Lies at the Heart of Europe

Thirty Novembers ago, leaders of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) met in Paris to inaugurate a post-Cold War order of peace and prosperity. The Conference – encompassing North America and Soviet Asia as well as Europe – had convened at Summit level only once before, in Helsinki in 1975, adopting a ‘Final Act’ enshrining respect for two sometimes contradictory principles – state sovereignty and human rights – as the basis of détente between capitalist West and communist East. Helsinki helped set the stage for the final acts of the Cold War, inspiring dissident movements in Eastern Europe and, from 1985, providing the basic frame for the radical democratizing reforms of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who saw in the CSCE an opportunity to build a ‘Common European Home,’ free of military rivalry and the threat of nuclear war.

Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe 1990

Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe 1990. (Photo by David Valdez, White House Photograph Office, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The unanimously approved ‘Charter of Paris for a New Europe’ declared that “Europe is liberating itself from the legacy of the past.” In this “new era of democracy, peace and unity,” the leaders argued, when “our relations will be founded on respect and cooperation,” we can confidently “pledge to refrain from the threat or use of force” and commit to “settle disputes by peaceful means.”

Key to building this culture of peace – the new ‘common sense’ of ‘common security’ – was the kind of far-reaching arms control and disarmament so instrumental in creating what the Charter called this “time of profound change and historic expectations.” With far less means of waging war, and with powerful new “mechanisms for the prevention and resolution of conflicts,” the hope was both that the ebb-tide of dictatorship would not rip open old wounds – as had already happened in Nagorno-Karabakh, the brutally-contested Armenian-majority enclave in Soviet Azerbaijan – and that the ‘common home’ would have no room, and Zero Tolerance, for The Bomb.

By November 1990, the ‘peace train’ seemed unstoppable. In 1987, the US-Soviet Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty had not only eliminated thousands of the most dangerous missiles in Europe but emboldened Gorbachev to announce, just one year later, the removal of half a million troops from Eastern Europe, effectively evacuating the ‘buffer zone’ brutally established by Moscow after the loss of 25 million Soviet citizens in World War II. In the nuclear age, Gorbachev reasoned, the logic of ‘buffers’ was fatally flawed, and ‘conventional superiority’ a ruinously-expensive ‘insurance policy’ only making ultimate, radioactive ruin more likely.

But while the Superpower confrontation had dominated world affairs for 45 years, the explosive core of the Cold War lay in the heart of Europe. The Charter, adopted on November 21, should ideally have been signed 10 days earlier, on the 11th day of the 11th month, the 72nd anniversary of the 1918 Armistice ending the battlefield slaughter of World War I – while maintaining hostilities, in the atrocious form of a starvation blockade, against German civilians. Instead of embracing an agenda of radical mutual disarmament – thus honoring innumerable promises to make the ‘Great War’ the war to end war – the vindictive Treaty of Versailles, finally forced on Berlin in July 1919, proved instead a ‘Peace to End All Peace,’ succeeding only in dooming a fledgling democracy and fast-breeding the racist psychosis of Nazism.


“After Auschwitz,” the German political theorist Theodore Adorno despairingly declared, “poetry is impossible.” For the victorious powers of WWII, ‘Germany’ itself was no longer possible: its dominant region, Prussia, was abolished, and the country – so bloodthirsty in its pursuit of ‘lebensraum’ (‘living space’) – split in two. So intolerably scarring, in fact, were the wounds of Hitlerism that the potentially cataclysmic confrontation between NATO and the Warsaw Pact was widely considered a risk worth taking to ‘keep Germany down.’ Gorbachev’s revolutionary move was to name a pan-European ‘common home’ as his preferred price for agreeing to German reunification. And while Russia would seek friendly relations with all its CSCE neighbors, its role as a major European power would, he believed, be guaranteed by the closest of ties with its bitterest 20th century enemy.

If the promise of Paris 1990 had been kept – and the ghost of Paris 1919 finally exorcised – what would Europe look like now? Well, what it does look like now is the opposite of a ‘common home’: a new Cold War (with NATO, this time, ‘enjoying’ conventional superiority) and nuclear arms race (with the INF Treaty, attacked from both sides, in ruins) a ‘warm war’ in Eastern Ukraine, with Crimea annexed by Russia principally to forestall its absorption into NATO; the Balkans still simmering and scarred by the wars and ethnic ‘cleansing’ of the 1990s; and a hot war raging again in (and beyond) Nagorno-Karabakh.

