Canada’s Role in German Unification

Excerpted from an address on the 30th anniversary of the conference at the Canadian War Museum, January 23, 2020.

John J. Noble

Thirty-one years ago next month, newly inaugurated US President George Bush and his Secretary of State James Baker came to Ottawa on Bush’s first visit abroad as President to meet with Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Foreign Affairs Minister Joe Clark. It was a cold and blustery day. In what President Bush called a “typical brainstorming session” he indicated he was looking for advice on how to handle East-West relations and on the very divisive debate between the United States and its Western European allies about short range nuclear weapons (SNF) – the kind that were stationed in West Germany and because of their limited range, if ever used, would also detonate on West and East German soil. With stirrings of glasnost and perestroika coming from Moscow and the successful ratification of the INF Treaty in 1988 (which called for the destruction of all missiles and cruise missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometres within three years), there was considerable domestic pressure on the German and other Western European governments to do something about the short range weapons.

Clark told Baker that Canada favoured negotiations on SNF but not their total elimination. Mulroney suggested Bush do a trip to Eastern Europe armed with a comprehensive plan for dealing with the area. Clark reminded them that West Germany was still the key in the public relations war and the West was losing there. The same day Canada and the U.S. signed an agreement to test the Advanced Cruise Missile over Canadian territory. It had been somewhat controversial in Canada within some circles, but nowhere near as unpopular as testing the cruise missiles had been in 1983. Only 12 protestors showed up outside the Pearson Building. As Director General of the Bureau for International Security and Arms Control, I had a Verification Unit. They, along with military and civilian members of DND, immediately went to work on some ideas which the Canadian Government might propose to Bush. The focus was on a new Open Skies regime which would permit unarmed military aircraft from NATO and the Warsaw Pact to overfly the territory of the other side as a confidence building measure to demonstrate the other side was not engaged in any military buildups. The idea had originally been proposed by President Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950’s, but stalled when the Russians shot down an American U-2 spy plane piloted by Gary Powers. Times had changed since the mid-50’s particularly with the advent of satellites which could provide detailed photography of activity anywhere. However, satellites could not see through clouds, whereas low flying aircraft with infra-red instruments and synthetic aperture radar can.

After discussing our ideas on Open Skies with Deputy Minister Si Taylor and then Joe Clark, I went to Washington in early April to discuss a new Open Skies regime with U.S. officials in the State Department, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and test their interest. It was like pushing on an open door. When PM Mulroney and Clark went to Washington in early May to open the new Canadian Embassy building, they also met with President Bush and Secretary Baker.

Mulroney suggested to Bush that he should propose a new Open Skies regime. He used the arguments prepared for him but added the caution to Bush that if he didn’t make this proposal, then Chairman Gorbachev might. Mulroney also made some suggestions to Bush about how to handle the SNF issue at the NATO Summit in Brussels later that month. In their book A World Transformed: The Collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Unification of Germany, Tiananmen Square and the Gulf War President George Bush and Brent Scowcroft (his National Security Advisor) describe their initial reaction to PM Mulroney’s proposal as follows: Scowcroft writes “To me, the Open Skies proposal smacked of gimmickry, and would wrongly give the impression that we did not have the brain power to think of something innovative and had to reach back 30 years for an idea. After all, we now had satellites to do such surveillance. I lost the argument because I was unable to come up with anything better”. That in itself was a compliment to our team’s work. Bush wrote “I didn’t feel that Open Skies was such a bad idea—it looked like a no-lose proposition from our side. Gorbachev, committed to glasnost, would find it hard from a public-relations view to reject it. It was old hat, but given the new openness offensive by Gorbachev, I thought we had a lot to gain.”

Three days later Bush included the Open Skies proposal in his speech to Texas A & M University. It went virtually unnoticed by the American press which prompted Clark to write an op-ed in the New York Times suggesting not to forget Open Skies.

At the NATO Summit the first big issue was SNF. The Germans and many Europeans (except the British) wanted to get rid of the category since it could only be used within Germany. During the debate Mulroney turned to Bush across the table and said “Mr. President I want to remind you of something once said by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Learned Hand: leadership to be effective has to take into account the views of others.” You won’t find that in Mulroney’s Memoirs, but I was the note-taker and included it in my report. The leaders tasked their foreign ministers with coming up with a solution. In a late-night session, there was considerable tension. At one-point German Foreign Minister Genscher, replying to an intervention by Clark, publicly asked “and Joe how many nuclear weapons do you have on Canadian territory?” The impasse was broken when one of Baker’s aides (Dennis Ross) came over to Clark and asked him to put his ideas on the table. The key was that there be a negotiation of a “partial reduction”, not the elimination, of SNF. Everyone accepted the compromise. Mulroney publicly gave credit to Clark’s “deft pen” for finding a solution.

