Article Review 476- "Bush, Germany, and the Power of Time: How History Makes History"

George Fujii Discussion

H-Diplo Article Reviews
No. 476
Published on 28 July 2014

H-Diplo Article Review Editors:  Thomas Maddux and Diane Labrosse
Web and Production Editor: George Fujii
Commissioned for H-Diplo by Thomas Maddux

Jeffrey A. Engel.  “Bush, Germany, and the Power of Time:  How History Makes History.”  Diplomatic History 37:4 (September 2013):  639-663.  DOI:  10.1093/dh/dht117.


Reviewed by Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, George Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University

Man, the State, and No War

Which matters more for setting state policy: the predilections of leaders or the systemic constraints within which leaders operate?  Do the particular ideas and preferences of senior policymakers drive states, or is foreign policy largely determined by geopolitical, organizational, or economic factors over which individuals have limited control.[1]

Jeffrey Engel’s “Bush, Germany, and the Power of Time: How History Makes History” bears on this perennial debate by examining George H.W. Bush’s influence on United States policy towards German reunification.  As the title suggests, the author comes down squarely in favor of bringing the leader back in.  “The puzzle,” as Engel writes, “is not why Bush embraced German reunification as a matter of policy [. . .] the puzzle is why the prospect of a unified Germany bothered him so little” (640).  In his telling, American policy towards Germany in 1989-1990 cannot be divorced from the personal attitudes of George Herbert Walker Bush and Bush’s “historical sensibility” (640).  At a time when American allies (the United Kingdom and France) and opponents (the Soviet Union) opposed change in the European status quo, and senior members of his own Administration were lukewarm towards movement on the ‘German Question’, Bush’s reading of history pushed the United States towards backing German reunification.  In doing so, Bush not only preserved the United States’ outsized role in European security, but also avoided a clash with the Soviet Union in the process.  Both developments would have been unimaginable just a few years prior.

This is a very important article.  At a time when the debate over the American role in the Revolutions of 1989-1990 and subsequent diplomatic negotiations is undergoing a renaissance, Engel’s work reminds us that foreign policy, despite its lofty perch as high politics, is still conducted by individuals and subject to the vicissitudes of human nature.[2]  Equally important, it offers a strong counterpunch to a wave of revisionist arguments suggesting the United States dragged its feet amidst the changes of 1989-1990 and was less important to the diplomatic deals that ended the Cold War in Europe than earlier works suggested.[3]  That said, the article suffers from some empirical shortcomings.  Most importantly, it remains unclear whether Bush and the United States embraced the cause of German reunification from the start of 1989 or from some later date, why Bush sought to keep the United States in Europe, and thus whether, ultimately, Bush was ‘bothered’ by the prospect of a reunified Germany.  These ambiguities do not undermine Engel’s effort to emphasize Bush’s role in U.S. policy, but they do suggest that Bush may have been more influenced by the geopolitical costs and opportunities present in 1989-1990 than his ‘reading of history’ itself: although Bush the individual played an outsized role in shaping American policy, his approach may have had as much to do with the variables traditionally associated with realist approaches to international politics – power, the risk of war, and the search for security – than anything caused by Bush’s deeper sense of history.

Originally delivered as a SHAFR Bernath Lecture, Engel’s article is first and foremost interested in understanding how policymakers “deploy history as a prescriptive tool” as “a window into their worldview” (640).  He usefully terms this use of history as policymaker’s “historical sensibility”: the combination of “experience, formal education, and most importantly historical conclusions [. . .] of how the past unfolded and what it meant” as a guide to current action (640).

In Engel’s analysis, Bush’s historical sensibility encompassed three inter-related elements.  The first was an underlying preference for “preservation over innovation,” “prudence,” and fidelity to established structures (645-647).  Second was his willingness, perhaps stemming from the Christian value of ‘forgiveness,’ to embrace a “selective diminishing of the past’s importance” and “reconciliation” with actors – in this case, Germany – that had once posed a threat to the United States (649-651).  Third, and somewhat in tension with the second, was a reading of history emphasizing, “that Europeans had never known peace on their own and never would.  The Old World had only known peace when supervised by the New” (652).  Baldly stated, Europe needed the United States if it was to avoid a renewal of the great power competition that precipitated the two World Wars: Bush had an underlying “faith in American centrality” (656).

Together, Bush’s historical sensibility pushed him to embrace German reunification from his early days in office.  Unlike leaders such as Britain’s Margaret Thatcher and France’s François Mitterrand, Bush did not fear the prospect of a reunified Germany as he “believed to his core that Germany had changed because faith and experience taught him that both people and nations were worthy of forgiveness”  (660).  Still, his preference for stability and an ongoing American presence pushed him to embrace reunification as a way of ensuring that NATO remained a viable security organization and mechanism for American power projection.  This objective itself encompassed three components.  First, embracing German reunification would blunt an ongoing Soviet peace offensive that might fracture NATO and evict the United States from Europe (656-658).  Second, support for reunification meant being in a position to seek Germany’s continued fidelity to NATO.  This issue became particularly important as onrushing events compelled policymakers to frame the terms under which Germany would reunify rather than question whether Germany should reunify (660).  Finally, and as an outgrowth of the preceding, a reunified Germany inside of NATO would provide the United States ‘leverage’ in European politics writ large that could blunt any anti-American political or (especially) economic strategy the nascent European Union might seek (660-662).  Ultimately, Bush’s inclination to forgive, to seek stability, and to ensure American access took “lessons drawn from history” (662) and applied them towards reaffirming the German-American relationship as the Cold War ended on American terms.

