The following text is the American Academy in Berlin's transcription ofPresident William Jefferson Clinton's laudation at the 2011 Henry A. Kissinger Prize honoring Dr. Helmut Kohl on May 16, 2011.
Chancellor Merkel, President Pearlstine, President Köhler, Gary Smith and Gahl Burt and all the people here at the American Academy. Ambassador Murphy, thank you for your service and your remarks tonight. Bob Zoellick, thank you for your service and your remarks. I want to thank Henry Kissinger for telling me about this and asking me to come. We were joking at dinner about the heavy German accent with which Henry still speaks English. It’s all a fraud actually; he could speak with no accent at all, but he learned a long time ago that the heavier his accent, the more he intimidated whoever he was talking to. Makes you seem 50 or 60 IQ points smarter and makes people like me do whatever he asks. I am profoundly grateful to him for his service to America. Helmut and Maike, I am honored to be with you tonight.
Like others before me, I have to acknowledge two people who are not here: one is my great friend Richard Holbrooke, whose idea gave birth to this Academy, who was a distinguished ambassador to Germany, a great assistant secretary for European affairs, and at the heart of the negotiations ending the horrible violence and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, which Helmut Kohl also had a lot to do with, and I will say more about that in a moment. I bring you greetings from my predecessor, who worked with you as I did, who loves you and admires you as I do. When George Bush and I finally stopped fighting each other we became the best of friends. We do things together and we had lunch together a few weeks ago and he was, Helmut, very jealous of me that I was going to be here tonight.
I would like to talk about a few things that Bob Zoellick mentioned that happened while Helmut Kohl and I served together, but I want to reemphasize something he said. When people leave office and the first brush is taken at their legacy, it is tempting to remember and to elevate any crisis which occurred and the response to it. If there was a war, we remember it. If there was a terrorist act, we remember it. But if they make the right decision on a clean slate and shape the world in a way that takes it in a totally new direction, people go with the flow and they look back and assume that must have been easy. If the dog does not bark, it is the best statecraft, but the weight of the decision may be overlooked.
Think of all the decisions that had to be made after the Berlin Wall fell. The one that gained Helmut Kohl the greatest acclaim, for good reason, is “would East and West Germany be reunified,” but beneath that, if so, on what terms, how? Would Russia become a truly democratic partner with Germany, with Europe and the West, or would they embrace a different kind of hostile autocracy? It was not clear. Remember all those people that were running for the president of Russia in the early days? Would there be a really strong European Union, economically and politically? And how should the US think about it?
When I ran for president, there were actually people in the United States that thought European union was somehow terrible for the United States, that Europe would grow bigger and more prosperous than America—oh, how awful that would be. I said, “That’s a good thing.” But if the European Union would be big and strong, what would that mean? And how open would the doors remain to new members? What about NATO, question four. Everybody’s forgotten this; a lot of people really did think that NATO had fulfilled its purpose when the Berlin Wall fell, and we should just let it go. Bring the troops home from Germany; save the money. We had long deferred needs in the United States. And if we stayed, what in the heck was NATO supposed to do, and who could be in NATO? How would it relate to Russia? And finally, what about Yugoslavia? As it also devolved into independent states and the violence in Bosnia rose, would anybody in Europe be responsible? Could NATO have a role outside its own members’ borders, something that had never happened before? And what could Germany do about it? Because the Germans, while a member of NATO, had never, since World War II, sent German troops beyond its own borders. He had to deal with every one of these questions. And I would argue that the reason my predecessor George H.W. Bush and I both believe Helmut Kohl was the most important European statesman since World War II is that he answered every single one of these questions correctly. Correctly for Germany, correctly for Europe, correctly for the United States, correctly for the future of the world.
Why? Because the fundamental character of the 21st century world is its interdependence. Whether we like it or not, what happens in one place affects people in another. Whether we like it or not, borders look more like nets than walls. Whether we like it or not, all the things that give us so many benefits and enable us to prosperously sit in this beautiful setting tonight also make people more vulnerable to the forces of destruction. Whether we like it or not, there is not even a clear dividing line anymore between what is domestic and international policy. In such a world, the clear mission of people of conscience who love liberty and decency and want prosperity for their people wherever they live is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence and to find ways to organize ourselves so that we can take advantage of the positive as we reduce the negative. All these things that now seem so self-evident were not self-evident when Helmut Kohl had to make the calls.
Enough has been said and written by people who were there and involved in his decision on unification. I want to talk about the others because we were there together. We went to East Germany once, to a meeting at Frederick the Great’s palace, to visit an Opel plant. I used to drive a Buick Opel when I was a little boy, or a young man, anyway. I looked at the people in the streets when there was still enormous income disparity. And Helmut and I had talked over our many meetings and meals together. Hillary says I always loved Kohl best because he’s the only politician I ever met with a bigger appetite than I had. But really, I can’t imagine it was wildly popular in West Germany the first time that people got short of money that he was shipping 500 million dollars a year, or whatever it was, to the East, but he knew that under the best of circumstances the disparity was so great that at some point the very people he tried to help by bringing them into a unified Germany might become a political whirlwind force against his own leadership. But he did the right thing anyway. And it’s not easy. I can tell you, all over the world, this question of economic disparity within national borders is threatening the capacity of people to do the right thing beyond their borders, everywhere in the world. India has the world’s largest middle class and the largest number of really poor people. China has taken more people out of poverty in the last twenty years than ever moved out of poverty in any political unit in history, and yet there are still desperately poor people in rural areas. In the United States, our Native American populations and the rural populations, black, Hispanic, and white are dramatically less well off than people who live in our urban areas and our suburbs. It is a global problem. And he had it amplified because of the transfer from communism to democratic Germany in the unification.