The Summit leaders then unanimously endorsed the idea of Open Skies proposed by Bush. I left almost immediately after the Summit for Budapest, Prague, Warsaw and Moscow to brief my counterparts on the results of the NATO Summit including the SNF debate and the Open Skies idea. The Hungarians were very positive on Open Skies and wanted to be involved in it as a means of demonstrating independence from the USSR. The Czechoslovaks were also open to consider it. But Prague was still a dreary place. While I was there the First Secretary at our Embassy Rob McRae went out for a clandestine dinner with Vaclav Havel. The Poles were fascinated by the SNF debate and that the new U.S. President had actually listened to concerns of his partners. The Soviets were the most sceptical of the idea and wondered why they were hearing about it from Canadians, not Americans. We were able to provide the Soviets with factual responses to all of their questions and thereby establish that this was a serious proposal designed to build confidence on both sides.

By late summer Secretary Baker and his Soviet counterpart Eduard Shevardnadze had agreed that they would come to the start of the Open Skies negotiations. Canada volunteered to host the meeting and Joe Clark sent out invitations for the meeting to take place in Ottawa in mid-February 1990.

Under Lysyshyn’s direction, Peter Jones, departmental lawyers and others, including representatives from National Defence, were active in drafting basic principles for an Open Skies regime which could be presented to the NATO Foreign Ministers Meeting in December. The Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989. On November 20 Mulroney went to Moscow for a four-hour discussion with Gorbachev during which he delivered a private message from President Bush that Bush would “not posture on the Wall” or as Fen Hampson records it in his Mulroney book Master of Persuasion “not milk the fall of the wall at Gorbachev’s expense.” Mulroney debriefed Bush in person on his discussions with Gorbachev prior to Bush’s meeting with him in Malta in early December 1989. He told Bush he had detected “an overwhelming hatred among the Soviets for the thought of German unification and how Gorbachev had likened it to eating “unripened fruit”. There was another NATO Summit in December where Bush debriefed NATO leaders on his Malta Summit with Gorbachev as did Mulroney on his discussions with the Soviet leader. The following week, the Canadian draft on basic principles for an Open Skies regime was approved by the NATO Foreign Ministers, but no one was proposing that German unification be discussed at the Open Skies Conference.

Another trip to Eastern Europe followed to give them our draft principles for an Open Skies regime. While in Budapest the first stirrings of problems in Romania became public. The Hungarians were fully supportive and were selling small pieces of barbed wire from the Iron Curtain which had come down on their border with Austria during the summer as souvenirs. They agreed to allow an unarmed Canadian military aircraft to do a demonstration flight In January before the Conference opened. In Prague the Velvet Revolution was in full force. Vaclav Havel’s photo was on every pane of glass on every building. We attended a public demonstration in Wenceslas Square along with thousands of Czechoslovaks. My counterpart was very concerned that his daughter was striking at university. She told him “don’t worry Dad, we are going to finish what you didn’t do in 1968.” They agreed to allow the Canadian demonstration flight to fly across Czechoslovak airspace en route to and from Hungary. The mood in Warsaw had changed too and they wanted to support the Open Skies proposal. By the time we got to Moscow and were having lunch with our Soviet counterparts hosted by Canadian Ambassador Vernon Turner, his wife came in to announce the fall of Ceausescu in Bucharest. The Soviets still worried that the regime would hurt them more than help. But their Foreign Minister had agreed to come and we weren’t giving them a take it or leave it text.

Prime Minister Mulroney welcomed the foreign ministers of NATO and the Warsaw Treaty Organization to their first meeting ever at the Conference opening on February 12. Mulroney and Clark had hosted Jim Baker and Eduard Shevardnadze for breakfast earlier that morning where the German issue was discussed at great length. Mulroney writes in his Memoirs that Shevardnadze was: “deeply troubled by German reunification but resigned to it”. Neither Baker or Shevardnadze hinted they were about to announce a process for German unification later the next day, probably because they had not yet agreed to do so. German Foreign Minister Hans Dietrich Genscher arrived in Ottawa from Moscow where the idea of German unification had been broached and he debriefed a NATO Ministerial caucus. He had breakfast with PM Mulroney on February 13, where German unification was discussed and Genscher expressed thanks to Mulroney for his supportive statements. Again, no hint about the Two-plus-Four agreement that would be announced later that day, probably because the six foreign ministers had not yet agreed on a text.

