Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Jun 24, 2021

New World Order: Germany’s Dangerous Idealism vis-à-vis Russia

The German approach to Russia, of pursuing positive interdependence and friendly engagement, is simply out of kilter with the Kremlin’s perception of Russia’s interests.

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In February 2021, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier defended the Nord Stream 2 pipeline as "one of the last bridges between Russia and Europe" that should not be burnt. He went on to link the controversial pipeline to the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in World War II, suggesting that Germany still today has to be forthcoming to Russia in order to rectify its historical wrongdoings. No wonder the comments outraged Ukrainians who suffered the most from both Nazi and Soviet atrocities and who have been defending their country against Russia’s aggression since 2014.

In a number of ways, Steinmeier’s remarks embodied what is wrong with Germany’s approach to Russia and Eastern Europe. He also laid bare the deep historical and ideological roots of this approach. At the same time, the spectacular rise of the Green party in German politics and their fresh thinking in foreign policy matters suggests that the time might be ripe for a generational and paradigmatic shift.

This article takes issue with Germany’s Russia policy on four grounds: its unrealistic understanding of the (geo)political aspects of economic ties; its neglect of military power; its ill-founded optimism about the effectiveness of engagement and dialogue; and its tendency to prioritize relations with Russia over the existential concerns of Germany’s allies and partners in Central and Eastern Europe.

Theory of Liberal Interdependence

First and perhaps most fundamentally, due to the central place of this issue in German Ostpolitik, Berlin should reconsider its understanding of the interaction between economic ties and security. During the past half-century, the slogan of “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade) has become deeply ingrained in Germany’s approach to Russia and shared by political parties on the left and right. The Ostpolitik introduced by Willy Brandt was based on the assumption that economic exchange contributes to improved political relations, stability, and security. This is in line with the core idea of the theory of liberal interdependence, which became popular in the field of International Relations in the 1970s as globalization advanced and international trade brought new opportunities for countries and individuals to prosper.

In the 1990s, after the collapse of the Eastern bloc, belief in the virtues of liberal interdependence became more widely shared across the world. Economic interdependence between states was expected to increase the cost and therefore reduce the likelihood of military conflicts. International trade was also seen as a way to integrate states into the global norms-based order; furthermore, economic integration together with growing prosperity was expected to contribute to the spread of democracy. Such hopes were nurtured by the accession of China and Russia to the WTO (in 2001 and 2011 respectively). As we can see today, these hopes have not materialized.

My German colleagues often highlight the role that Ostpolitik played in the peaceful end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Eastern bloc. This understanding captures part of a more complicated truth. But it neglects other crucial reasons for the collapse of the Soviet Union, namely the internal rottenness of the system and its inability to wage an arms race with the United States. Furthermore, in the 1990s, it was Russia’s weakness and economic dependence on the West rather than just German and Western engagement that constrained the Kremlin’s geopolitical ambition. For example, in 1994 Russia withdrew its troops from the Baltic states reluctantly and under friendly pressure from US President Bill Clinton and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

Russia’s Unilateral Approach

The baseline of Russian thinking about international affairs is national sovereignty, the maintenance of security in “historic zones of interest,” and a determination to be treated as a “great power” on the global stage. Despite its official allies in the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO), Russia adopts a largely unilateral approach, and it seeks to limit its dependence on outsiders.  Since coming to power in 1999, and even more clearly since 2014, President Vladimir Putin has consistently sought to reduce Russia’s dependencies on the West. Russia’s political system has become increasingly authoritarian and the country has shown growing resistance to what it perceives as a Western-dominated, rules-based order.

At the same time, Russia is using the limited economic tools that it has, mainly energy resources, as part of its toolbox for exerting geopolitical influence. Nord Stream 2 is a case in point. One aim is to strengthen networks of influence in Europe committed to bringing the national interests of their countries into closer alignment with Russia. A second aim is to end gas transit via Ukraine and replace it with other routes, including Nord Stream 2, which will make Ukraine geopolitically more vulnerable and economically weaker. In a schizophrenic manner, Germany has been supporting Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of Russia’s aggression, while promoting a pipeline project that deepens Ukraine’s exposure to Russian pressure. Chancellor Angela Merkel has defended Nord Stream 2 by highlighting the strategic importance of maintaining economic ties. Indeed, economic ties do have strategic importance, but they are playing themselves out in the case of Nord Stream 2 by advancing Russia’s strategic interests at the cost of Ukraine and other Central and Eastern European states, who will also be made more constrained by the growing concentration of Russian gas deliveries to the Russio-German route.