Second thing: When I became president, Germany was the biggest supporter of a democratic Russia under Boris Yeltsin. And the United States under George H.W. Bush was the second largest supporter. I got elected president because we had an economic problem at home, and the first thing I had to do in the spring was to decide whether to put together a 24 billion dollar aid package for Russia. The American people were 74% against it. I talked to Helmut. The Russians wanted to bring their soldiers home from the Baltic States. Yeltsin did not want to be viewed as an imperialist; he wanted a constructive relationship with Europe. They did not have the money to find housing for their people. And Germany was all out there, in effect, on a per person basis so far ahead of every other country. So one of my young aides showed me a poll that said “Mr. President, the American people are against your proposal to help Russia 74 to 20.” I said, “They may be, but three or four years from now, if Russia turns out to be a hyper-nationalist autocracy, with angry poor people who hate America, they’ll be against me 74 to 20, not my proposal. We got hired to do the right thing here. Look what Germany’s doing, let’s do that. I can’t tell you how many times I knew what the right thing to do was because of what he had already done. And with all the ups and downs with Russia, even the challenges that Chancellor Merkel faces today, they never voted for a neo-communist government, they never voted for an imperialist nineteenth-century government, they have struggled to maintain a constructive relationship with Germany, with Europe, with the United States. I have no idea what would have happened if Germany had walked away from Russia and allowed it to collapse to make a mockery of the end of communism and the promise of enterprise. It’s easy to think this is a fool’s errand now because they’ve found lots of oil and gas and the price is high and they’re rolling in money now. It was a nightmare for a few years. And he was there.
Then we had to decide what to do about the EU; you know about that. All I had to do on that was cheer and say I thought Americans who were insecure about the promise of the European Union were being silly. We should never ask anyone else to give up their moment in the sun, never ask anyone else not to maximize their potential, never be afraid of competition from anyone else, as long as it’s on fair terms.
But NATO, now that was another thing altogether. He supported bringing the Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. He knew instinctively we needed to work for the best and prepare for something less in terms of our common security. He knew we needed to leave the doors open, and in 1997, when we let Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic into NATO, the beginning of the expansion that included others – that’s where he had been all along. We were alone, almost, in the early days of my presidency, in trying to get NATO and our European allies to take a tougher line on Bosnia, when people were dying like flies. And the arms embargo was enforced in a way that only helped the Bosnian Serbs and disadvantaged the Bosnian Muslims and Croatians because the Serbs had access to the manufacturing capacity of Belgrade. And then when we made the deal in Dayton sixteen years ago, Helmut Kohl said, “Germany should participate in the first out-of-area deployment of NATO troops since the creation of NATO at the dawn of the Cold War.” And you did. In every case I would argue that he was right. In Bosnia, in NATO, in the European Union, with regard to Russia and with regard to German unification. Five big issues.
When I sit alone and make a list of the things I did in foreign policy that I’m really proud of, there’s something in the last four categories—the unification happened before I showed up—and I realized that all I had to do, to do things I am now, as I move into my old age, really proud of, all I had to do was to follow Helmut Kohl’s lead. In 1994, we walked arm-in-arm through the Brandenburg Gate to the eastern side and had the first great public rally with an American president on the eastern side of the gate. I looked into the eyes of all those hopeful young Germans. And I looked at Helmut Kohl, and I knew that he would realize their hopes for Germany. I knew he had the vision, I knew he had the ability, I knew he had the determination. The 21st century in Europe really began on his watch. It began with his generous vision for German reunification, with his generous and determined support for democratic Russia, for European unification, politically and economically, for bringing other nations into NATO and defining a 21st century mission for NATO so that it didn’t become just a hollow shell of people going to meetings and sharing platitudes, but actually an organization with a mission to help make Europe united, whole, democratic—free for the first time since nation-states rose on the European continent. It had never happened before.
Helmut Kohl has been a good personal friend to me—and to the Secretary of State, I have on good authority. He has been a wonderful friend to America. But most of all he was a friend to the people who put him in office, to the German people. And to young Germans who have been born since he left office and may not even know who he is, I ask those of you here never to allow anyone to take for granted the fact that at a pivotal moment in the history of Europe and the history of the world, Germany was called upon to answer five big questions, and by great good fortune and good judgment, a man who was big in more than physical stature, answered all five correctly. Never take that for granted and never squander that legacy.
Thank you. Thank you, my friend.