Laudatio auf den ehemaligen US-Außenminister James Baker

Laudatio vor der American Academy in Berlin anlässlich der Verleihung des Henry A. Kissinger Preises 2014 an den ehemaligen US-Außenminister James Baker am 7. Oktober 2014.

„James Baker needs a total of three people to give speeches in his honour. One person alone probably wouldn´t manage to talk about all of Baker’s achievements.

I’m probably the right person to pay tribute to his finance policies. Secretary of the Treasury James Baker: It´s a stage of his career that sounds a little unfamiliar to most of us. But that was also a position held by James Baker, in the second half of the 1980s. And so I have recalled the fiscal policy challenges during that period.

I hope you will allow a serving finance minister to scrutinise the policies of the past with a view to learning lessons for the present.

I was interested to read that, although Baker was successful in his efforts to weaken the dollar at the time, he was not able to convert America’s negative trade balance into a surplus.

That experience should be a lesson for those of our European partners who believe today that artificially weakening the euro through monetary policy would boost their weak exports.

As regards central bank policy, I hope I am not out of line when I describe James Baker as a pragmatist. It is no accident, that one of his most famous quotes relates to members of the Bundesbank, whom he described – with less affection than the German public generally feels for them – as seeing “inflation under every rock, every pebble“.

It is interesting to note that James Baker had to deal with a debt crisis of his own during his time at the helm of the Treasury. That crisis related to over-indebted Latin American countries. It is also interesting to note that it was a prolonged process of trial and error, with a mix of debt rescheduling and fiscal and structural reforms which defused the situation at least.

What James Baker said at the time can be said of today’s euro crisis as well: “We must not deceive ourselves. There are no easy solutions and none of us can escape our responsibilities.“ I wish that certain people in Europe would take that lesson on board.

As Secretary of State – and I hope that I’m not pre-empting Hans-Dietrich Genscher here, but that is the advantage of speaking first – as Secretary of State, a position he took on in January 1989, James Baker wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that he saw for a far-reaching détente in east-west relations.

Indeed, in the period before November 1989, the Americans were way ahead of us Europeans in their perception and analysis of the global political changes that were on the horizon and that were already beginning to happen, mainly as a result of Gorbachev´s policies.

I will never forget the time when Vernon Walters, the new U.S. ambassador to Germany, introduced himself to me. It was the end of April, start of May 1989, and I had just been appointed interior minister.

Walters predicted that German reunification would happen during his term in office. I diplomatically asked him how long he would be in Germany for. He told me three years. At the time, I thought it was a bold statement, to say the least. But in the end everything happened even faster than that.

James Baker visited East Germany in December 1989. He met Hans Modrow, the last prime minister of East Germany who was not democratically elected, in the “Interhotel” in Potsdam. James Baker was the first and last U.S. Secretary of State
to set foot in the GDR. He would later recall the following amusing incident:

While he was talking to Modrow, a man suddenly came into the room. He looked like Egon Krenz, who had just stepped down as general secretary of the East German Communist party and East German head of state. James Baker thought to himself:
Now there´s going to be trouble. But then the man asked him if he would like some mineral water. He was just the waiter.

I first met James Baker in Washington on the 20th of February 1990, during my time as German interior minister. I was visiting New York for a special session of the UN General Assembly on drugs. I combined this with talks in Washington, which were originally supposed to also focus on the issue of drugs. But the people I met were mainly interested in the current situation in Germany.

James Baker asked me what we would do about the Oder-Neisse line in the event of reunification. I told him that we could only comment on borders if and when reunification actually happened.

But I added that there was absolutely no doubt that we would issue a clear guarantee regarding the existing border.

James Baker even asked me about Article 23 of the Basic Law, the German constitution. That´s how well informed he was. I answered by saying that the article would be repealed. I gave him the following explanation: If we kept open the option for additional areas to join the territory covered by Germany´s Basic Law, that would contradict the desire to use German reunification to create the conditions for lasting peace in Europe.

That satisfied James Baker, as he told me at the time.

My colleagues in Bonn, however, were instead quite alarmed with the comments I had made – comments that were made in the context of my discussion with James Baker and which were actually totally sensible and realistic.

In any case, I was probably the first member of the German government to announce that the border would be guaranteed in the constitution. A few months later, we did exactly that, with the Unification Treaty.

It is also a historical fact that, at the time, the Americans were the only ones, apart from Felipe González, who supported the move towards reunification without reservation: George H. W. Bush, James Baker – and particularly Condoleezza Rice in the Two Plus Four Talks.

Unlike our European partners, the U.S. – as a superpower – was not afraid of a reunited Germany. Rather, it had the greatness to support us and to trust in us. For this, Germany cannot thank you enough – and I would like to take this opportunity to do it again: Thank you!

The Henry A. Kissinger Prize, which James Baker is receiving today, is awarded for contributions to transatlantic relations. For my generation, the strong relationship between Germany and the U.S. is deeply rooted.

I have always trusted the U.S. How could it be otherwise, after all the positive experiences we had with our American partners and friends when Germany was divided? After the Berlin airlift, the Berlin crises, and the fall of the Berlin wall? That is stronger than certain more recent sources of friction.

And today, in the face of new, common threats, Europe and the U.S. stand united. The Western world’s response to the challenges presented by the current Russian government and by Islamic State is more concerted and more decisive than we have seen for a long time.

James Baker has a gift for forging alliances. His virtuoso performance in 1990 and 1991, when he managed to unite the West and most of the Middle East in a coalition against Saddam Hussein’s illegal annexation of Kuwait, can be seen as a practical and diplomatic refutation of the so-called “Clash of Civilizations“ – before Samuel Huntington even proposed the theory in 1996.

This achievement remains an example to this day. The current American government achieved something similar in the fight against Islamic State.

The decades of James Baker´s political career are testament to his tireless efforts to counter the world’s crises and conflicts: from the Baker Plan to relieve Third World debt to his Middle East peace mission in 1991 and his efforts as special United Nations envoy for Western Sahara around the turn of the millennium to his work as the Republican co-chair of the Iraq Study Group in the year 2006, tasked with assessing America’s policy toward Iraq.

Years ago, a German newspaper referred to him as a one-man rapid response team against political crises. And in the current debate about the U.S.A.´s strategy against Islamic State, James Baker is as much of a presence as ever before.

James Baker once said something about fiscal policy that I believe to be true of policy-making in general. He said: “Almost every achievement contains within its success the seeds of a future problem.” It’s a true – if worrying – insight.

On the other hand, it is just a variation on the Christian realisation that humans cannot achieve ultimate justice in this world. And Albert Camus showed us that we should think of Sisyphus as a happy man: Although his task is never-ending, at least he has a task and it is his own.

James Baker never gives up looking for achievements that contain as few seeds of future problems as possible.

A shining, inspiring example indeed!“