political instrument and increased commitment to international, integrative institutions determined the “timing and character of the Cold War’s end” (37).[13] In the period between 1945 and 1989, “Europe” became not merely a continental distinction, but also a collection of ideas, institutions, and examples. With Sheehan’s rich understanding of history, he fashions a cogent argument, showing that “[t]he Cold War . . . changed the grammar, not the logic of European statecraft” (39). The British relied on their American partners, as they had in the Second World War, espousing “a divided Germany within a divided Europe.” That division, “from London . . . looked very much like the diffusion of power on the continent that had always been a goal of British diplomacy” (39). France and the Federal Republic of Germany, grounded in the advocacy of raison d’étator Staatsräson,as the case may be—embraced European integration for two opposite, competing reasons. The Paris government, vacillating between “solidarity and independence” with its allies, consistently saw the European Community (EC) as the most expedient means of exerting the influence of “la Grande Nation” across Europe; the Bonn government, anxious to overcome its precarious Cold War division, consistently saw the EC as a means to facilitate FRG recovery and redemption and to strive toward the liberal, integrative European ideal (40-42). That diversity of perspectives among the major Western European allies toward fostering European integration and toward answering the German question in ending the Cold War produced inconsistent, incompatible answers to the German question after 1989. Mitterrand accepted German unification as a bump in the road on the path toward Maastricht, and Thatcher, as she later noted of her German policy, produced an “unambiguous failure” (61).

William Taubman and Svetlana Savranskaya’s clever “If a Wall Fell in Berlin and Moscow Hardly Noticed, Would it Still Make a Noise?” tells the Soviet story of the struggle to answer the German question. Using a rich collection of newly available evidence, Taubman and Savranskaya seek to explain why Gorbachev’s reaction in the days following the Berlin Wall’s opening remained rather restrained and muted (70). “Why did Gorbachev react this way,” they ask, “neither rejoicing at the fall of the Wall nor recoiling from the possibility that it might lead, as in fact it did, to the reunification of Germany on Western terms and to the new Germany’s entry into NATO?” In answering that question, the authors confront some prevailing trends that have dominated the literature since the mid-1990s, namely, that Gorbachev and his team feared that a forceful response from Moscow would erode the legitimacy of perestroika both domestically and internationally.[14] Taubman and Savranskaya disagree. Despite the 400,000 Warsaw Pact troops on East German soil and the political and military instruments at Moscow’s behest, the authors believe that Gorbachev’s understated reaction was the product of (1) a domestic agenda laden with economic, financial, production, and trade turmoil, and (2) the general secretary’s “misguided” foreign-policy fantasy of achieving a “common European home” (71-81). Taubman and Savranskaya engage those perplexing questions with the utmost historical integrity. Relying on American, Soviet, and German documents only recently available or declassified, the authors seamlessly integrate them into the central questions of Soviet intentions and expectations as they answered the German question in 1989 and 1990. Taubman and Savranskaya conclude with the tragic tale of Gorbachev’s outcome for the Soviet Union: the two German states unified within NATO and the deepening of a “common European home” with no place for the Soviet Union or its successor.

Chen Jian’s “Tiananmen and the Fall of the Berlin Wall: China’s Path toward 1989 and Beyond” advances his usual level of astute, cogent analysis in articulating China’s evolving role in the global Cold War. Chen focuses on the paradox of China’s position in world affairs after 1989. Across that year, communism was being discredited in nearly every corner of the globe, and international communism finally died after three years of undisguised suffering. Nevertheless, within just a few years of the Tiananmen Square brutality, and within just a few months of the Soviet collapse, China’s “Paramount Leader” Deng Xiaoping embarked on his famous tour of southern China, ushering in rapid Chinese economic growth, “despite continuous stagnation in the country’s political democratization” (98). Tracing the Chinese Communist Party’s pervasive quest for legitimacy from Mao’s failings in the Great Leap Forward through Deng’s failure to initiate price reform in 1988, Chen shows the decades-long mounting of tensions that culminated in Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. Revolutionary movements raging across Eastern Europe simultaneously fueled dissident commitment to achieving similar checks on state power and galvanized the party leadership to “prevent changes in East Europe from influencing China’s internal development” (109-110). Chen shows that in the efforts to recapture public legitimacy following the June Fourth Incident, the CCP recast its appeal “almost exclusively bas[ing] its legitimacy claim on nationalistic and patriotic representations” (116). Chen answers the paradox of China’s escape from 1989 relatively unscathed by the collapse of her sister communist states: “China had already withdrawn from the global Cold War, . . . concentrating on economic development and ‘bypassing’ political transformation” (124). Chen reconciles the China of Tiananmen-style repression in 1989 with the China that produces 9.27 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP) today.[15] The placement of this essay in a volume devoted to the opening of the Berlin Wall proves curious, but nonetheless, Chen’s scholarship bolsters the quality of the collection.

