Deutsche Welle: You worked closely for and with President George H.W. Bush. Can you share a personal anecdote that sums up the person he was?
Robert Zoellick: Referring to the difference to the current era, he was very much a man of honor and service while also being a very fierce competitor, both politically and in terms of America’s international role. I would sum him up as a consummate alliance manager.
Particularly important for Germany [was that] Bush took office when [Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev was the phenomenon. Part of Bush’s challenge was to solidify the alliance given the ice-breaking at the end of the Cold War. Many people forget that by May of 1989, only a few months after he took office, he come forward with a rather bold proposal to cut and equalize conventional armies in Europe.
It was a shift from the discussion about nuclear weapons from the INF treaty and it was important for Germany because it took the focus off the short-range missiles that were left, which is when Germans said: “The shorter the missiles, the deader the Germans.” He faced some resistance from [UK Prime Minister Margaret] Thatcher, but had strong support from Germany and helped really built the core of the US-German relationship.
The next step came in December that year at the Malta meeting. Bush was very eager to see Gorbachev. Some people in the administration were holding back, but I worked for Secretary [of State James] Baker at the time, who knew Bush wanted to engage Gorbachev. He came forward with a series of proposals — some economic, some political — that highlighted his willingness to embrace what Gorbachev was trying to do. And that was critically important in Gorbachev’s state of mind because this was right after the opening of the Berlin Wall and the Soviets were having to determine their relationship to Germany. Bush went from that meeting to Brussels, were he briefed all the NATO countries and laid out some of the structure the US would take for the German unification process.
The third aspect of that was as part of his alliance management: He really worked arm-in-arm with Chancellor [Helmut] Kohl in recognizing the historic moment for Germany, being supportive of the drive for German unification when frankly most of Europe was hesitant other than [then-President of the European Commission] Jacques Delors. But he did so in a way that also kept an eye on the overall interests of others in Europe. He obviously was focused on having a united Germany in NATO because that was also important to reassure people in Europe that the united Germany would follow the path of West Germany of the past 40 years.
On the domestic side just one more example: People often just look at Bush as a foreign policy president, but actually if you look some of his domestic legislation, he did some landmark legislation with the American with Disabilities Act, revising the Clean Air Act and obviously his gutsiest step was, as he was approaching the Gulf War, he took the step of being willing to raise revenues for a budget deal, which really was the precursor of what Clinton then also did, which put us in a much better budget path for the 1990s, because it put caps on spending. That was a political debacle for him that he was willing to take that step and combined with a recession, he paid a huge price in failing to get reelected.
I hope that historians will recognize more what he accomplished in four years both internationally and domestically.
Former World Bank President Robert Zoellick
In Germany, President Bush senior is remembered as the US president who was instrumental in achieving German unification. How did he view Germany and why was he, unlike many other international leaders, supportive and not opposed to German unification?
He viewed Germany as a friend and partner. Quite early on he gave an interview where he supported the idea of German unification even at a time that Germans were a little hesitant to speak about the topic. I think he gave some freedom for Kohl and others to take those steps.
He believed that German democracy had succeeded, that Germany was a strong ally and that this was one of the good qualities of the American experience — we Americans didn’t fear Germany, we saw Germans as our partners. It was a sign of confidence and faith in working with Germany, and it reflected the kind of assurances he could give others that were anxious like Britain or France and others, that the United States remained committed to transatlantic relations and also to those in Eastern Europe.
To give Kohl his credit, he partly earned this in that he had taken some very courageous steps in the 1980s with the dual track commitments and the intermediate range missiles. Everyone knew this was a very gutsy thing for Kohl to do. It lead to the INF treaty and the success of eliminating those weapons. So Kohl and Germany had earned the trust.
Read more: What does it mean to be German in a unified country?
Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, and George H.W. Bush and remnants of the Berlin Wall
Do you think that his role in making German unification possible could be his most important foreign policy achievement?
Our policy, while focused on German unification, was also focused on a Europe whole and free. I would put German unification kind of as the key stone of a peaceful end of the Cold War in a way that created structures for the future. I personally think that historians don’t recognize enough that Bush not only ended the Cold War peacefully, but that he laid the foundation stones for a future structure — transatlantic relations, the NAFTA negotiations and he almost completed the Uruguay round [of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, GATT]. So in that sense he is a key transitional figure in the international order.
All those things you mentioned — that he was a friend of Germany, a supporter of transatlantic relations and opposed to nationalism, economic or otherwise — that seems like a total contradiction to the current president, doesn’t it?
I want to draw a key distinction, because it might be helpful to your readers. I know that nationalism in some European and German quarters is seen as a negative term. And Macron obviously emphasized this. Nationalism with American internationalists is not a bad term.
Let me relate that to the German unification story. You asked why was Bush comfortable with German unification where others in Europe weren’t? We weren’t afraid of German nationalism. We thought that a successful Germany could be a pillar of the future. He in a very practical way realized that Germany would eventually become the dominant player in Europe, even though it didn’t want to be seen as acting dominantly.
[Current US President Donald] Trump is unusual in that he sets nationalism against internationalism, which I think is a terrible mistake.
And he has a very different worldview, right?
Trump views the 40-year-old order that took us through the Cold War and afterwards as having cost the United States too much, and he thinks that others should bear a greater burden. He doesn’t value the systems and institutions that the US helped create. And this story begins way before 1989: this is the story of the Marshall Plan, GATT, the World Trade Organization, and the story of creating NATO. Those structures were overhauled and adapted at the end of the Cold War. Bush actually had ideas about the future roles of NATO and the trade area.
At the same time we were dealing with those issues in 1989, we had the events of Tiananmen Square in China. Bush took a great political hit to maintain the relations with China, because he saw trying to have a constructive relationship with China as important for the future world order. Now contrast that with today.
Read more: What you need to know about NATO
The country President Bush led, but also his Republican Party, have changed a great deal since the time he served. Would you say President George H.W. Bush was the last traditional, old school Republican president?
These traits carry forward. I know that his son, George Bush 43, didn’t create the same warmth in Europe as his father did, but if you look at his commitment [to] the overall international order, this is not a man who abandoned that structure by any means.
Clearly, Bush 41 kind of represented and was the last president of the World War II generation. And one of the ironies of him as a human being is that he is modest in manner and he actually was kind of a heroic figure in young age as an aviator in the Pacific — almost lost his life and yet politically people said “oh, he is a wimp” — which is kind of odd for a guy who won the Distinguished Flying Cross. But politics is a rough business.
Robert Zoellick, a former president of the World Bank, was the US Chief Negotiator for the 2+4 negotiations that led to German unification. He also served in various other key positions under President George H.W. Bush, among them Deputy White House Chief of Staff and presidential “Sherpa” for the G7 summits.