Friday, April 3, 2009

NATO 60th Anniversary: Reflections From 29 Years Ago

My life has tracked NATO. I was born ten years after the organization was founded and worked there the summer of 1980 as an Intern in the U.S. Mission. NATO was just entering middle age during my sojourn. Our major concern at the time was the modernization of theater nuclear forces (TNF) and making preparations for the installation of Pershing II missiles on West German soil. The Alliance was firm, united, and resolute in this decision, despite a rise in the peace movements in Europe and the U.S. and concern among millions of citizens. I also remember Deputy Secretary of State Warren Christopher stopping by NATO headquarters to announce progress with the CSCE talks (Conference on the Security & Cooperation in Europe) between East and West. Besides an elegant lunch one weekend at Ambassador William Tapley Bennett's residence featuring an amazing, fragile as glass, caramelized desert, the most memorable historical moment was attending the farewell address of NATO's West German Ambassador Dr. Rolf Pauls.

Dr. Pauls was West Germany's first ambassador to Israel after the Holocaust and is widely credited with helping to heal diplomatic relations between the two countries. On that summer day in 1980, the retiring NATO ambassador reminded the other 14 member states of the Atlantic Alliance that the number one objective of West German foreign policy was the unification of his divided country.

I grew up in an era of East Berlin and West Berlin; East Germany and West Germany; North and South Vietnam; North and South Korea; NATO and Warsaw Pact -- and as a 20-year-old youth listening to Dr. Pauls I lacked historical perspective. I just assumed there would always be two Germanys, not knowing any better. Dr. Pauls opened my eyes.

I went back to school that summer (a little wiser for my experiences), graduated, and returned to Europe as a reporter following my interests in German politics, the rising Green Party, the peace movement and NATO's policies. I always remembered Dr. Pauls, and the German Ministry of Information was able to arrange an interview for me at his lovely home outside of Bonn in the Spring of 1982. We sipped tea and I recalled his NATO farewell address. We talked about the current political situation, the state of NATO and the Alliance's resolve. He was a gracious man.

(After moving to Seattle, I attended a reception in honor of West Germany's President, Karl Carstens, and saw the same official who had arranged my meeting with Dr. Pauls in Bonn the year before. He poured me a class of white wine asking, "Can you tell what it is?" I took a sip and answered without hesitation, "Rheinland Pfalz," a premonition of a future in the wine industry, perhaps?)

It is heartening to see President Obama warmly welcomed in Europe first as a candidate and now as President commemorating NATO's 60th Anniversary. He is one who can talk eloquently while carrying the big stick.