1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe

Gareth Dale learns how the old world order slipped on the cloak of the new after the wall came down

November 5, 2009

Like many a geopolitical "reordering moment", 1989-90 did not live up to its initial promise. At such switching points, competing projects for the post-crisis order bid for supremacy, and those who emerged victorious in this one were dedicated to consolidating central institutional pillars of the status quo. Why, asks historian Mary Elise Sarotte, "did the 'new' world order in fact look very much like the old, despite the momentous changes that had occurred"? Why did the race to recast Germany and Europe yield the present arrangement? There were alternatives on offer: geopolitically, Mikhail Gorbachev's "heroic" internationalist model, with Nato and the Warsaw Pact giving way to pan-European institutions, and, domestically, the blueprints adumbrated by the East German civic groups, with experimental forms of democracy and pluralistic property relations.

Sarotte weaves her diplomatic history from reports on the activities of and exchanges among statesmen, diplomats and civil servants. We follow them as they fly hither and thither to summits, negotiate in golf buggies and exchange lewd jokes over canapes. The documentary base is impressive, but it breaks little new ground. Nevertheless, on one topic, Nato expansion, it does make a valuable contribution.

During the Cold War, an abiding question was whether containing Soviet communism was the reason for Washington to station forces in Europe or merely a pretext to justify their presence (and Nato's existence). As Soviet communism disappeared, the answer revealed itself. Initially, Western leaders including Germany's Helmut Kohl, its Chancellor, and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, its Foreign Minister, along with James Baker, the US Secretary of State, ruled out the eastward extension of Nato. Their assurances - which, with a credulity that he was later to rue, Gorbachev swallowed - cleared the way for Moscow's agreement to "2+4" negotiations (involving the two Germanys plus the four occupying powers) over German unification and Europe's security architecture. But in reality, 2+4 was, in the unadorned words of a Baker aide, "a lever to insert a united Germany in Nato whether the Soviets like it or not". For Bonn and Washington, extending Nato to at least the Oder was the priority. To an aide to President Francois Mitterrand, it appeared that it was "the only issue" that concerned George Bush Sr.

Indissolubly related to the question of Nato, Sarotte shows further, was that of nuclear weapons. Baker, Margaret Thatcher and - emerging from the shadows to whisper in Bush's ear - Richard Nixon all fretted that negotiations with Gorbachev might lead to the denuclearisation of Germany or even of the US military presence in Europe. Referring to the pacific inclinations of German voters, Thatcher advised that the issue be handled shrewdly.

By their militaristic lights, Western leaders were right to be alarmed. In East Berlin, the social-democrat Foreign Minister and the conservative Prime Minister and Minister of Defence were contemplating disturbingly pacific scenarios: that Nato be barred from the East or even from Germany altogether, and that a new pan-European security structure be created with a neutral zone at its core, including a nuclear-free Germany. Another potential threat was posed by the French: Baker feared that they might use the geopolitical breach to build new security institutions around the Commission on Security and Co-operation in Europe, demoting America's status in Europe from that of invited overlord to hired gun.

For Bush it was fortunate, therefore, that the incumbent German Chancellor was so fiercely committed to Nato and able to win over the French President and sideline East Berlin. Yet the outcome, the quick-fix eastward extension of "prefab" Cold War institutions, was problematic. Those structures, conceived in hostility, could not easily be recast to accommodate "the Slavic other". Perpetuating structures fashioned for a divided world risked recreating those same divisions, and this was only exacerbated by the ill-will generated by the broken promises over Nato expansion.

Sarotte is ambivalent on Nato expansion - she observes that it yielded Russian resentment without bringing clear benefits. However, she has little but admiration for Bush, and her book is a veritable encomium to Kohl, who is presented as a bold and tactically savvy leader. My main criticism is that the book neglects entirely to mention the Chancellor's corrupt activities, even though these are of direct relevance to both his courting of Mitterrand and his attempt to persuade his own sceptical electorate to back his Atlanticist neoliberal mode of German unification.

My other criticism is that to judge from its method, Sarotte's book could have been written a century ago: the analysis is framed entirely in terms of strong leaders and chance events. Occasionally some odd digressions are introduced, including, bizarrely, one on the origins and marketing strategies of a well-known chain of sex shops. (One can only hope that this represents an attempt to spice up an otherwise pedestrian diplomatic history rather than a new form of sponsorship.) All in all, this is a thoroughly researched study. Although it has deservedly received plaudits, its praise for Kohl may yet seem rash when the investigations into his illicit activities reach their conclusion.

1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe

By Mary Elise Sarotte

Princeton University Press

344pp, £20.95

ISBN 9780691143064

Published 9 November 2009

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