Systematic Competition

To sum up, the German understanding of positive economic interdependence simply is not shared by Russia and does not achieve its intended results. The theory of liberal interdependence actually explains why this is the case. A positive dynamic emerges only when  a complex interdependence arises among  different layers and spheres of society. The most successful example of such a process is European integration. By contrast, EU-Russia relations are characterized by asymmetric interdependence, which fosters tensions. In the conditions of systemic competition between Western democracy and Russia’s authoritarian model, as well as the conflicting views of Russia and the West on the European security order, a positive, complex interdependence is hardly possible.

For similar reasons, this observation also applies to Germany’s relationship with China. As we move towards a multi-polar world order characterized by intensifying great power rivalry, states increasingly use economic power as a tool of strategic influence. China has been particularly skilfull at creating economic dependencies on the part of its partners and using these as a tool to induce them to accommodate to China’s political interests.

Second, in the case of Russia, economic power is limited and secondary to its military power. This is a very difficult matter for Germany to come to terms with. Germany’s strong pacifist tradition has powerful roots in its wartime and post-war experience.  But in a country with Germany’s liberal, European outlook, pacifism appears naïve and even cynical from the vantage point of those countries situated between Germany and Russia, who have existential concerns about their illiberal and threatening Eastern neighbour. Germany embraced the promises of peace and stability of the post-Cold War era. But it has struggled to adjust its strategic thinking even after the shock of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine in 2014. Germany has somewhat reluctantly gone along with NATO’s increased presence in the Eastern Flank; yet it is commonplace for German politicians to warn against sabre-rattling and call for restraint  “on all sides” even when only one side is behaving aggressively. It often seems that Germany is not convinced about the role of credible defense and deterrence vis-à-vis Russia as a stabilizing factor in European security.

Dialogue as Ritual

Third, Germany seems to have an almost doctrinal belief in the value of nurturing dialogue with Russia, often without having a clear idea of what it wants to talk about or what to achieve by talking. Dialogue as well as continuous assurances about its importance belong to the rituals of the relationship that no German politician dares to bring into question. This makes many Central and East Europeans see dialogue as a reward or concession to Russia, which is not as it should be. Dialogue, like sanctions or a capable army, must be understood as an instrument for achieving foreign policy goals. And therein lies another problem. The goal of Germany’s Russia policy is to have friendly relations with Russia, so maintaining dialogue helps foster the illusion that relations are good even when they are not.

Fourth, prioritizing relations with Russia has the paradoxical effect of subordinating the fundamental issue of European security. The disagreements between Russia and the West over the European and international security order are fundamental rather than ephemeral, as is Russia’s hostility to liberal democracy and the rule of law. There is no realistic basis to suppose that these divergences will narrow during Putin’s rule, and possibly beyond. Regarding Ukraine, which is the sharpest expression of such disagreements, President Putin shows no sign of abandoning his goal to anchor the country in Russia’s sphere of influence and prevent it from becoming a functioning democracy integrated into Europe. As long as the Ukrainians fight for the latter path, Germany’s commitment to European norms and values leaves it no other credible option but to support Ukraine. Likewise, Putin’s Russia is not abandoning its belief that Western democracy is a threat to his regime. Therefore, we can expect him to continue his efforts to undermine democratic systems including that of Germany by hybrid methods of influence.

The principles of positive interdependence and friendly engagement are quite simply out of kilter with Russia’s perception of its interests and with the nature of its current regime. It is not only idealistic, but dangerous to pretend otherwise. The sober reality of German and EU relations with Russia is that tensions must be managed, and our values must be protected. These priorities must take precedence over hopes that the fundamental disagreements will be resolved any time soon.

In spite of the criticism presented above, it has to be acknowledged that Germany has made an indispensable contribution to European stability and the EU’s critical response to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine since 2014. The EU’s future Russia policy will also need German leadership. A reassessment of some of the fundamental ideas of Ostpolitik could strengthen the EU’s approach to Russia and Germany’s role in EU foreign policy.

Kristi Raik is director of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute at the International Center for Defense and Security (ICDS) in Tallinn, Estonia.

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