This is an insightful and important article.  The writing is lucid and the research is impressive.  Engel does a particularly effective job sketching Bush’s background – born to wealth, a military veteran, an experienced operator, and leader of the moderate brand of East Coast Republicanism – and suggesting that these character traits influenced Bush’s policies in office.   Given the opportunities for a radical change in U.S. policy towards Europe inaugurated by the decline of Soviet power and Revolutions of 1989, it may well have required an individual who had benefitted less from the status quo than George H.W. Bush to seek a radically new approach.  That Bush, a man who reached the pinnacle of power by working within established channels, directed foreign policy meant the barriers for a radical change in American policy were likely that much greater.  Different approaches to Germany and Europe may or may not have been in the United States’ best interest, but George H.W. Bush’s character itself may have augured for broad continuities in American policy towards Europe and thus support for German reunification.

Beyond the specifics of whether Bush’s background shaped his policy on Germany, Engel’s work bears on three broader historiographic and theoretical debates.  First is the issue of when and why the Cold War ended on terms wildly favorable to the United States.  For more than twenty-five years, analysts have debated when the Cold War in Europe came to an end and the role of the United States in this process.  The range of views is immense, extending from suggestions that the hardline policies pursued by the Ronald Reagan Administration brought the USSR to its knees, to notions that the United States under both the Reagan and Bush Administrations was late to realize the opportunities precipitated by the revolution in Soviet policy under Premier Mikhail Gorbachev.[4]  By suggesting Bush’s policy on Germany was partly motivated by fear that the USSR would kill the West with kindness, Engel implicitly makes a strong case that the American victory at Cold War’s end occurred 1) only under Bush’s watch, 2) at some point after 1989, and 3) due to American activism.  Indeed, that a leader as well-versed in foreign affairs and privy to the changes in the U.S.-Soviet relationship during the 1980s as H.W. Bush felt he had to act to blunt Soviet efforts at snatching (as Bush remarked later in 1990) ‘victory from the jaws of defeat’ is telling: had an American victory been foreordained at the start of 1989, then a leader as attuned to foreign developments as Bush would likely have recognized the trend.  Engel’s ability in bringing out Bush’s concerns and efforts to keep Germany in the Western camp offers a strong, post-revisionist contribution to scholarship on the Cold War’s end.

Relatedly, the piece directly relates to a burgeoning literature on the diplomacy surrounding German reunification and NATO’s post-Cold War survival. In particular, a revisionist critique of American foreign policy sees the United States as having acted with caution, hesitancy, and a large degree of passivity as Germany reunified and other leaders (particularly West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl) structured the diplomatic arrangements that ended the Cold War.[5] Though not in direct conversation with either revisionist or traditionalist accounts, Engel’s piece bears on this corpus.  By linking American policy to Bush’s concerns surrounding the USSR, intra-European stability, and  European-American rivalry, Engel indirectly suggests that existing work has misinterpreted ‘the German Question’ in American foreign policy during 1989-1990.  That is, regardless of whether the United States moved slowly or with alacrity to embrace reunification, reunification itself meant different things and created different opportunities for different parties: for the Germans, the possibility of overcoming the division of their country; for the USSR, the possibility of salvaging its position in Central Europe; for the United States, either a way of remaining central to European security discussions or being evicted from the continent.  Assessing American (or German or Soviet) policy on reunification thus requires an understanding of how the terms of reunification would affect U.S. national security rather than assessing whether the United States supported reunification per se.  In a roundabout way, Engel’s dissection of Bush’s thinking reminds the reader that the debates over Germany at Cold War’s end look strikingly similar to the debates over Germany at the Cold War’s start.[6]  Future scholars might do well to explore this similarity, the variation in policy by different actors across time and space, and to explain the divergent outcomes in 1949 and 1989.  I return to this issue below.

Finally, Engel’s piece adds to our understanding of great power politics during periods of international change.  Although a work of diplomatic history and not international relations theory, Engel’s focus on American efforts to address the German Question amidst waning Soviet power and the potential rise of a unified Europe can be read as fitting into a broader literature on great power rise and decline.[7]  Here, it is interesting that most American decision-makers worried through most of 1989 that the Soviet Union was still a viable geopolitical competitor to the United States: given declining Soviet economic power throughout the 1970s and 1980s relative to the U.S., this suggests strategists are generally less certain regarding trends in the distribution of power than many analysts imply.  Similarly, that Bush and his staff fretted that Europe would either fall to geopolitical pieces absent the American pacifier or cooperate against the United States poses a challenge to arguments that liberal democratic states tend to cooperate with and view one another as friendly, similarly-interested states.[8]  Though only a single case, its salience suggests that international relations scholars would be well-served testing existing theories against the new evidence unearthed by Engel and other scholars.