On August 5 this year, 103 US bipartisan foreign policy experts signed an Open Letter entitled, “It’s Time to Rethink Our Russia Policy,’ which begins:

US-Russian relations are at a dangerous dead end… The risk of a military confrontation that could go nuclear is again real.

‘Dead end,’ in this context, could mean just that, the deaths of millions – and irreparable climate breakdown – caused by “two countries with the power to destroy each other and, in 30 minutes, to end civilization as we know it.”

Here then, absurdly, we stand: 30 years after the Paris Charter, 30 minutes from Armageddon! What the hell happened – and needs to happen now?


From Peace to War

With the help of voluminous archival material, much recently declassified, a clear outline is emerging of the duplicities and machinations undermining efforts to build a ‘common European home.’ For while the prospect delighted many, it appalled a powerful few determined to claim a reunited Germany for ‘their,’ Western, sphere – and to push Moscow to the margins.

On New Year’s Eve, 1989, French President François Mitterrand proposed the establishment of a ‘Confederation of Europe’ (the CSCE minus North America) and the dissolution of NATO and the Warsaw Pact. Such a Confederation, he argued, should be established – at least in principle – before German unification, in order to reassure Moscow (and Paris) that a united Germany would not become part of NATO. In the New Year, West German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher advocated replacing both blocs with a transformed CSCE (including North America): a demilitarized, pan-European solution to ‘the German problem’ also supported by (among many others) the new Czechoslovakian dissident-turned-President Vaclav Havel.

Dedication of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1995. Presidents Bill Clinton of the United States, Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Michal Kováč of the Slovak Republic.

Dedication of the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, 1995. Presidents Bill Clinton of the United States, Václav Havel of the Czech Republic and Michal Kováč of the Slovak Republic. (Photo by Baculis1, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Genscher also proposed that if – temporarily – a reunited Germany were to join NATO, NATO troops and weapons would not be stationed on former East German territory. Astonishingly, however, he did not clear his initiative with his boss, Chancellor Helmut Kohl, already being lobbied by Washington to pursue a ‘NATO First’ strategy. Cynically central to that strategy was paying lip-service to the CSCE as part of – in the words of historians Svetlana Savranskaya and Tom Blanton – “a cascade of assurances about Soviet security given…throughout the process of German unification”: most infamously the pledge given by US Secretary of State James Baker (and others) that NATO would expand “not one inch eastward.”

Though it has often been claimed that Baker meant only that NATO would not expand into East Germany, and that the idea of any further expansion was in no one’s mind, the record shows the “not one inch” mantra was intended to allay Soviet fears of a broad and deep eastward sweep. A February 1990 British memorandum quoted Genscher insisting that “when he talked [to the Soviets] about not wanting to expand NATO, that applied to other states” besides East Germany. “The Russians,” the memo continues sympathetically:

…must have some assurance that if, for example, the Polish Government left the Warsaw Pact one day, they would not join NATO the next.

Yet by mid-1991, four states (now led by pro-Western elites) were already agitating to join NATO: Hungary, Poland, Romania, and – after what has been dubbed Havel’s ‘education’ by US leaders – Czechoslovakia.


Gorbachev naturally believed Genscher spoke for Kohl, and that Baker was ruling out any and all NATO expansion: and he soon heard the same tune played by Kohl, Bush and NATO’s West German Secretary-General Manfred Woerner. Some of Gorbachev’s closest advisors begged him not to agree to German reunification without legally-binding guarantees (or before the CSCE had been strengthened). As Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze prophesied to Baker in May 1990, if a “united Germany becomes a member of NATO it will blow up perestroika” (the democratic ‘restructuring’ of Soviet society):

Our people will not forgive us…. They will say we ended up the losers…

President Reagan, Vice-President Bush meet with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor's Island, New York, 1988.

President Reagan, Vice-President Bush meet with Soviet General Secretary Gorbachev on Governor’s Island, New York, 1988. (Reagan Archives University of Texas)

As far as President George H.W. Bush was concerned, that was exactly what the Soviets were. In the words of a major 2017 study, The Road to the Charter of Paris: “Bush did not treat Gorbachev as a (future) partner, but as a (defeated) enemy.” And the authors quote Bush, “referring to the Soviet position against Germany in NATO,” gloating in February 1990:

To hell with that. We prevailed and they didn’t. We cannot let the Soviets snatch victory from defeat.

