Thirty years ago, at a wildly festive midnight carnival on Oct. 3, 1990, East and West Germany were proclaimed reunited. Standing amid the throng gathered at Berlin’s historic Brandenburg Gate, I shared the excitement of everyone around me. We thought we were witnessing the dawn of a new era. Germans long separated would embrace each other. The formerly Communist east would become what Chancellor Helmut Kohl called “a blooming landscape.” German unity would lead inexorably to European unity. Nationalism would fade as Europeans came to recognize that they shared a common identity. Russia would become a partner of the West rather than a threatening adversary.
Some of those hopes were realized. Germans who had lived in the east were liberated from an oppressive system and given the freedom to live, work, and travel as they wished. Eastern cities were rebuilt. Files of the deposed secret police were opened.
German unification led to a landmark summit in 1992 at which 12 European countries adopted a common currency and gave more power to supranational European bodies. Chancellor Kohl proclaimed that the next step would be the “political unification” of Europe, since European countries were “now bound in such a way that it is impossible for them to split apart and fall back into the concept of the nation-state.” I covered that summit, held in the Dutch town of Maastricht. My editor in New York, a crusty veteran of years in the Soviet Union, grudgingly agreed to publish my reports but told me that these glowing predictions were “the dumbest thing I ever heard.”
Even editors, I have since been forced to admit, are right sometimes. Hopes that gripped us on that dizzying night at the Brandenburg Gate, and two years later at Maastricht, slowly dissipated. The transformation of eastern Germany turned out to be largely superficial. Cities and towns looked better, but many citizens accustomed to guaranteed jobs and lifetime security found that they had to move westward for opportunity. Westerners were allowed to reclaim homes and businesses in the east that their ancestors had once owned, often upsetting longstanding patterns of life and leaving legacies of bitterness and anger. Backlash in the hollowed-out east spawned proto-Communist and neo-Nazi political movements.
People in the rest of the continent did not suddenly begin considering themselves “European.” Instead they clung resolutely to their national identities. Britain has gone so far as to quit the European Union. Russia submitted to dictates from the West for a while, but soon returned to its role as an independent and assertive power. It turned out that Italians, Belgians, Danes, and other Europeans had developed distinct habits and views of the world that could not be waved away by a magic political wand. German unification set off a burst of utopian dreams, but in the end, the world was forced to realize the wisdom of Shakespeare’s observation that “dreamers often lie.”
Wise statesmanship created the conditions that made German unification possible. Some European leaders, notably British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, opposed unification on the grounds that a powerful Germany would inevitably return to history and threaten the rest of the continent. President George H. W. Bush rejected those fears. The visionary Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev agreed to accept unification and to withdraw Soviet troops from Germany, where they had been stationed since the end of World War II. Yet Gorbachev made a historic mistake that puts him on the list of the worst negotiators in modern history.
During the painstaking talks that led to unification, Gorbachev insisted that NATO, the military alliance that had been the Soviets' main enemy for 40 years, must never expand eastward toward his country’s territory. He was following the age-old principle of “strategic depth,” which dictates that countries should not accept hostile forces close to their own borders. Western negotiators understood and accepted his concern. At a key meeting eight months before the Brandenburg Gate celebration, US Secretary of State James Baker promised Gorbachev that NATO would move “not one inch eastward.” Other Western leaders made the same commitment. “We believe that NATO should not expand the sphere of its activity,” Chancellor Kohl told Gorbachev.
That was enough to satisfy the Soviet leader. It shouldn’t have been. He accepted a “pinky promise” rather than insisting on a written commitment. Only a few years later, President Bill Clinton, eager to win votes from ethnic Eastern Europeans in his 1996 re-election campaign and urged on by weapons makers who saw an enormous new market in Eastern Europe, proclaimed his support for precisely the NATO expansion that Gorbachev had been promised would never happen. Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic joined the US-led alliance in 1999. Ten more countries in Eastern Europe have joined since then. NATO expansion has contributed decisively to Russia’s perception of the West as both untrustworthy and aggressive.
German unification has proved to be one of the great successes of modern history. It did not, however, produce the united Europe that the crowd at Brandenburg Gate envisioned on that jubilant night 30 years ago. This teaches two important lessons that apply to life as well as diplomacy: Keep your expectations realistic, and never trust a pinky promise.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.