In short, Engel’s article makes an important contribution to scholarship on American foreign policy, German reunification, and the end of the Cold War.  That said, there are a few underlying ambiguities and tensions in the author’s argument.  These bear on the sources of American policy in 1989-1990, the underlying objectives of American policy, and  thus, the precise role of Bush vis-à-vis America’s German policy.  Whereas the author makes the case that it was Bush’s particular reading of history and personality that drove American policy, it is possible that Bush’s signal contribution instead may have come from his role as an astute reader of geopolitical tea leaves and shaper of policy built on signals from the international system.  In fact, asking the counterfactual, ‘what would a policy shaped by a search for power and effort to avoid conflict with the USSR, rather than by Bush’s historical sensibility, have looked like?’ produces a similar policy to that pursued by the Bush Administration.  As a result, Bush’s main contribution to reunifying Germany may have come more from his ability to use his wide experience in foreign affairs to translate the incentives and constraints created by the international system into sound policy.  This does not detract from the author’s central thesis, but it may require a re-evaluation of the processes and mechanisms by which Bush shaped American policy.

Engel notes that the Bush Administration, alone among the major players save West Germany, did not actively oppose the prospect of German reunification as changes in Soviet policy put the issue back on the table.  Bush himself played a major role in setting the tone, telling a reporter as early as 16 May 1989 that he would “love to see Germany reunited [. . .] if you can get unification on a proper basis” (640).  Bush’s support continued as change advanced throughout 1989, and reached an apogee when he announced in September 1989 that reunification “is something that should be for [East and West Germany] to determine” – the United States would not oppose the possibility.[9] West German-American coordination after the fall of the Berlin Wall, in the early months of 1990, and within the February-October 1990‘Two Plus Four talks’ only affirmed the basic trend.

Still, the available evidence can suggest that American policy went through two distinct phases that shared different underlying objectives.  In this framework, the rhetoric of support was constant, but the goals, means, and logic of American backing changed.  Although this does not undercut Engel’s call for placing Bush at the center of U.S. foreign policy at the time, it does suggest more variation in U.S. policy than the article indicates.

In the first phase, running from the start of 1989 through late in the year, Bush and his advisors endorsed moves towards reunification rhetorically while deferring any substantive movement towards reunification in practice.  American policy was Janus faced.  As Engel notes, the goal on one level was to reinforce West German fidelity to NATO and thereby maintain the European status quo.  Yet, distinct from Engel’s interpretation of early American backing for reunification, Bush and his advisors also wanted to avoid irrevocably committing the United States to support Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) aspirations or itself upending European stability: the United States would use words and promises, not actions, to compete for German loyalty.    Thus, immediately before Bush told a reporter that he would ‘love’ to see Germany reunified, State Department Counselor Robert Zoellick emphasized that broaching the German Question was a way to “to get ahead of the curve,” prevent either Gorbachev or “the Germans” themselves from seizing the reunification issue, and to create a NATO-based “anchor” for the possibility of German reunification.[10]  Even as members of Bush’s National Security Council (NSC) recommended in March 1989 that, “the top priority for American foreign policy in Europe should be the fate of the Federal Republic of Germany,” support for German reunification was clearly couched in a sense of limitations. “We cannot promise immediate political reunification,” the NSC elaborated, in a report that Bush avidly consumed, “but we should be able to offer some promise of change, of movement [. . . the U.S. could] send a clear signal to the Germans that we are ready to do more if the political climate allows it [emphasis added].”[11]  The dual focus on preventing either the Soviets or the Germans from getting ahead of the United States on reunification while limiting the immediacy of the American call for change is telling.  Far from endorsing reunification because Bush and his colleagues embraced the goal itself, the U.S. could endorse reunification because it did not seem a real, near-term political possibility.[12]  Indicative of the logic, Bush and his advisors would not even use the word “unification” in their official remarks until late in the fall of 1989 – belying the idea of early endorsement.[13]