The final contribution in the volume, Melvyn Leffler’s “Dreams of Freedom, Temptations of Power,” chronicles the American perspective between the opening of the Berlin Wall and the George W. Bush administration. Leffler shows particular interest in understanding American policy-makers’ invocation of “the trajectory of the Cold War”: “the conquest of freedom over tyranny, the liberation of a people, the redemptive role of the United States of America” (132-133). As the author explains, from the unwavering resolve of Americans to feed and supply hostage Berliners in 1948 through the realized vision of a wall that became a gateway in 1989, the nearly half-century Cold War “confirmed the utility of power, the correctness of containment, the universal appeal of freedom, the triumph of good over evil.”[16] In the most forward-looking of the volume’s contributions, Leffler accounts for the post-Cold War international order, showing how American success in answering the German question infused subsequent policy-makers with a “sense of righteous mission” in reshaping the world to “comport with U.S. values and interests” (133). Answering the German question produced a new international system in which America could order the world along democratic lines. “As long as this scar of a wall is permitted to stand,” declared Ronald Reagan in his famous 1987 Berlin speech, “it is not the German question along that remains open, but the question of freedom for all mankind” (135).



Mary Elise Sarotte documents the proposed solutions to the enduring challenge of Germany’s position in Europe in her 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe. Sarotte’s study represents international history at its finest. Her penetrating analysis, scrupulous handling of the documentary record, and rich incorporation of diverse source material have produced both an eloquent narrative of German unification in 1989 and 1990 and a compendium of cogent arguments explaining why the negotiations to unite the German state transformed post-Cold War Europe as they did. Indeed, Sarotte has written the most important and comprehensive study of the topic since Zelikow and Rice published Germany Unified and Europe Transformed a decade and a half ago. Her study is buttressed by a wealth of additional source material that has become available in the twenty years since the Berlin Wall opened, including documents now made available by the German, French, British, Soviet, and American governments, sources released through freedom of information laws in those countries, and oral histories conducted with key decision-makers.

The historical realities of German unification do not lend themselves to an orderly chronological narrative. With two German states, four presiding powers, watchful allies, overlapping international institutions and processes, energetic news media, rich personal diplomacy, and vibrant public discourse, weaving together those many strands requires tremendous intellectual focus and critical interpretive analysis. Such a daunting historical task is not well suited for the analytically faint of heart. Sarotte has transformed those potential liabilities into great assets with her cogent focus on counterfactual possibilities and contingent pivot points.

In characterizing the possible paths between an opened Berlin Wall and a “European order in which borders no longer divide,”[17] Sarotte employs architectural styles as metaphors for possible configurations of the unified Germany, inspired by the language of the day: Gorbachev’s “common European home,” FRG Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “two Germanys under one European roof,” and U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s “trans-Atlantic security architecture” among them. With the East-West Berlin border crossings opened by bureaucratic accident on the part of Politbüro member Günter Schabowski, each of the major international players was caught equally off-guard and thus equally equipped to shape the German future in a direction conducive to his own raison d’état. Gorbachev’s initial vision, which Sarotte dubs “restoration,” conceived of 1989 as the ultimate end of the Second World War: the two German states would be unified under the auspices of the four (occupying) powers, who, at long last, jointly would convene and decide the future of a unified sovereign state. “Moscow’s initial instinct was to strip away those layers [of post-1945 diplomatic complexity],” Sarotte explains, “and revert back to the legal situation as it existed on day one of the occupation.” Kohl, along with his security advisor Horst Teltschik, refused to cooperate with such “Quadripartitism,” possessing “no patience with exhuming the moldy specter of four-power-only decision making” (65-66). Gorbachev’s ambition was thwarted quickly in the name of “self-determination” for the two German states, lack of support from the other powers, and Kohl’s own agile political and diplomatic maneuvering.

