A character in Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises describes the two ways in which he went bankrupt: “Gradually, then suddenly.” The same thing can be said about the political bankruptcy of the Soviet Union. In retrospect, we can see the gradual erosion of the regime’s power and legitimacy, but its final collapse was sudden and, to almost everyone, surprising. M. E. Sarotte’s superb new book examines the decade after the great surprise of 1989 when political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic struggled to come to terms with the dangers and opportunities of a new international order.
The first and in many ways most dramatic expression of these dangers and opportunities was the “German question,” which was dramatically reframed by the opening of the Berlin Wall in early November 1989. No one knows this story better than Sarotte, who has written two fine works on the process of German unification. In Not One Inch, she brilliantly captures how an extraordinary interplay of long-term trends and sudden events made unification possible. Once the wall was gone, the increasing flow of migrants from east to west threatened the stability of the Federal Republic and, more importantly, the very existence of the East German state. Until November 9, West Germany’s policy toward the East had emphasized the use of economic pressure to produce gradual changes—this was the essence of the Ostpolitik begun by Willy Brandt in the late 1960s and eventually accepted by the majority of Germans. By the end of November, gradual change was no longer an option. As Chancellor Helmut Kohl told the British Foreign Minister in May 1990, “foreign policy was like mowing grass for hay. You had to gather what you had cut in case of a thunderstorm.” The storm that Kohl feared most was the replacement of Gorbachev’s reformist government in Moscow with a regime less willing to allow the two postwar German states to unify peacefully. After all, in 1990 there were still 338,000 Soviet troops on German soil. Could one really be sure that they would simply pack up and go home?
In Washington, the Bush administration sympathized with Kohl’s desire to use this historic opportunity to end Germany’s postwar division. But American policymakers were worried that Kohl might be willing to accept, as the Soviets insisted, a neutral status that could detach a unified Germany from the Western alliances that had been the anchor of West German foreign policy throughout its existence. Knowing how this turned out, it is easy to overlook the complex combination of diplomatic skill and good luck that made it possible to have a peacefully united Germany, still firmly integrated in NATO and the European Union.
Germany’s future was only one of the difficult questions posed by the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the international system created during the Cold War. The Russian Federation (still in possession of the world’s second-largest nuclear arsenal), the former members of the Warsaw Pact, and the Soviet Union’s successor states (including Ukraine, independent since 1991) had to create a new set of political, economic, and social institutions and, at the same time, redefine their place in the post–Cold War order. In Washington, the Bush and Clinton administrations had to address the security demands of the new Eastern European democracies without threatening Russian interests and undermining Boris Yeltsin’s fragile and increasingly erratic government. In the end, American policymakers failed to find a way to do both. By taking advantage of Yeltsin’s vulnerability and the Russian Federation’s desperate economic situation, they were able to impose a NATO expansion that included most of Eastern Europe. (Ukraine and Georgia were promised NATO membership but without a clear timetable). At the end of 1999, when Yeltsin was replaced by a former KGB operative and local politician named Vladimir Putin, it appeared that the West had succeeded in shaping a new European order in its own interest. The price of this victory is, of course, now becoming apparent.
Not One Inch is a book to which historians will return again and again, as they try to understand why an era that began with such promise ended so badly. Sarotte’s scholarly apparatus, a hefty 177 pages, will provide a treasure trove of material for future researchers. But this is also a book for our historical moment, a work to be read and pondered now, as we live with the gradual and then sudden bankruptcy of the post–Cold War international system. It is no surprise that the first edition has already sold out and that a paperback will be issued soon.