Underlying this first phase was worry that direct calls for change in Europe (including outright support for reunification) would trigger a crisis or military clash with the USSR.   Simply put, the ‘political climate’ did not allow German reunification so long as the Soviets appeared opposed to the process.[14]  Though Engel notes American concerns that the Soviets might entice West Germany out of the American orbit, fear of the reciprocal reaction – how the Soviets would respond to an American push for change – is largely absent from the analysis.  These concerns, however, were pervasive, and actively constrained American policy.  Before his July 1989 visit to Poland and Hungary, for instance, Bush and his advisors worked to shape the American message to avoid the appearance of challenging Soviet influence in the Warsaw Pact;[15] Poland and Hungary were not East Germany – the “cornerstone” of the Soviet alliance system – yet fear of Soviet blowback was at the forefront of American calculations.[16]  As events in Eastern Europe escalated that fall, the State Department cautioned that Soviet leaders appeared willing to “use force to prevent the collapse of a Communist East German State,” and would “insist upon a fully separate GDR, with undisturbed political and security links to Moscow” even if the German Democratic Republic (GDR) government collapsed.[17]   Bush agreed with this logic, writing in his diary the night before the fall of the Wall that “if we mishandle this and get way out looking like [the rebellions are] an American project – you could invite crackdown, and invite negative reaction that could result in bloodshed.”[18]  Following this same rationale, he refused to “beat [his] chest” on the Berlin Wall after 9 November and then waited to endorse initial West German plans for German reunification until confirming that the Soviet response would be peaceful.[19]  Above all, when it seemed in December 1989 that the Soviets might use force in the GDR, the Administration engaged in a tactical retreat by agreeing to Four Power talks meant to symbolize the continued salience of the Cold War order.[20]  “There are no guarantees,” National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft wrote Bush late in the year, “that the Soviet empire will go quietly into the night [. . .] In all the war games over the years, the most convincing scenario for a European central front war has been a Soviet military act of desperation rather than of calculation: a situation in which vital interests were on the line and not acting was believed in Moscow to be more dangerous than acting.” [21] Seeking to unwind the division of German was likely to provoke the Soviet Union. The road to German reunification went through Moscow, and Bush did not press the issue through 1989.

This changed in the winter of 1990.  Where before Bush and his advisors used the rhetoric of reunification to limit and control progress towards this end, now Bush and his advisors led the diplomatic push for reunification.  They did so, however, by playing both the USSR and FRG off one another in order maximize American influence in Europe. To the Soviets, Bush and company presented a stark alternative: either cooperate on the reunification question and perhaps gain diplomatic and economic aid from the West, or face diplomatic isolation as reunification occurred outside of Soviet control.[22] The Two Plus Four talks were structured with this goal in mind, giving the Soviets a voice at the table but little influence over the issues incumbent with reunification.[23]  Moreover, because the Soviet leadership feared a reunified Germany, the United States could position itself as the honest broker by reminding the Soviets that the alternative to cooperation was not necessarily the maintenance of Cold War structures, but rather a reunified Germany, freed of both Soviet and American constraints, and seeking to claim a place atop the European great power system.[24]  Given the choice of hemlock or cyanide, the Soviets chose the hemlock.

Still, West Germany absorbed more than a small share of American attention.  One can read many motives into U.S. efforts to reunify Germany within NATO, including a desire to maintain influence over the European Community (EC, soon to be the European Union), to hedge against future Soviet revisionism (even if Soviet forces were evicted from Eastern Europe, the USSR would be the largest military power on the continent), and ultimately an effort to incorporate American hegemony over post-Cold War Europe. All of these factors were likely present to a greater or lesser extent.

The process by which the United States went about seeking these objectives, however, brings into question whether Bush really was – as Engel suggests – untroubled by the prospect of German reunification.  After all, Bush’s prior focus on preventing German reunification at NATO’s expense only deepened in the opening months of 1990.  Despite claims to the contrary, Kohl appeared ready to focus on “the usual horizon of the next election” and might give away the NATO shop if it would meet German national aspirations; FRG Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher was even less reliable and might have condoned a separate peace with the Soviets.[25]  Efforts to buttress Germany’s NATO ties by going slow might not have worked, as slowing the process might have created the sense that “Bonn’s closest allies are abandoning it and reneging on their longstanding commitment to German unity.”[26]  This reaction might subsequently push the FRG towards meeting Soviet demands and loosening the American link to the continent. The solution was to apply the screws to the FRG, to remind Kohl that he faced a possible balancing coalition in the USSR, United Kingdom, and France, and that only American backing could avert a diplomatic crisis of 1948 proportions at the moment of Cold War victory.  Kohl would be reminded of American preferences as often as possible, especially when meeting with Soviet interlocutors.[27]  Equally important, before a formal reunification process began, Bush needed to have “an honest and unadorned talk with Kohl about his bottom-line on security issues, despite the difficulty of pinning the Chancellor down.”[28]  Post-Malta discussions or not, “the most important pledge that Kohl can make [at the 24-25 February Camp David meeting] is that he will not allow Germany’s indispensible role in NATO to be weakened in any way.”[29]  Bush and his advisors sought a “historic bargain: Kohl’s pledge not to alter the form or substance of Germany’s security commitments to NATO in exchange for a U.S. promise that the Two Plus Four process will not interfere with Germany unity.”[30]  The counterfactual is stark and suggests no small amount of discomfort with German reunification except under conditions amenable to the United States: had Kohl ignored American demands, Bush might not have protected the FRG bid for rapid reunification, the FRG would have faced large external barriers to unity, and Germany may have remained divided.  As Secretary of State James Baker ultimately explained to Gorbachev, “we [the Administration] don’t favorably view a neutral Germany [. . .] A neutral Germany is not necessarily going to be a non-militaristic Germany.”[31]