Sarotte positions Kohl as the chief protagonist in her account. With unprecedented access to his papers and the records of the Bundeskanzleramt, material that remains classified by the Bundesarchiv, Sarotte ably places Kohl’s decision-making in the fullest context of any study to date. She provides insight into both his aspirations and apprehensions as the annus mirabilis unfolded. In the third week of November, Kohl had been confronted with a Soviet solution to the German question: a confederated German state, departing NATO and divorcing the European Community. Kohl, refusing to lose his ship of state in the stormy seas of manipulation or to follow the prevailing winds of competing four-power interest, quickly crafted his own proactive policies.

On November 28th, ascending the rostrum in the Bundestag, Kohl began his address, his words belying the clarity of his recent resolve. “The road to German unity, as we all know, cannot be planned in the abstract or with an engagement calendar in hand,” explained the chancellor. “Abstract models may have polemic utility, but they do not take us any further.” Addressing his countrymen from the small legislative chamber in Bonn, Kohl’s speech roused a reaction global in scope, inciting an international tempest.[18]Notwithstanding the many schemes emanating from other world leaders—namely the ambiguous Gorbachev, the resistant Thatcher, the hesitant Bush, and the wily Mitterrand—proposing unity for the two German states, Kohl’s plan possessed the immediate advantage of self-determined legitimacy. The embattled chancellor boldly gestured toward unequivocal and immediate unification of the two German states, putting forward his famous ten-point plan for German unification.

Sarotte labels Kohl’s plan “revivalism”; the chancellor aimed to resuscitate the older institutions enshrined in the temporary FRG Grundgesetz, bringing the eastern Länder into a confederative arrangement with the west. Over the course of decades, the two German states would grow together into a single country once more. Sarotte explains that both the “restoration” and “revivalism” models waned in mid-December 1989. The former model, disagreeable to Kohl, crumbled because of the chancellor’s acquisition of an influential ally in Mitterrand. With the opening of the Berlin Wall, Mitterrand positioned himself to secure the greatest benefits for his aims to deepen European institutions, and Kohl cooperatively had committed to support the French president’s agenda for European economic and monetary union. The latter model flagged with Kohl’s famed visit in December to Dresden. Once consumed in the flames and carnage of war, the people of the city had lived for forty-five years under the privation of communism. As Kohl’s small aircraft touched down in Dresden, the throngs of Ossies who had flooded the airport roared with approval and enthusiasm for the Western delegation.[19] For Kohl, the diplomatic challenge of unification then became a personal one. With an apparent mandate for unification, Kohl resolved to push for expeditious unity.

Sarotte characterizes the Soviet counterplan for unification as “heroism”—while ambitious and brave, sometimes naïve and “foolhardy” (91). In her discussions of those “heroic aspirations of 1990,” Sarotte has crafted the briefest of the chapters—appropriately so, as the Soviet-generated plans for unity proved premature and precipitate (88-118). In fact, two “heroic” strains emerged, framed by GDR dissidents and by Gorbachev respectively. As the author expertly demonstrates, the dissident movement for an independent, sovereign east German state quickly dissipated, with GDR patriots appearing as bizarre devotees to an imploding system. Mackinder might have diagnosed the dissident movement as he did the Hohenzollern grasp for world domination in 1914: “Berlin committed a fundamental mistake; she fought on two fronts without fully making up her mind on which front she wished to win.”[20]

Meanwhile, “Gorbachev was in dire need of a new strategy” (101). The scheme that emerged from his “brainstorming session” with top advisors diverged monumentally from his initial preference of four-power “restoration.” The newest iteration of Gorbachev’s scheme envisioned the obsolescence of NATO and the Warsaw Pact and newfound reliance on pan-European institutions encompassing the continent from the Atlantic to the Urals. Gorbachev’s proposition for a “common European home” had long been in gestation; the possibility of German unity in 1990 appeared the timeliest opportunity to bring the idea into fruition.[21] To actualize those ends, however, Gorbachev’s program required willing partners in the West and continued Soviet influence in the mechanisms of unification.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is in the midst of a mistake,” Napoleon famously advised. As Sarotte shows, such prudent logic served U.S. and NATO interests quite well vis-à-vis Gorbachev’s efforts to unite Germany on Soviet terms.[22] Despite his intentions, Gorbachev’s articulations of a “common European home” remained mired in the realm of abstraction. Without an operational strategy from the Soviets, the Mitterrand government appeased with Kohl’s commitment to European institutions, and Thatcher steadfastly intransigent against unification, the Bush and Kohl governments were able to craft their own mutually agreeable answer to the German question. In his methods, Kohl seemed to heed the advice of an earlier architect of German unity, Otto von Bismarck. “The natural defect of the Russians will not be cured in accordance with the rules of Austrian psychiatry,” wrote the Iron chancellor. “Russia is more of an elementary force than a government, more a mastodon than a diplomatic entity, and she must be treated like bad weather, until things are different.”[23] The chancellor, acting in concert with his U.S. allies, saw a window of opportunity between Soviet incertitude and the first (and only) free and fair GDR election on March 18, 1990.