The first major development at the Ministerial discussion was the very public dissolution of the Warsaw Pact as every WTO minister (except perhaps the Bulgarian) took his distance from the Soviets on the Open Skies proposal. The Soviets made a private offer to the Americans on troop reductions in Europe which Jim Baker described privately to Joe Clark as “too good”, but which the Americans would have to accept in an announcement later the next day. At lunch on the second day, Joe Clark learned from British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd that the Berlin Four (USA, USSR, France and the UK) intended to announce the start of negotiations for German reunification with the two Germanies later that afternoon. (The Two-plus- Four exercise). Clark suggested to Baker that it mightbe wise to hold a caucus of NATO Ministers to discuss these matters, since German reunification had been part of NATO’s creed since 1955. When the text of the announcement was circulated several NATO ministers, especially the Dutch (Vanden Broeck) and Italian (de Michellis) minsters, complained about exclusion from the “Two-Plus-Four” process. German minister Genscher, who was not there when the discussion began, told them “you are not even in the game”. Clark suggested a break to caucus with Baker who came up to me and admonishly said “and you wanted this meeting”? I replied as a true diplomat “yes and isn’t it better for ministers to get the piss & vinegar out of their systems here rather than back in capitals?” Baker agreed and undertook to promise all NATO Ministers that he would keep them fully informed as the Two-plus-Four talks proceeded. That calmed the NATO ministers as did Baker’s suggestion that Clark announce the American/Soviet agreement on troop reductions in his closing press conference. Thus ended what was probably the most raucous NATO foreign ministers meeting in history. Since the Warsaw Treaty Organization had dissolved in front of our eyes, something I never expected to experience in my lifetime, there would never be another meeting between Warsaw Pact and NATO Foreign Ministers.

Clark sent a memo to Mulroney outlining what had happened at the NATO Ministerial Meeting during the Open Skies Conference which concluded that prior to Ottawa there was no structure formalizing the involvement of anyone outside of Germany on the unification issue. Ottawa changed that – and that could become the most important accomplishment of the conference (indeed it was). Clark went on “Naturally other countries want into the consultation. Canada does. Some argue that we should protest the Ottawa arrangements because it leaves us out. That would be extremely short-sighted and could undo a very important accomplishment and undermine Canada’s claim to be involved in negotiations respecting Germany. Our standing is high after the conference. Nations around the table appreciated how we defused an ugly atmosphere. To a country they agree that Two-plus-Four is better than the void that existed before Ottawa. Our challenge is to build on the Ottawa agreement – always bearing in mind the extreme sensitivity of the German question. A last comment: we were fortunate to be in the chair. The issues in Europe are so compelling that geographic Europeans are inclined to leave us out. That makes the constancy of our troop commitment all the moreimportant. Chairing puts us at the centre of the action and gives us an unusual opportunity to influence next steps. As we discussed the CSCE (Conference for Security and Cooperation in Europe) holds the best prospects for us. My strong advice is that, if asked, you speak positively about the Two-plus-Four (the Ottawa agreement) as an important step toward the kind of consultation required respecting German unification.” Derek Burney, Mulroney’s former Chief of Staff and then Ambassador in Washington, who was not at the Conference, had a somewhat more jaundiced view of Canada’s exclusion from the Two-plus-Four exercise: he complained bluntly to National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft that “even the piano player in a whore house knows what is going on upstairs.”

The Bush/Scowcroft book outlines in considerable detail how the Administration’s position on German reunification evolved almost daily in the first six weeks of 1990: Scowcroft favoured an NSC idea that would see the two Germanies work out the details of reunification and then present them to the Four Occupying Powers for their blessing. The State Department favoured an approach to allow the two Germanies to work out the internal aspects of reunification with the Four Powers concerned only with the external international aspects of unification. The decision to go with the Two-plus-Four format was made on January 29 when Bush discussed it with British Foreign Secretary Hurd who replied that PM Thatcher favoured a CSCE Summit. Genscher proposed that the two Germanies would determine the extent of some sort of confederation and then take it to the CSCE for approval. On February 2 Genscher accepted the Two-plus- Four formula as long as it was not called “Four-plus-Two” (something the French did call it even after they agreed to Two-plus-Four). Baker discussed the idea with Shevardnadze in Moscow on February 7 where there was disagreement on whether the united Germany would be neutral or part of NATO. Baker raised it with Gorbachev on February 9
and did not receive a definitive reply on whether Gorbachev would accept a unified Germany inside NATO. Scowcroft said he was not certain Kohl fully supported Two-plus-Four. On February 12 Baker came to Ottawa “to try to nail down the Two-Plus-Four formula among the six countries involved. It took “some intensive negotiations in ad hoc meetings” before the six foreign ministers agreed to the Two-plus-Four exercise. So when Douglas Hurd informed Joe Clark about the decision to launch the Two-plus-Four exercise it was almost immediately after it had been agreed. It was not something that had been agreed upon in advance and just formalized at Ottawa.