Two factors seem to have driven the shift in American strategy at the start of 1990.  The first, as Engel identifies, was a rising tide of German nationalist fervor for reunification and the sense that the German “train was leaving the station” (660).  With pressure rising, the United States needed to act.  Still, why side with the FRG against the USSR (and the UK and France) in 1990 when the United States was held in check by the threat of Soviet pushback throughout 1989?  The answer may be crude strategic calculations.  A whole Germany was the major strategic prize in Europe, the key to influence on the continent.  Neither the U.S. nor the USSR could acquire this prize so long as the other exerted control over its part of Germany and could penalize the other’s predation.[32]  Yet, with Soviet forces in fast retreat from the Warsaw Pact by the winter of 1990, a Soviet conventional threat was just no longer credible and the Soviet ability to use force (short of nuclear war) to sustain its sphere of influence was obviated.  If the USSR opposed U,S.-FRG actions, the United States could have (as the National Security Council offered Scowcroft in late January) “remind[ed] Gorbachev that his troops are fast being pushed out of the region anyway” and emphasized that Gorbachev’s security now depended on Western cooperation.[33]  Condoleezza Rice, then the NSC’s resident Soviet expert, was even blunter, offering that the Soviet Union “is probably unable to reextend its tentacles into East European [sic].”[34]  Bush made similar observations in late February 1990, arguing that Soviet forces would remain in East Germany only if the United States reversed course and advocated for their remaining – and Bush was not going to do so.[35]  Remaining Soviet forces in the GDR could obfuscate, but they were a wasting asset that could neither long delay Western plans nor sustain Soviet influence.

All of which implies a fourth, overriding aspect of Bush’s ‘historical sensibility’: an acute awareness of American limits, the need to account for Soviet interests, and an overwhelming focus on weighing the security costs and benefits of American action.  Bush may have come to office believing in the centrality of American power to European stability, but it would be surprising if he did not also see a stark historical warning in issuing an outright challenge to Soviet influence (especially in the GDR).  After all, local challenges to Soviet dominance in 1956, 1968, and 1980-1981 (some of which were encouraged by the United States) ended in military crackdowns and precipitated crises in U.S.-Soviet relations.  Likewise, as Marc Trachtenberg has covered in detail, Soviet and American efforts to create a reunified Germany in the early Cold War touched off some the tensest and most war-prone moments in the post-1945 system – tensions that were only resolved by a mutual acceptance of a divided Germany.[36]  Bush, Scowcroft, Baker, and other members of the Administration did not need to be serious students of history to appreciate that pushing German reunification held significant potential downsides and needed to be calibrated to likely Soviet reactions.  Even a casual review of Cold War history would reveal the risk, and there are hints that senior members of the Administration (including Bush) recognized the problem.  Preserving the American ‘inheritance’ might therefore mean preserving the American presence in Europe via NATO after German reunification in the face of Soviet peace offensives, but it might also mean avoiding American actions that would precipitate a crisis with the declining Soviet Union.

The same security logic, however, may have also propelled the Bush Administration to protect the American inheritance by pushing the Soviet Union out of Eastern and Central Europe when it could do so on the cheap.  Again, Bush did not have to be a deep student of history to see that the Cold War, if peaceful, was fractious and tense.  Even the 1980s saw intense debates over whether and how to sustain NATO’s sub-strategic nuclear deterrent in the face of a continued Soviet threat. Nor was it new for policymakers to consider rolling back the Soviet presence in Eastern Europe.[37]  Surely it might be better to end the need for such debates by eliminating the Soviet threat and moving the great geopolitical prize of Cold War Europe – a unified Germany – into the American camp if it could be done painlessly.  For Bush, the question thus became when it would be possible to reap these gains.  He seems to not have expected this situation in 1989, yet when offered the opportunity in 1990, he recognized the chance and proceeded accordingly.

If one accepts that American policy towards German reunification varied over time, a new set of issues present themselves.  On one level, it is then difficult to conclude that Bush was untroubled by the prospect of reunification and willing to selectively diminish the past’s importance.  Rather, Bush’s approach towards Germany takes on a Machiavellian flavor in which Bush sought to keep Germany in the American orbit precisely because it could not be fully trusted, the status quo was preferable to the change West Germany might seek on its own, and only change under the American aegis was acceptable.  At the same time, Bush timed American actions relative to the Soviet Union’s own position: Bush would only push on the reunification issue if the United States could get away with the ploy sans a crisis with the USSR. This makes sense.  After all, if the United States were growing more secure as Soviet strength faltered, then it would have been irrational to rock the boat and antagonize the USSR until Soviet military power faltered. Bush may have been supportive of keeping a reunified Germany in the NATO camp, but he was deeply troubled by reunification insofar as it could upend U.S.-Soviet relations. In the Cold War Victory Game, stable relations with the USSR trumped changing the status quo in Germany’s favor.

