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Diplomatic Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall: An Interview with Robert Zoellick

| November 7, 2014

Belfer Center Senior Fellow Robert Zoellick, chairman of Goldman Sachs' International Advisors, was the lead U.S. Negotiator in the Two Plus Four process for Germany’s unification, serving under Secretary of State James Baker. The German government awarded Zoellick the Knight Commanders Cross for his work on unification. In this Q&A with Belfer Center Director of Communications Josh Burek, Zoellick shares lessons from the fall of the wall 25 years ago and the crucial diplomacy that followed.


Q. The fall of the Berlin Wall was not spontaneous—civil unrest had been building for quite some time—yet it still took many Westerners by surprise. Tell us about the outlook in Washington as you and your colleagues in government watched events in East Germany and Europe in the summer and fall of 1989. Did you have a sense of the upheaval to come?

A. The Gorbachev phenomenon was shaking old presumptions throughout Europe. Germany in particular was enthralled with Gorbachev and the new image that he was communicating. So President George H.W. Bush, Secretary of State James Baker, and National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft were focused from the start on the challenge and opportunity in Central and Eastern Europe. After the Reagan-era focus on US-Soviet relations and global nuclear postures, the early Bush Administration refocused on the geopolitics of Central Europe—and Germany in particular.

The United States needed to win the hearts and minds of Germans even as Germans were being attracted by the prospect of major change through Gorbachev’s Glasnost and “New Thinking” in foreign policy. In May 1989, President Bush was one of the first people to embrace publicly the prospect of reunification, which he did in an interview with The Washington Times. In May 1989, many people thought unification was hopeless or, at best, a far-distant prospect. Only a few months earlier in the year, an East German was shot trying to cross the border.

The foreign policy lesson is the need to anticipate important trends even if one cannot predict events. Then try to position policies to better manage uncertainties.

President Bush and Secretary Baker also viewed Germany in the larger context of changes in Central and Eastern Europe. They wanted to test carefully how far Gorbachev’s openness would extend. We recognized that German unification had to take place in the context of Trans-Atlantic and European institutions. People were excited and hopeful, but many were anxious, too.


Q. What did you experience watching images from Berlin on November 9, 1989?

A. We learned that the Wall had been opened while we were hosting a big lunch for the President of the Philippines at the State Department. We went into Secretary Baker’s office to get a better sense of what was happening and to assess the risks. Remember, as the documents have shown, this dramatic event was an accident: the East Germans did not intend to open the Wall. The Soviets were surprised and concerned. During these months, we lived in a constant state of nervousness that something could go wrong—perhaps a border guard would shoot somebody. Or East Germans and Soviet soldiers would get into trouble. Maybe a dying regime—or its secret police—would provoke an incident. There was always the risk that events could take the course that they did in Berlin in 1953, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968—or even Beijing earlier that same year. Hindsight has 20/20 vision. Because events ended peacefully we tend to think the result was preordained, but there was tremendous uncertainty and anxiety. We wanted to channel events toward the result the West had worked for throughout the Cold War, but we had to try to watch out for the risks of tragedies, too.


Q. Young people today may not be aware of the extent to which East Germans were monitored by a repressive and all-encompassing secret police—the Stasi. What did the fall of the wall—and unification—mean to the people of East Germany?

A. East Germany was an overbearing, frightening police state. There were, however, courageous people who tried to create a safe zone for dissent. The Lutheran churches played this role in a number of cities. As evidence has shown, in cities such as Leipzig, the demonstrations shocked the East Germans. My recollection is that there were very close calls whether police would crack down on these people, including with violence. There were very courageous and principled people in the East. As they opened the way, hopes drew others.  It shook the foundation of the regime.

In December 1989, shortly after the wall came down, I remember going with Secretary Baker to a Lutheran Church in Potsdam. We met with pastors and lay people. Already they were feeling that events were moving beyond them. The church people had hoped for a “Third Way," but they recognized that most East Germans wanted what they saw on West German TV. That was an important insight because it signaled that the momentum of the East German public to embrace the West would become a major factor in our diplomacy.

Their movement would force change. There was potential for a mass migration, or, if people were stopped, violence. At the same time, the perspective of the East Germans meant the negotiation for unification would be a takeover by the West, not a merger between East and West. The Federal Republic in the West was the only legitimate German state.


Q. In an article you wrote for The National Interest in 2000 about lessons of the German unification, you wrote, “The discipline of linking process with goals and results is vital, because diplomats can easily fall into the trap of treating talks and process as ends in themselves.” What can today’s diplomats learn from the experience of those who worked to unify Germany about better linking process and goals?

A. Each circumstance is unique. But you start with the need to anticipate. This doesn’t mean you can predict events. You try to recognize trends and understand them so you can shape them, working with allies and partners.

In the case of processes for German unification, we recognized that we had to recognize the momentum on the ground—the drive of the East German people for unification, one way or the other. The diplomatic process had to keep up with the people, or we risked violence or mass migration. On the other hand, this momentum created an opportunity for the United States to position itself on the side of the German people and to force the diplomatic processes to produce results. We didn’t want the United States to be perceived as putting the brakes on unification. (That was the initial position of many of our European allies—to resist.) Remember, we pursued the unification of Germany within NATO. We felt it was important for the stability of Europe. And we saw Germany as a potential security partner for the next generation of issues. But we needed to avoid Germans viewing this policy as an impediment. We would have faced a problem if the Soviets had said they could accept unification but with the condition that Germany were neutralized, outside of NATO, creating a new, Central European "buffer zone."

The creation of the Two Plus Four process was very contentious within the U.S. government. Some believed it would give the Soviets an opportunity to disrupt the natural course of events. It was my belief that the Soviets already had ways to do that. They had 380,000 troops in East Germany and the Four Power legal rights from 1945. We decided to use the Two Plus Four process to help address security concerns of others in Europe and reasonable interests of the Soviet Union, while pressing the Soviets to work with us to ensure that we terminated all Four Power Rights so that Germany would be a totally sovereign country. That result also precluded the prospect that a future generation of Germans would resent “singularization”—being singled out for limitation on sovereignty. Even in the rush of events we were trying to think ahead: We wanted to achieve freedom and security.

Another lesson: At times of great flux, don’t assume that your counterpart has thought through their approach or even a clear objective. Events were moving so rapidly in 1989 and 1990—and we had developed a relationship of confidence with our German and Soviet counterparts—that at times we were helping the Soviets develop explanations for an acceptable outcome. Before the NATO Ministerial of 1990, we had the unusual situation where Secretary Baker was previewing with Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze the results we hoped we could get NATO countries to accept so that Shevardnadze could embrace them before other Soviets could react against them.

Bush and Baker were both very skillful in different ways at developing trust and close personal relations with the leaders involved. The U.S., while it of course has limits, is still perceived as the one country that can move the international system. The U.S. has incredible power if deployed properly. That’s why building the sense that the U.S. is watching out for other countries’ interests, concerns, and preferences is so important. By helping solve other countries’ problems the U.S. builds trust and confidence: It’s like putting money in the diplomatic bank. As Thucydides wrote in the 5th Century BC, “We secure our friends not by accepting favors, but by doing them.”


More from Robert Zoellick on the fall of the Berlin Wall:

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Burek, Josh. “Diplomatic Lessons from the Fall of the Berlin Wall: An Interview with Robert Zoellick.” News, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, November 7, 2014.

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