Kohl’s newest plan, which Sarotte describes as “prefab,” successfully outlived the “bad weather” Soviet policy. The fourth potential answer to the German question, championed by Bush and Kohl, proved successful owing both to its political practicality and the stalemate for a clear alternative. Relying on the preexisting Cold War institutions of NATO, the European Community, and the FRG Grundgesetz, Bush and Kohl mutually saw the most expedient path to unification being re-creation of those structures in the east. Rather than abandoning the increasingly outmoded institutions of the Cold War as Gorbachev rhetorically endorsed, the “prefab” solution retooled them for a new era of European international politics. Lord Ismay’s old obiter dictum describing NATO’s Cold War purpose “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” was eventuating a post-Cold War international order of the same persuasion. Tracing the implementation of the “prefab” answer to the German question, Sarotte provides a rich narrative of the “2 + 4” negotiations and the resulting “Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany,” signed in Moscow in September 1990—the official international answer to the German question.

“A minister of state is excusable for the harm he does when the helm of government has forced his hand in a storm,” recounted Voltaire in his history of Louis XIV, “but in the calm, he is guilty of all the good he does not do.”[24] In her analysis of “the struggle to create post-Cold War Europe,” Sarotte certainly seems to agree. As the gale relented and the tempest calmed in 1990, Gorbachev had been left with an impression, albeit misguided and naïve, that NATO would expand no further than the Oder-Neiße Line.[25] Sarotte shows that Gorbachev’s desperation for FRG extension of credit and cash to the Soviet Union served as a “carrot” for the general secretary’s agreement for a united German state within the North Atlantic Alliance (152). “The heart of the problem,” Sarotte writes, “seems to be that Moscow did not understand to what extent, and for how little time, international order would be up for grabs during 1989-90” (213). “[A]lmost every achievement contains within its successes the seeds of a future problem,” observed James Baker.[26] For all of the many benefits his skillful diplomacy reaped, Sarotte is keen to fault Baker himself for planting the seeds of the post-Cold War tensions between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Sarotte has positioned her meticulous study not as an epilogue for the Cold War but as an interpretive explanation of the system of international relations that has followed in the ensuing twenty years. The primary criticism that one can levy against her study is, by her presentation of the four potential paths, she leaves the general reader to assume that each remained equally plausible. In analyzing four potential answers to the German question—all seriously under consideration by FRG, GDR, Soviet, French, British, and American decision-makers in 1989 and 1990—she shows moments of critical historical pivot and the decisions that have fashioned global politics in the post-Cold War era.


The Routledge Handbook of Transatlantic Security, edited by Jussi Hanhimäki, Georges-Henri Soutou, and Basil Germond, offers twenty-one insightful essays on transatlantic security during the Cold War and in the two decades since the unification of the two German states. Some of the essays prove recherché for a “handbook” generally interested in transatlantic security, yet as discrete studies, each offers special insight into its chosen question of Atlantic community relations since 1945. The central questions that aim to link the essays remain quite broad, producing a pervasive discrepancy between the contributions. The editors seek to identify the roots of European dependence on U.S. security policy and to trace the ensuing political consequences, to consider the future of that dependent relationship vis-à-vis an independent European Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), and to study the relationship between expeditionary commitments and the endurance of transatlantic security cooperation.