Second, it raises an important question regarding Bush’s conception of the future of European security.  In Engel’s telling, Bush believed Europe would be unstable absent the United States.   Perhaps. Yet, to the extent that the 1990 debates saw the United States working with the FRG to exploit Soviet weakness because the United States disagreed with the terms the FRG might offer the USSR on its own, this is not an issue about European stability so much as an American power maximization effort.  Given the United States’ own estimation of Soviet problems post-1990 and Engel’s discussion of European unification, it is difficult to see how Europe would have fallen into turmoil absent an American pacifier: the EC would come together while the Soviet threat waned.  The stage would then be set for a world much as Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower envisioned, that is, an integrated Western Europe standing against a (weakened) USSR that would allow the United States to withdraw from the continent; the risk of conflict would seem substantially reduced.[38] Bush, however, would not countenance this scenario.

This begs a question for future research: why?  There seem to the reviewer to be two possibilities.  First, and as noted, Bush and his advisors focused on maximizing American advantages over the Soviet Union in a pure zero-sum competition.  Here, a reunified Germany wedded to the American camp was an attractive geopolitical ‘gain’ for the United States that Bush pursued.  Second, and more provocatively, the United States remained in Europe not to deter to the USSR, not just to retain economic influence, but to actively prevent other actors from offering a real alternative to American political and security dominance on the continent.  Given events in 1989-1990, the most likely candidate to have issued such a challenge was a united Europe, meaning American policy may have focused on precluding the EC from becoming a viable political-military challenger.[39]  It is striking that the deals the US pushed on the FRG maintained the FRG’s denuclearization and limited its conventional capabilities – precisely the capabilities a reunified Germany would need if it were to be the core of an independent European security apparatus.[40]  Keeping Germany in the NATO orbit may thus have served as a type of preventive diplomacy that ensured the U.S. would have many cards to use against the nascent EU in future debates – not just on the economic front, but on the very nature of European security affairs. These arguments are not mutually exclusive, and deep work is needed to assess their validity.

Finally, we arrive at a very different understanding of ‘Bush the Statesman.’ Rather than acting primarily on the basis of ingrained personal traits towards addressing the German Question in 1989-1990, Bush may have been as much (or more) driven by conditions imposed by the Cold War rivalry with the USSR.  Yet, if American policy on reunification went through two phases based on the potential for Soviet pushback, we subsequently need to know whether Bush and his advisors actively thought in these terms, or whether the structure of the system acted as a ‘hidden hand’ on the Bush Administration’s actions.  Answering this question will go a long way towards squaring the circle between the structural variables often prized by international relations scholars and the personalist factors identified by historians.  The answer may well fall somewhere between the two extremes.

The upshot of all this is simple: Engel’s article is excellent and a major contribution to the historiography of U.S. foreign policy at Cold War’s end.  By seeking to explain U.S. policy on German reunification by reference to H.W. Bush’s personal attributes, Engel forces scholars to better engage the underlying causes of American foreign policy in the critical 1989-1990 period.  Amidst a resurgence of scholarship on the end of the Cold War, this critical issue has been largely left out – first generation ‘triumphalist’ scholarship continues to dominate the historiography and political science literature, while second generation scholarship largely brackets the sources of American policy.  Engel’s article is, hopefully, the first wave in a third generation of studies.  One may disagree with aspects of Engel’s analysis.  However, so long as other analysts continue in Engel’s vein, the results promise to both upend extant historiography on 1989-1990 and also push political scientists to reevaluate their theories in light of the new history of the end of the Cold War.  This is no mean trick.  Engel has done two fields an important service.


Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson is an Assistant Professor at the George Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. His current research uses modern American diplomatic history to examine how states manage the decline of other great powers.  A graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brandeis University, his work has appeared in International Security, H-Diplo, and with the Cold War International History Project.  He thanks Amber Stubblefield for her excellent comments and editorial assistance on this review.

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[1] Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, “Let Us Now Praise Great Men: Bringing theStatesman Back In,” International Security 25:4 (Spring 2001): 107–146.

[2] Among others, see James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014); Jeffrey A. Engel, The Fall of the Berlin Wall: The Revolutionary Legacy of 1989 (Oxford University Press, 2009); Mary E. Sarotte, 1989: The Struggle to Create Post-Cold War Europe (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009); Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas S. Blanton, and V. M. Zubok, eds., Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Europe, 1989 (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010); Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “Pushing and Pulling: The Western System, Nuclear Weapons and Soviet Change,” International Politics 48, no. 4–5 (July 2011): 496–544; see also the Zelikow, Sarotte, and Wolfowitz chapters in Melvyn Leffler and Jeffrey Legro, eds., In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy After the Berlin Wall and 9/11 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press,  2011)..

[3] For works in this milieu, see Sarotte, 1989; Thomas S. Blanton, “US Policy and the Revolutions of 1989,” in Masterpieces of History: The Peaceful End of the Cold War in Eastern Europe, 1989, ed. Svetlana Savranskaya, Thomas S Blanton, and V. M Zubok (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2010), 49–98; Gregory F. Domber, “Skepticism and Stability: Reevaluating U.S. Policy During Poland’s Democratic Transformation in 1989,” Journal of Cold War Studies 13:3 (2011): 52–82.