The study documents what “present-day historians,” both Russian and Western, “increasingly speak [of as] a ‘broken spirit of cooperative security,’” a shared recognition that while “the Soviet Union in 1990 was promised an inclusive and cooperative future European security order,” what it got, “from the very beginning,” was an order “centred” on an “exclusive NATO,” an outcome dictated primarily by a leader hitherto widely “praised” (though certainly not by the Spectator), for “contributing to a peaceful end of the Cold War”:

Based on archival sources and recent historiography, the role of President Bush during 1989-90 needs to be revised…New studies emphasize the lost momentum after Reagan and Gorbachev had developed mutual trust…


Most fatefully, the report argues, soon after taking office – and for most of the not uneventful year of 1989 – Bush ‘paused’ to review US policy, a “cumbersome” ‘time out’ which “left Gorbachev’s radical arms control proposals unanswered.” It is crucial, though, to appreciate not just the height of Bush’s arrogance, but the depth of his fear that without keeping, in his words, “Germany on the NATO reservation,” the American-dominated Alliance might begin to unravel. At a time of sky-high Western, and especially German, approval for Gorbachev – ‘Gorbymania’ – there was sky-high anxiety Kohl might ‘buy’ unification by ‘selling’ NATO membership and embracing a CSCE revolution. As US Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz (a future architect of America’s illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq) conceded to Czechoslovakia’s Defense Minister in April 1991, “the very existence of NATO was in doubt a year ago.” Or as Baker succinctly warned Bush in early 1990:

The real risk to NATO is the CSCE.

Bush needed no convincing, telling Kohl in February that year, “the CSCE cannot replace NATO as the core of the West’s deterrence strategy in Europe.” He also insisted “the presence of nuclear-armed US forces on German territory was not negotiable,” worried such a step could rapidly lead to a nuclear-free NATO (and Europe). But without a Soviet threat, what were the weapons ‘deterring?’

Rhetorically, at its July 1990 Summit in London, NATO pledged to transform itself from a primarily military to a primarily political alliance – while conspicuously failing to rule out expansion, or rule in denuclearization. By then, however, it was too late for Moscow to press ‘pause’: Gorbachev had already agreed that a reunited Germany – a breakneck process completed in September – could join NATO. The ‘NATO First’ strategy – a.k.a. ‘softening the Soviets’ – had prevailed, ensuring, as the Road to the Charter of Paris study asserts, that “the CSCE never came first, which by implication meant that Russia never did.” Not that the last Soviet leaders wanted to ‘come first,’ just to not be shut out, stuck with what Russian President Boris Yeltsin would call “a Cold Peace.”

In May 1990, Baker almost gave the cynical game away when, after pledging to “transform the CSCE into a permanent institution that would become an important cornerstone of a new Europe,” he told Gorbachev that while it was “nice to talk about pan-European security structures,” the “wonderful dream” was “just a dream. In the meantime, NATO exists…”

It sure does, now as far east as the Baltic borders of Russia.


The New German Question

NATO today faces a new ‘German question,’ one only Germans can answer: do they still want to host US nuclear weapons on their territory? NATO’s four other ‘nuclear sharing’ states – Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey – face the same choice, but Germany’s decision is certain to carry the greatest political and symbolic weight.

Anti-NATO protest Strasbourg, April 2009

French police fire teargas at anti-NATO protestors in Strasbourg in April 2009, ahead of a summit celebrating the 60th anniversary of the military alliance. (Photo by Jos van Zetten from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Though their existence is an absurd official secret, Germany’s Büchel air force base in the western Rhineland houses around 20 American B-61 ‘tactical’ gravity bombs, each with variable ‘dial-a-yield’ options ranging from 0.3 kilotons to 170 kilotons (10+ Hiroshimas). And what the ‘sharing’ boils down to is that “in the case of a nuclear strike, the American soldiers who guard the bombs…would attach the bomb to German fighter jets and activate the code”: “Americans activate the nukes, Germans deliver them.