President Bush spoke with PM Mulroney just before he was to meet Chancellor Kohl at Camp David toward the end of February 1990. PM Mulroney told him he was concerned personally that unification for Germany appeared to be fuelled not just by the legitimate desire of the two states to come together, but by the total collapse of the economy of one state and the economic strength of another. I told Genscher you’re not really talking about a merger here; this is a takeover. Bush then told Mulroney it had been suggested to him that NATO allow Soviet troops to remain in East Germany all the same. That idea angered Mulroney who said “I don’t see how, in fairness, we can accept that,” “The minimum price for German unity should be full German membership in NATO and full support in all the Western organizations and full support for American leadership of the Alliance. I indicated to Genscher and I will tell you: Canada is not renting its seat in Europe. We paid for it. If people want to know how Canada paid for its seat in Europe, they should check out the graves in Belgium, France, Italy and the Netherlands. NATO got us this far. Solidarity in the Alliance will get us further.” The discussion is reported in Mulroney’s Memoirs and the Bush Scowcroft book in almost identical terms. Bush added “Mulroney was right”.

The Two-plus-Four exercise played out with increasing rapidity ending in early October 1990 with German reunification as a full member of NATO.

In Fen Hampson’s 2018 book Master of Persuasion Brian Mulroney’s Global Legacy there is an introduction from James Baker which notes “Mulroney’s counsel was helpful as the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and Western allies found themselves divided on the thorny issue of German reunification, which Bush and Mulroney strongly supported”. Hampson’s book also notes that in November 1993 German Chancellor Helmut Kohl told a Committee of the Bundestag that “Germans will always remember three foreign leaders for their work in assisting their nation’s quest for unity. Looking back, I must name three people who really helped us. I am referring only to Heads of State and Government. There was George Bush, who did not hesitate for one minute when it came to Germany unity. There was Brian Mulroney. And there was Mikhail Gorbachev.” No greater compliment could have been paid by Chancellor Kohl to Mulroney. Kohl made no mention of either PM Margaret Thatcher or President Francois Mitterrand who proved to be on the wrong side of history on this issue.

Neither George Bush nor Brian Mulroney could have imagined what would transpire in the ten months after Mulroney first proposed the Open Skies idea to Bush in early May 1989. That it all happened without shots being fired (except in Romania) is due in large measure to Bush and Baker having heeded Mulroney’s advice on the need to take into account the views of others and also to Michael Gorbachev and Helmut Kohl, including the on-going advice offered to all three by Brian Mulroney.

In 1991 Genscher presented a slab of the Berlin Wall to the Canadian Government as thanks for the role it played in German reunification at the Open Skies Conference. That piece of the wall sat for 18 years in the Government Conference Centre (now the temporary home of the Senate) along with two red and bronze plaques indicating it was a gift from the German Government for the role Canada played in the process of German reunification which started at the Open Skies Conference in the building in 1990. On November 9, 2009 the wall segment was transferred here to the War Museum on the initiative of then PM Harper to serve as
a symbol “to honour the men and women of the Canadian Forces who served during that confrontation (the Cold War). It will also complement the memorial to the Victims of Totalitarian Communism, planned for the capital region by Tribute to Liberty.” The War Museum’s blog of October 31. 2009 date obliquely referred to the Open Skies Conference: “The segment of the Wall now at the Canadian War Museum was presented as a gift to the Canadian people by the German government. It was housed for many years in the Government Conference Centre in downtown Ottawa, the site of a 1990 international summit that helped set the framework for peaceful German reunification. The dramatic, graffiti-adorned piece of reinforced concrete was installed in the Centre in 1991.”

On the occasion of the 20 th anniversary of the Open Skies Conference I wrote an op-ed in the Ottawa Citizen in February 2010 which ended by noting “Last November, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that the section of the wall would be moved to the War Museum in honour of all those Canadian soldiers who served in Europe during the Cold War. It should also stand in honour of Canadian diplomats who were warriors of a different kind in Europe during the Cold War.” I continue to be of that view, which I know Joe Clark shares. I am glad that the section of the Wall is here in this Museum where it can be seen by many more Canadians than was the case at the Government Conference Centre. But I also think there should be a specific reference to the fact that it was presented to Canada by the Government of Germany because of the role played by Canada in German reunification at the 1990 Open Skies Conference. I checked on the text beside the wall two days ago. It reads as follows: “A Gift to Canada: In 1991 the government of Germany presented this section of the Berlin Wall to Canada. A year earlier, officials from East and West Germany, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and France had met in Ottawa, where they agreed to a framework for peaceful German reunification”. While not historically inaccurate (except perhaps to call foreign ministers “officials”), it is still missing the real reason why it was presented to Canada.

John J. Noble was a Canadian ambassador to several countries, director-general of the International Security and Arms Control Bureau and head of the Canadian delegation to the Open Skies conference of February 1990.