American Maximalism

American Maximalism

Mini Teaser: President Bush's reputation as a radical is exaggerated.  He is following in the footsteps of bold predecessors.  So why is he making such a mess of it?

by Author(s): Stephen Sestanovich

Similarities in the international strategy of George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan are no surprise: President Bush himself asserts them. But surely the diplomacy of George H. W. Bush belongs in a different category-less ideological, more measured, more consensual? In 1989 the new president and his advisors were not happy with the strategy of the departing administration (just as their predecessors had disdained Carter's). But their complaint is too little remembered. Under Ronald Reagan, they believed, American policy had become too passive and conciliatory toward the Soviet Union.

The new Bush Administration feared that, in the euphoria that Gorbachev had created, the Soviets would manipulate European politics to their advantage, weakening the Atlantic Alliance and luring West Germany into semi-neutralism. The United States had to pre-empt such initiatives and throw Moscow back on the defensive. If Washington did not "regain the lead", the president fretted, "things will fall apart."

Seeing the status quo as dangerous, Bush and his advisors wanted to redefine Western goals in more ambitious terms that Moscow could not counter. That meant going beyond arms control to demand a broader pull-back of Soviet power, and with it, liberalization in the Eastern bloc. As Secretary of State James Baker read the political trends, the German question was rapidly "coming back", and the United States had to "grab it first." The effort was not lost on Soviet leaders. After Bush's first European swing in June 1989, Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze queried Genscher about the new American rhetoric. Why, he asked, was Bush risking stability by "fanning the flames against East Germany?"

Even before the communist regimes of Eastern Europe collapsed in the fall, then, the United States had taken a contentious stance on the question of German unity. And once the Berlin Wall came down, Washington did not develop a new strategy so much as radicalize the one it was already following-to consolidate America's position in Europe by promoting far-reaching transformation. This was no abstract ideological posture. It meant supporting, and even stimulating, German ambitions on the central issue of reunification, as well as on lesser but still critical questions: how quickly West Germany should absorb the East, and with what guarantees for European states that feared German domination. On each question, the Bush Administration placed itself in direct opposition to almost all its own allies, as well as the Soviet Union.

It took considerable boldness to think that the objections of the other major powers could be overcome. François Mitterand had told George Bush months earlier that German reunification-a "casus belli", he said-would put Europe back where it was in 1913, on the eve of war. The Soviet position was angrily dismissive: Since no European country favored reunification, it was "not on the agenda." Thatcher, who saw Germany as "by nature a destabilizing factor in Europe", sought American agreement on a principle that would stall reunification for years. Before anything else happened, she insisted, East Germany had to create, and then sustain, a working democracy.

And the American response? From the president on down, it usually amounted to respectful listening, followed by actions that paid little or no attention to what other governments said. When Bush received Thatcher's letter presenting her thoughts about East Germany, he phoned her with the cheery promise to "[put] our feet up at Camp David for a really good talk." Pledges made were abandoned as soon as doing so looked convenient. In December 1989 Bush promised Gorbachev that he would not "recklessly accelerate" unification. Yet just a month later the United States decided to "hit the accelerator"-go all out for reunification on the fastest possible timetable. (Not surprisingly, neither Gorbachev nor anyone else was advised of the change.) American officials were convinced that a rapid pace was the best way to reduce the bargaining leverage of other powers and to head off what they saw as the growing risk of chaos in East Germany. Most European governments, large and small, believed they would get adequate guarantees for themselves only by slowing down the process of reunification. To block them, the United States sought a fait accompli. (American policymakers actually tried to speed up the very trend that other governments feared most-the collapse of the East German regime. Robert Zoellick has written that the Bush Administration's rhetoric deliberately encouraged East German voters to believe that rapid unification was possible, and to vote out leaders who favored gradualism.