Primarily, the volume chronicles the transformation of NATO from a defensive alliance at the outset of the Cold War to a post-1991 organization in search of its raison d’être. With a variety of perspectives, the contributors show the recent struggles of retooling NATO for its less unified purpose in the post-Soviet era, while still expecting the institutional focus enjoyed when the alliance was calibrated for another geopolitical era and purpose. Today, when only six of NATO’s twenty-eight member states contribute the requisite two percent of GDP to NATO,[27] and, as evidenced in the collection, security now includes a European Union (EU) agenda for “separable, but not separate” security and foreign policies, the Atlanticism of an earlier era is diminishing.[28]

James M. Goldgeier has authored the Council on Foreign Relations special report, The Future of NATO: An International Institutions and Global Governance Program Report, analyzing the increasingly complex role that the alliance will play in the twenty-first century. Goldgeier offers a very sober appraisal of NATO, focusing on the alliance’s capabilities and limitations and its position vis-à-vis an increasingly muscular Russian defense policy and a complexifying EU foreign agenda.[29]

Critics believe that NATO should return “to a more traditional understanding of its role defending against threats on the continent” (4). As ardent dependents on Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which holds “than an armed attack on one . . . shall be considered an attack on them all,” particularly newly admitted members of the alliance find great comfort in collective defense.[30] Others believe that the alliance must “remain relevant” by expanding its “traditional understanding of collective defense to confront . . . terrorism, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), . . . and cyberwarfare” (4). Goldgeier gives due equity to both positions, showing that traditionalist critics perhaps need to consider Article IV of the treaty with more keen attention: member states “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”[31] The recent release of NATO’s new Strategic Concept,[32] as well as its background reports released earlier in 2010, give substantial attention to the alliance’s evolving roles in confronting pervasive terrorist threats, responsibilities to out-of-area conflicts, duties to stem WMD proliferation, and ability to combat cyberattacks.[33]

While Goldgeier contends that “[i]f the North Atlantic Treaty Organization did not exist today, the United States would not seek to create it,” he shows its continuing relevance and evolving utility as a twenty-first century institution for “collaboration” and “productive partnership” (3, 5). As Madeleine Albright, chair of the 2010 NATO Strategic Concept Group of Experts, explained to the Council on Foreign Relations, “As Mark Twain would say, your report of NATO’s death is highly exaggerated.”[34]


As the blossoming literature on answering the German question in 1989 and 1990 bears out, a variety of contingent paths could have led to Germany’s singular reemergence from the Cold War. The complexities of the age could have produced a united Germany dominated by the Four Powers of the Second World War; a confederated state with a decades-long timetable for unity; a “common European home,” embracing Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals; a united Germany, permanently neutral and enfeebled outside of any supranational military alliance. Fortuitous timing and agile diplomacy on the part of U.S. and FRG policy-makers brought the two Germanys to their present state of peaceful interdependence in the European system of states and cooperative engagement in major international institutions.

The eleven-month period between the Berlin Wall’s opening on November 9, 1989 and German unification on October 3, 1990 represents a critical historical pivot point in determining the evolution of the international system in the coming decades. Policy-makers brokered an answer to the centuries-old German question that, at last, placed the nation-state’s interests within a cooperative framework of international relations and transcended the traditional institutions of maximizing power and force to achieve national interests.

Those institutions of political, economic, and military collaboration have continued to grow in salience and responsibility, increasing their membership and assimilating Western resolve for prosperous society. “Those who pooh-pooh these [international] institutions as instances of pactomania or imperialism miss the point,” commented Josef Joffe. “The secret of their success lay in their transcendence: dedicated to the common welfare, they served American interests by serving those of others. No other hegemonic power—from Rome to Great Britain—had so profitably hitched its national interests to the well-being of other nations.”[35]

As Mackinder first wrote at the dawn of the twentieth century, “under the pressure of external barbarism . . . Europe achieved her civilization.”[36] His sentiments prove true in explaining the end of the European Cold War as well. While the great geostrategist aptly saw geography as the principle determinant of history, in ending the Cold War, that historical pivot point determined the geographical configuration of the world that followed. The Inner-German Border disappeared, along with its debased progeny, the Berlin Wall. The Four Powers—the U.S., France, the UK, and the Soviet Union—charged with Germany’s indefinite subservience, withdrew the vast magnitude of their military power from German soil after more than forty years’ occupation. The Soviet Empire and its Russian successor ostensibly retreated from the continent, though begrudgingly and aggrievedly. Choosing between a Europe that stretched from the Atlantic to the Urals (the Soviet vision) or a Europe defined by “a new Atlanticism” (the American vision) post-Cold War Europeans decisively turned westward, deepening EC (and EU) integrative institutions. Most importantly, the united German state became ensconced within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the alliance inched eastward across the map of Europe, breaching into former Soviet territory. In answering the German question, “to consolidate the fruits of this peaceful revolution and provide the architecture for continued peaceful change, to end the division of Europe and Germany, to make Europe whole and free,”[37] the U.S. ensured that “America is and will remain a European power.”[38] The FRG, after October 1990, united with the Länder of the east, all having suffered under a metaphorical “external barbarism” during the entire life of the republic, achieved its civilization, ensconced within institutions of peace (NATO) and prosperity (the European Union).

