German Unity: Lessons for the 21st Century

October 3rd marked the 20th anniversary of German unification, when East and West Germany merged into a united federal state. I was fortunate enough to spend the day in Bremen, Germany, as a member of the U.S. delegation to the official celebrations. The day featured a lovely church service and speeches by the German President, and several themes resonated throughout the ceremonies about today's challenges in the international economy.

In 1990, German unity was not inevitable. Some people questioned whether Germany should be one country. Some people argued that unification would be a drag on West German growth and was too expensive. Abroad, there were those who raised fears of excessive German economic and political power within Europe.

But the determination of the German people, under the leadership of Chancellor Helmut Kohl -- with strong support from President George H.W. Bush and the cooperation of Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev -- made unification possible within one year of the fall of the Wall.

Americans should be proud of the support this country provided to the unification effort, and equally proud of our country's support for West German freedom during the period when Germany and Berlin were divided after World War II. In Berlin, the Allies' airlift of 1948-49, carried out under the leadership of American General Lucius Clay, kept morale high in West Germany and freedom alive in West Berlin during the Soviet blockade, thwarting Soviet hopes that the blockade would cause the Allies to abandon the city.

There was, of course, further American support to Germany and Western Europe during this period. The Marshall Plan played a critical role in rebuilding Germany and bringing Western European countries together after the War. Will Clayton (the first person, in the mid-1940's, to hold the job I do now) was one of the architects of the Plan. And the vision of General George C. Marshall himself and the courageous leadership of President Harry S. Truman promoted America's partnership with Europe during those years. These leaders were also instrumental in creating the major international economic institutions of the postwar era, such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT, the predecessor to the World Trade Organization), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Now the United States and European Union must build on the successes of the past and work together to help advance a 21st-century agenda: restoring growth, encouraging emerging countries to take up their responsibilities in the new global economy, and advancing the agenda of the G-20. We have excellent opportunities to do so next month in the NATO Summit, the U.S.-EU Summit, and the G-20 Summit. Following these, we have another opportunity in the Transatlantic Economic Cooperation (TEC) meeting to strengthen economic cooperation and reduce commercial barriers between the EU and United States. Because we are each other's biggest trading and investment partners -- by far -- success in these goals will boost jobs and growth on both sides of the Atlantic.

One of the founders of what became the European Union, Jean Monnet, once said: "Nothing is possible without men; nothing is lasting without institutions." And that is what our cooperation has built over several decades. Our challenge now is to demonstrate that U.S. and European cooperation can continue to provide a model for the global economy, and to build on the foundations that we have established over the last 65 years.

Germany's celebration of its unity led me to one other observation -- one highly relevant to our own circumstances in the United States. Walking through the streets of Berlin before heading to Bremen, I came across a sign celebrating German unity that read "Wir sind ein Volk" ("We are one people"). There is a strong message in this eloquent phrase. Despite the divisions and acrimony in the United States today, this fundamental truth -- that we Americans are one people -- remains our basic strength. And we should look for as many occasions as we can to recognize and celebrate it.

This post originally appeared at the U.S. Department of State Blog