[4] For a sample, see Peter Schweizer, Victory: The Reagan Administration’s Secret Strategy That Hastened the Collapse of the Soviet Union, 1st ed (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1994); Fred Chernoff, “Ending the Cold War: The Soviet Retreat and the US Military Buildup,” International Affairs (Royal Institute of International Affairs 1944-) 67:1 (January 1, 1991): 111–126; Thomas Risse-Kappen, “Did ‘Peace Through Strength’ End the Cold War? Lessons from INF,” International Security 16:1 (Summer 1991): 162–188; Philip Zelikow and Condoleezza Rice, Germany Unified and Europe Transformed: A Study in Statecraft (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995); Michael R. Beschloss and Strobe Talbott, At the Highest Levels: The Inside Story of the End of the Cold War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1993); William C. Wohlforth, ed., Cold War Endgame: Oral History, Analysis, Debates (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2003); Daniel Deudney and G. John Ikenberry, “The International Sources of Soviet Change,” International Security 16:3 (Winter 1991): 74–118; Robert L Hutchings, American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of U.S. Policy in Europe, 1989-1992 (Washington, D.C: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1997); George Pratt Shultz, Turmoil and Triumph: My Years as Secretary of State (New York: Scribner’s, 1993); Kiron K. Skinner, ed., Turning Points in Ending the Cold War (Hoover Institution Press, Stanford University, 2008); James Graham Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation: Gorbachev’s Adaptability, Reagan’s Engagement, and the End of the Cold War (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

[5] For first generation arguments, see the overview in Thomas Risse, “The Cold War’s Endgame and German Unification: (A Review Essay),” International Security 21:4 (April 1, 1997): 159–185; for recent work (including revisionist accounts) see Sarotte, 1989; Wilson, The Triumph of Improvisation; Mark Kramer, “The Myth of a No-NATO-Enlargement Pledge to Russia,” The Washington Quarterly 32:2 (2009): 39–61; G. John Ikenberry, After Victory: Institutions, Strategic Restraint, and the Rebuilding of Order After Major Wars, Princeton Studies in International History and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001); Mary Elise Sarotte, “Perpetuating U.S. Preeminence: The 1990 Deals to ‘Bribe the Soviets Out’ and Move NATO In,” International Security 35:1 (Summer 2010): 110–137; Mary Elise Sarotte, “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 (January 2010): 119–140; Mary E Sarotte, “In Victory, Magnanimity: US Foreign Policy, 1989–1991, and the Legacy of Prefabricated Multilateralism,” International Politics 44:4–5 (May 2011): 482–495; Hannes Adomeit, Gorbachev’s Consent to Unified Germany’s Membership in NATO, Working Paper (Research Unit Russia/CIS, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, December 2006),; Helga Haftendorn, “The Unification of Germany, 1985–1991,” in The Cambridge History of the Cold War, ed. Melvyn P. Leffler et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 333–355; Frédéric Bozo, Mitterrand, the End of the Cold War and German Unification (New York: Berghahn Books, 2009).

[6] James McAllister, No Exit: America and the German Problem, 1943-1954 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002); Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999).

[7] For work on 1989-1990 along these lines, see William C. Wohlforth, “Realism and the End of the Cold War,” International Security 19:3 (Winter, 1995 1994): 91–129; for work on rise and decline, see Paul M. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000, 1st ed (New York: Random House, 1987); Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981); A. F. K Organski, World Politics (New York: Knopf, 1958); Mancur Olson, The Rise and Decline of Nations: Economic Growth, Stagflation, and Social Rigidities (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982); Jack S. Levy, “Declining Power and the Preventive Motivation for War,” World Politics 40:1 (October 1987): 82–107.

[8] For ideological approaches, including work in Democratic Peace Theory, see Mark L. Haas, The Ideological Origins of Great Power Politics, 1789-1989 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2005); Charles Lipson, Reliable Partners: How Democracies Have Made a Separate Peace (Princeton University Press, 2003); Zeev Maoz and Bruce Russett, “Normative and Structural Causes of Democratic Peace, 1946-1986,” The American Political Science Review 87, no. 3 (1993): 624–38; Michael W. Doyle, “Liberalism and World Politics,” The American Political Science Review 80, no. 4 (Winter 1986): 1151–69.

[9] George Bush, “The President’s News Conference in Helena, Montana,” September 18, 1989, Online by Gerhard Peters and John Woolley, The American President Project,

[10] Robert Zoellick, “JAB notes from 5/15/89 re: possible initiatives for NATO summit,” 15 May 1989, Box 108, Folder 5, Baker Papers, Seeley Mudd Manuscript Library, Princeton University (hereafter BP).

[11] Brent Scowcroft to The President, “The NATO Summit,” 20 March 1989, Kanter Files, George Bush Presidential Library (hereafter GBPL), CF00779. 

[12] Hence Gates’ surprise when Bush went off his official talking points during a September 1989 Q&A session and announced that he not opposed to reunification – meaning, it was an option the U.S. could countenance and might even support.

[13] Given by using a keyword search of Bush’s public papers in 1989 via the American Presidency Project;  The same applies to “reunification.”  Even Zoellick, one of the most forward leaning advisors on Germany, cautioned in May 1989 to use the phrase “’Normalization’, not reunification” when discussing Germany; Zoellick, “5/15/89,” BP.