In 2010, the German Parliament passed a resolution urging the government to work “emphatically” to persuade the Obama Administration to withdraw the weapons. (Either the government ignored the parliament, or the Americans ignored the Germans.) Ten years later, crunch time has arrived, with Germany’s fleet of European-manufactured Tornado bombers due to be replaced by new jets – American F-18s – capable of delivering, as early as 2022, a new warhead, the B61-12, ranked by one analyst as “the most dangerous nuclear weapon in America’s arsenal” due to its vastly increased accuracy and hence “usability” in a ‘bunker-busting’ first strike.


On May 3, to quote the memorable opening of a report in Politico:

…just days before Germany is set to celebrate the anniversary of its liberation from Nazi rule, leading members of the governing Social Democrats are demanding that the country be freed from what they consider another scourge – American nuclear weapons.

The Social Democrats (SPD) may be only the junior partner in the coalition led by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), but it was still a ‘bombshell’ for SPD parliamentary leader Rolf Mützenich to declare that “nuclear weapons on German territory do not heighten our security, just the opposite. The time has come for Germany to rule out a future stationing.”

Mützenich was backed by party co-leader Saskia Esken, who placed the issue squarely in the context of the end of the Cold War:

Whoever thinks that glasnost [Gorbachev’s policy of ‘openness’] and perestroika were made possible by the West’s nuclear deterrent missed something. Atomic weaponry on German soil, on German airplanes, is neither an end in itself nor desirable – not to mention very expensive.

The SPD seems to have embraced a defense and foreign policy ‘perestroika’ of its own, partly under the influence of the Coronavirus pandemic, an “enemy,” as Mützenich observed on April 18, “that is raging in all countries”:

We can only fight this together – but not militarily. In other words, it is time for disarmament and more international cooperation. If NATO countries spend thousands of billions of euros on armaments, that is not an appropriate response…We need clear agreements on disarmament and conventional and nuclear weapons. I can well imagine that Russia would be open to this.


High-profile critics hastily took aim at the SPD’s new stance. German Foreign Minister Heiko Mass denounced “unilateral steps that undermine trust.” US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell argued that “instead of undermining the solidarity that forms the basis of NATO’s nuclear deterrence, it is now time for Germany to meet its commitments.” Two prominent advisors to Joe Biden, Jim Townsend and Michèle Flourney (widely tipped as Biden’s pick for Defense Secretary) accused the SPD of “striking at the heart of the Trans-Atlantic bargain” by backing away from “a solemn undertaking.” And NATO’s Secretary-General, Jens Stoltenberg of Norway, even managed to argue that the alliance’s nuclear sharing arrangements “directly support non-proliferation,” as if Germany in 2020 would seek its own Bomb if it couldn’t play with someone else’s.

German Greens (Die Gruenen) at the climate summit demonstration in Copenhagen on 12 December 2009.

German Greens (Die Gruenen) at the climate summit demonstration in Copenhagen on 12 December 2009. (Photo by greens_climate, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Will the push-back work? No decision will be taken until after the parliamentary elections next Autumn, and nuclear sharing, which has never been popular, has never been less so. Since its foundation in 1980, the party most vehemently opposed – to all things nuclear – has been the Greens, now riding higher in the polls than ever and perhaps on course to form a ruling coalition with the SPD and the ‘Left’ Party.

The Greens, indeed, are committed not just to getting nuclear weapons out of Germany but to getting Germany into the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – due to ‘enter into force’ in January – currently viewed favorably by nearly 70% of Germans, as well as the two German signatories – former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer (Green); former Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping (SPD) – to a September 21 ‘Open Letter in Support of the TPNW,’ released by over 50 former leaders of 20 NATO states.

A fully denuclearized Germany would not be a sufficient condition for the denuclearization of European security, the ‘wonderful dream’ last within reach 30 years ago. But it may well be a necessary one, sparking the intensity of debate needed to prevail against powerful interests – vested in a culture of war, not peace – still standing between Europe and its rightful inheritance.

Featured photo: Ani-NATO protestors, Strasbourg, April 2009 by Jos van Zetten from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Note: This article has been corrected to remove reference to the OSCE as having commissioned the Road to the Charter of Paris report. In fact, the report was commissioned by the OSCE Network of Think Tanks and Academic Institutions, an independent network of institutions researching on various aspects of relevance to the OSCE.

Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.