Harold Mock

University of Virginia


[1] H. J. Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality: A Study in the Politics of Reconstruction (New York: Holt, 1919), 186.

[2] Comment by Mr. Spencer Wilkinson to the Royal Geographical Society, January 25, 1904, in The Geographical Journal 23:4 (1904): 438.

[3] John Lewis Gaddis later identified such challenges as a “grand strategic deficit.” See John Lewis Gaddis, “What is Grand Strategy?” (lecture at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, February 26, 2009).

[4] H. J. Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” in The Geographical Journal 23:4 (1904): 422.

[5] Ibid., 431.

[6] Ibid., 423.

[7] Erich Honecker, “Great Things Were Accomplished by the People and for the People,” Speech on the Occasion of the Fortieth Anniversary of the GDR (October 7, 1989), in German Unification and its Discontents: Documents from the Peaceful Revolution, ed. and trans. Richard T. Gray and Sabine Wilke (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996), 16.

[8] Mary Elise Sarotte describes the May 1989 conversation in which U.S. President George H. W. Bush and FRG Chancellor Helmut Kohl discussed those deployments. See Mary Elise Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2009). Additionally, see Frank C. Carlucci, Report of the Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci to the Congress on the Amended FY 1988/FY 1989 Biennial Budget (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1988). For deployment statistics of U.S. military personnel in foreign areas, see appendix b, “manpower tables,”  306. In the 1987 fiscal year, 250,000 U.S. personnel were stationed in Germany, 73,000 throughout the remainder of Europe, and 31,000 at sea in defensive proximity to the continent.

[9] Margaret Thatcher, The Downing Street Years (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), 790.

[10] Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997), 47.

[11] The literature on the French role in German unification has blossomed recently. Most importantly, see Frédéric Bozo, Mitterrand, la fin de la guerre froide et l’unification allemande: de Yalta à Maastricht (Paris: Jacob, 2005); now translated into English, idem., Mitterrand, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification, trans. Susan Emanuel (New York: Berghahn, 2009). See also Frédéric Bozo, Marie-Pierre Rey, N. Piers Ludlow, and Leopoldo Nuti, eds., Europe and the End of the Cold War: A Reappraisal (London: Routledge, 2009); and Bozo, “Mitterrand’s France, the End of the Cold War, and German Unification: A Reappraisal,” Cold War History 7:4 (2007): 455-478.

[12] See Chen Jian’s contribution in the same volume, “Tiananmen and the Fall of the Berlin Wall: China’s Path toward 1989 and Beyond,” 96-131.

[13] James J. Sheehan, Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Europe (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008).

[14] Jacques Lévesque, The Enigma of 1989: The USSR and the Liberation of Eastern Europe (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); Archie Brown, The Gorbachev Factor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996); and William Wohlforth, ed., Cold War Endgame: Oral History, Analysis, and Debate(University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003).

[15] Based upon 2011 data from the International Monetary Fund, China produced an estimated gross domestic product of $5,745,133,000,000 in 2010, with 2010 global GDP at an estimated $61,963,429,000,000.

[16] U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker, III, noted that “[o]n November 9, the wall became a gateway.” See James Baker, “A New Europe, a New Atlanticism: Architecture for a New Era,” Current Policy 1233 (1989): 1.

[17] Vertrag zwischen der Bundesrepublik Deutschland und der Deutschen Demokratischen Republik über die Herstellung der Einheit Deutschlands, August 31, 1990.

[18] Helmut Kohl, “Speech Before the Bundestag,” November 28, 1989, in German Unification and its Discontents: Documents from the Peaceful Revolution, ed. and trans. Gray and Wilke, 82.

[19] “Ossies” became the informal term for “easterners,” referring to citizens of the GDR.

[20] Mackinder, Democratic Ideals and Reality, 191.