[14] Scowcroft to Bush, “NATO Summit,” 2.

[15] See, among others, George Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), 39; Hutchings, American Diplomacy, 60–61; for an overview, see Domber, “Skepticism and Stability.”  See also George Bush, “The President's News Conference,” 27 June 1989, online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project,; Savranskaya, Blanton, and Zubok, Masterpieces of History, Doc. 45. 

[16] On East Germany as the “cornerstone” of the Soviet system, see R.G.H. Seitz through Robert Kimmitt to The Secretary [Baker], “The Future of Germany in a Fast-Changing Europe,” 10 October 1989, George Washington University, National Security Archive, Soviet Flashpoints, Box 38.

[17] Seitz, “Future of Germany.”

[18] George Bush, All the Best, George Bush: My Life in Letters and Other Writings (New York: Touchstone, 1999), 442.

[19] Memorandum of Telephone Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Brian Mulroney, Prime Minister of Canada,” 17 November 1989;

[20] Bush and Scowcroft, World Transformed, 202.

[21] Brent Scowcroft to The President, “The Future of Perestroika and the European Order,” undated (content suggests immediately before Malta Summit), Rice Files, GBPL, CF00717; on Malta, and at the risk of unseemly self-promotion, see Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson, “The Malta Summit and U.S.-Soviet Relations: Testing the Waters Amidst Stormy Seas,” Cold War International History Project e-Dossier No. 40, July 2013,  See also Bush and Scowcroft, A World Transformed, 148-149.

[22] See, e.g., Robert Hutchings through Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “Your Breakfast with Kissinger: Managing the German Question,” 26 January 1990, GBPL, Blackwill Files, CF00182; James Baker, The Politics of Diplomacy (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1995), 198–199, 234–235; Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, 197–217.

[23] Robert Zoellick to James Baker, “Proposed Agenda for Meeting with the President,” 16 February 1990, GWU, NSA, Soviet Flashpoints, Box 38; No Author [likely Zoellick], “Two Plus Four: Advantages, Possible Concerns, and Rebuttal Points,” 21 February 1990, GWU, NSA, Soviet Flashpoints, Box 38.

[24] Zelikow and Rice, Germany Unified, 181-185.

[25] Harvey Sicherman to Dennis Ross, “Disquieting Signs in U.S. Policy,” 4 January 1990, BP, Box 176, Folder 9.

[26] Brent Scowcroft to The President, “A Strategy for German Unification,” & Blackwill cover letter, 30 January 1990, GBPL, NSC PA Files, 900092.

[27] See, e.g., Robert Hutchings to Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “Your Breakfast with Kissinger: Managing the German Question,” 26 January 1990, GBPL, Blackwill Files, CF00182; Philip Zelikow through Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “Message to Kohl,” 8 February 1990, GBPL, Blackwill Files, CF00182; Brent Scowcroft to The President, “Message to Kohl” & Enclosed letter, 8 February 1990, GBPL, Blackwill Files, CF00182;

[28] Brent Scowcroft to The President, “Meetings with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl” & Blackwill cover note, 22 February 1990, GBPL, Kanter Files, CF00774.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] State Department, “Memorandum of Conversation: Secretary Baker, President Gorbachev, Eduard Shevardnadze,” 9 February 1990, GWU, NSA, Soviet Flashpoints, Box 38.

[32] For elaboration, see the aforementioned October 1989 State Department report.

[33] Hutchings, “Meeting with Kissinger.”

[34] Condoleezza Rice through Robert Blackwill to Brent Scowcroft, “Showdown in Moscow?” 1 February 1990, GBPL, Rice Files, CF00719.

[35] Memorandum of Conversation, “Telephone Conversation with Brian Mulroney,” 24 February 1990.

[36] Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace.

[37] László Borhi, “Rollback, Liberation, Containment, or Inaction? U.S. Policy and Eastern Europe in the 1950s,” Journal of Cold War Studies 1:3 (September 1999): 67–110.  Thanks also go to Dr. Lindsey O’Rourke, who has studied Cold War-era covert action in detail and elaborated on the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations’ interest in rollback.

[38] Mark S. Sheetz, “Exit Strategies: American Grand Designs for Postwar European Security,” Security Studies 8:4 (1999): 1–43; McAllister, No Exit; Brendan Rittenhouse Green, “Two Concepts of Liberty: U.S. Cold War Grand Strategies and the Liberal Tradition,” International Security 37:2 (October 2012): 9–43; John L. Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

[39] For later U.S. thinking along these lines, see Barry R. Posen, “European Union Security and Defense Policy: Response to Unipolarity?,” Security Studies 15, no. 2 (June 2006): 149–186.

[40] For hints of thinking along these lines see Brent Scowcroft to The President, “U.S. Diplomacy for a New Europe,” 22 December 1989, GBPL, Scowcroft Files, 91116; Scowcroft, “Meetings with Chancellor Kohl,” 22 February; see also Bush’s calls with Brian Mulroney and Manfred Woerner on 24 February 1990.