The United States did not, of course, trumpet its intention to ignore other governments' views, and it even proposed the so-called "Two Plus Four" framework-whose ostensible purpose was to fashion a result satisfactory to both German states and all the World War II victors. Yet the American aim in doing so was to deny the Four Powers a serious role, while keeping control for itself. As Baker recalls it, "Two Plus Four" was a device to keep other governments in line, to see what cards they were holding, and to block any separate policy initiatives. The details of unity were to be worked out by the two German states, and then bilaterally between Germany and other powers, with the United States acting as Bonn's protector at each stage. This American calculus was completely vindicated by events. The diplomacy of reunification is still associated with "Two Plus Four", but not one significant issue was handled in this forum.

By keeping other major powers from acting in concert, the United States achieved reunification without paying any significant price to allay their concerns. At different points in the diplomatic process, both Britain and the Soviet Union put forward the bizarre idea that Germany should remain-for an indefinite transitional period-a member of both NATO and the Warsaw Pact. But despite the preferences of Gorbachev and Thatcher, no constraint on Germany's full membership in the Atlantic Alliance was accepted. The United States did draw up a list of measures to reassure Moscow that German unity would not threaten Russian security, but these were all vague and relatively minor steps that, as Baker noted, the United States would have favored anyway. Even the pledge, adopted at the NATO summit of June 1990, that the alliance would begin a process of (undefined) "change", was rammed through by the United States without the time-consuming consultative courtesies that are NATO's hallmark.(President Bush's memoirs note that the issue was "too important to review with allies in the usual way.")

What explains Bush's pursuit of rapid and unconditional German reunification? Contrasting his own outlook with that of friends and allies who had suffered at German hands through two world wars, the president recalled that he had "a comfort level" about reunification. If others did not trust Germany, that was their problem, not his.

Yet trust was not the crucial element of American policy. U.S. officials understood that Germany's direction was unpredictable. Chancellor Kohl drove that point home when, less than three weeks after the Berlin Wall came down, he publicly set out his views on reunification without consulting Washington-or even his own foreign minister. Polls showing that 58 percent of Germans wanted to withdraw from both alliances deepened Washington's concern, as did the prospect of social unrest in East Germany. President Bush and his advisors were just as determined to constrain Germany's future options as any European leaders were. But all others aimed to do so by preserving Germany's existing second-class status, imposing limitations on it that-in Washington's view-were certain to be resented and could not be expected to last. The United States, by contrast, believed that the best way to keep its ally confined within NATO over the long term was to support its geopolitical aims in the short. Only the United States considered itself strong enough to remain the patron of a united Germany.

To create a framework that would protect long-term U.S. interests, American policymakers accepted an increase in tensions with other governments. Others felt that gradual change would involve less risk to their security, and show more respect for their sensitivities-and to a point the United States tried to soften these disagreements. But the administration did not make a single major adjustment in its policy to please or conciliate others. Its basic, and typically American, argument, formulated by Secretary Baker, was that change need not be destabilizing. In fact, stability depended on it. As in the early 1980s, the United States alone had real confidence that it could control the process of change-that it could stimulate an international upheaval and come out better off.

The unification of Germany in 1990 is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the diplomatic art-a brilliant response to major unexpected developments that left Europe "whole, free and at peace." It was a masterpiece-not, however, because the leading participants worked so harmoniously together, but rather because they were so suspicious of each other, so emotional in their fears, so divided in their aims and so confused about how to achieve them. The United States steered the process to a positive result by exploiting its partners' disarray, by setting a pace that kept them off balance, and even by deceiving them. The outcome provides a notable contrast to the other major project of the Bush Administration, the Gulf War. As that war ended, the United States deferred to its allies and pulled back from full exploitation of its victory. In their European diplomacy, the first President Bush and his advisors enjoyed a comparable victory but denied American allies the same influence in shaping it.

Years after reunification, during which she served as a midlevel NSC official, Condoleezza Rice reflected on what this success might teach future policymakers. The main lesson, she wrote, was to select "optimal goals even if they seem politically infeasible at the time." In a major negotiation among many players who are all vying for different goals, single-mindedness is a huge asset. For Rice, a government that "knows what it wants has a reasonable chance of getting it."

Essay Types: Essay