[21] William Taubman and Svetlana Savranskaya’s contribution to Engel’s volume, The Fall of the Berlin Wall, discusses at length Gorbachev’s vision for a “common European home. See Taubman and Savranskaya, “If a Wall Fell in Berlin and Moscow Hardly Noticed, Would it Still Make a Noise?” 69-95.

[22] Although she does not cite Napoleon’s maxim in the book, Sarotte invoked his strategic counsel in a later conference panel discussion with Bruce Cumings and William Wohlforth on “Planning, Power, and Regional Priorities,” at the University of Virginia Miller Center for Public Affairs conference, “When Walls Came Down: Berlin, 9/11 and U.S. Strategy in Uncertain Times” (Charlottesville, VA, October 25-26, 2009).

[23] Arthur von Brauer, Im Dienste Bismarcks: Persönliche Erinnerungen, ed. Helmuth Rogge (Berlin: Verlag von Mittler & Sohn, 1936), 127. Cited in Gordon A. Craig, From Bismarck to Adenauer: Aspects of German Statecraft (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1958), 11.

[24] In French: “Un ministre est excusable du mal qu’il fait, lorsque le gouvernail de l’État est forcé dans sa main par les tempêtes; mais dans le calme il est coupable de tout le bien qu’il ne fait pas.” See Voltaire [François-Marie Arouet], Le Siècle de Louis XIV (1751; repr., Paris: Garnier frères, 1866). See chapter six, “État de la France jusqu’à la mort du cardinal Mazarin en 1661,” 71-72 in the 1866 edition.

[25] On this topic see Mary Elise Sarotte’s “Not One Inch Eastward? Bush, Baker, Kohl, Genscher, Gorbachev, and the Origin of Russian Resentment toward NATO Enlargement in February 1990,” Diplomatic History 34:1 (2010): 119-140; and Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly 32:2 (2009): 39-61.

[26] James A. Baker, III, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 84. Sarotte references Baker’s remark several times in her study (8-9, 10, 203).

[27] Madeleine Albright, “The Future of NATO” (lecture, Council on Foreign Relations, Washington, DC, May 27, 2010).

[28] Declaration of the Heads of State and Government Participating in the Meeting of the North Atlantic Council [“The Brussels Summit Declaration”], § 6 (January 11, 1994); available online at On the 1994 NATO Combined Joint Task Force, see Robert H. King, “NATO’s Combined Joint Task Force: Separable But Not Separate” (U.S. Naval War College, Newport, RI, May 16, 1995); and Peter Schmidt, “ESDI: ‘Separable But Not Separate’”? [European Security and Defence Identity], NATO Review 48:1 (2000): 12-15. Additionally, Schmidt, of the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Deutsches Institut für Internationale Politik und Sicherheit, has edited A Hybrid Relationship: Transatlantic Security Cooperation Beyond NATO (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2008).

[29] In determining its “main external military dangers,” the Medvedev-Putin duumvirate military doctrine identified the expansion of NATO as its first threat: “the desire to endow the force potential of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with global functions carried out in violation of the norms of international law and to move the military infrastructure of NATO member countries closer to the borders of the Russian Federation . . . .” Courtesy of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, see the English translation of the Military Doctrine of the Russian Federation, approved by Russian Federation presidential edict, February 5, 2010; available online at

[30] North Atlantic Treaty, April 4, 1949, in Foreign Relations of the United States, 1949, vol. iv, Western Europe (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1975), 281-285.

[31] Ibid., 282.

[32] “Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: Active Engagement, Modern Defence,” adopted by Heads of State and Government, November 19, 2010 (Lisbon); available online at

[33] NATO 2020: Assured Security; Dynamic Engagement: Analysis and Recommendations of the Group of Experts on a New Strategic Concept for NATO (Brussels: NATO Public Diplomacy Division, May 17, 2010); available online at

[34] Albright, “The Future of NATO.”

[35] Josef Joffe, “Putting Germany Back Together: The Fabulous Bush and Baker Boys,” Foreign Affairs75:1 (1996):158-159.

[36] Mackinder, “The Geographical Pivot of History,” 423.

[37] George H. W. Bush, The President’s News Conference in Brussels, December 4, 1989, Public Papers of the Presidents (1989).

[38] Idem., The President’s News Conference Following the North Atlantic Treaty Organization Summit Meeting in Brussels, May 30, 1989, in ibid.






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