Jul 15, 2022

Op-Ed: A New Ostpolitik for the “Watershed Moment”

Germany’s “watershed moment,” or Zeitenwende, requires a new approach when it comes to dealing with Russia. Currently, European security can only be organized against Moscow, while Berlin needs to forge closer ties with its Central and Eastern European neighbors.

Germany's Then-Minister of State for Europe, Michael Roth (SPD) gestures as he speaks at the start of the European affairs ministers meeting in Brussels, Belgium, May 11, 2021.
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Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine is a wake-up call for Germany. It compels us to rethink supposed certainties and to take a long, hard look at our policies of the past few decades toward Russia and the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

Germany’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) is rightly proud of Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It played a key role in overcoming the East-West confrontation of the Cold War and the division of Germany. For all his historic achievements, however, we must not hide behind Willy Brandt in the face of the drastic changes in today’s world. Every age seeks its own answers, as Willy Brandt indicated in one of his final speeches. This also applies to a new Ostpolitik, which we must adapt to changing realities and carry forward into the new age—that, too, must become part of the Zeitenwende (“watershed moment”) proclaimed by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.

In facing up to the new, troubled world with its crises and conflicts, we must be self-assured but also self-critical. At the same time there is absolutely no need to sacrifice Social Democratic traditions. Even though the global situation in Brandt’s day can scarcely be equated with the present one, there is much we can learn from the successes of the Brandt era but also from the appalling errors of German policies toward Eastern Europe and Russia since the early 1980s.

A Review of Brandt’s Ostpolitik

Egon Bahr, the architect of Ostpolitik, was a realist in the traditional sense. He was convinced that international politics revolved solely around the power and interests of nations. Values such as democracy, the rule of law and human rights were subordinated to those goals. The great achievements of Ostpolitik are due in no small part to that realism—to the recognition of realities and to the rational analysis of the international scene and of the motives and interests of the relevant states.

Brandt and Bahr did not regard reunification as an issue between the two Germanies but as a matter of foreign policy, the key to which lay in Moscow. It was clear to them that German unity would not be possible until the division of Europe was overcome and a peaceful order established in Europe. To this end, the West initially had to accept the status quo of a divided Europe. The policy of détente, then, was not a pacifist end in itself, but the pursuit of a specific national interest.

Détente, moreover, could only be achieved if it was also in the interests of both superpowers. After the Cold War had reached its climax in the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, a window of opportunity opened. The USSR had an interest in consolidating its own sphere of control. At the same time, US President John F. Kennedy, with his “Strategy of Peace,” was laying the foundations for peaceful co-existence with the Communist bloc. So the drive for understanding with Eastern Europe initiated by Willy Brandt was not a unilateral German gambit, but was pursued in close consultation with our Western allies.

A realistic view of the world also means recognizing that willingness to engage in dialogue will not bear fruit without military resilience. One reason why Brandt’s commitment to peace and détente was so successful is that it was backed by military strength deriving from nuclear deterrence. The largest increase in the defense budget in the history of the Western German Federal Republic took place during the SPD-led governments of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt. At that time, more than 3 percent of West Germany’s economic output was spent on defense, and the Bundeswehr was 500,000 strong.

Yet this uncompromising realism of the early 1980s also led to monumental failings in the realm of Ostpolitik, as the initial refreshing realism turned into a rigid, insensitive regulatory policy that showed the cold shoulder to the budding civil rights movements in Central and Eastern Europe and relied on sometimes dubiously close relations with Communist regimes. Although Brandt admired commitment to civil rights, he believed that political change from below, initiated by civil society, was unlikely and even dangerous. The crushing of the popular uprising in East Germany on June 17, 1953, had had a lasting traumatic effect on him. For many in the SPD at that time, preserving stability and peace was the supreme goal. There were exceptions, such as Norbert Gansel, Gert Weisskirchen, and Freimut Duve, who established early contact with the civil rights and dissident movements in Poland, Czechoslovakia, and communist East Germany. But they remained lone voices.

Strategic Mistakes Since 1989/90

When the Cold War ended and Germany was reunited, the Federal Republic was no longer a front-line state and turned into a country at the heart of Europe, surrounded only by friendly neighbors. The Western model of liberal democracies had triumphed peacefully over Communism and was set to remain henceforth without any attractive alternative. In Europe, it was widely hoped, there were now only democracies that would work together in peace and a cooperative spirit.

This view of the world has influenced German foreign policy for the past 30 years with fateful consequences, particularly in dealings with Russia. We long believed—too long—after the end of the Soviet Union that the transformation of Russia was irreversible and that our Western model was so peerless and appealing that any economic interdependence would necessarily contribute to change. From “change through rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung) we had moved to “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel), and ultimately trade was even being plied without any change on the part of Russia. Even when Russian President Vladimir Putin finally established his autocratic system and repeatedly instigated wars in Russia’s neighborhood, Germany persisted with dialogue. All that remained of Ostpolitik, really, were economic relations, yet we continued to nurse the assumption that interdependence would rein in Russia.

It would, however, be too simplistic to pin all the blame on political naivety, for Germany benefited enormously from its partnership with Russia. Our economic prosperity of recent decades has been built to a significant extent on cheap Russian energy. By the time Putin’s true colors could no longer be ignored, the economic and political cost of changing course would have been enormous. Until very recently, a majority of Germans took the view that we had to be lenient with Putin for the sake of peace and stability. Back then, we should have been explaining to the public that peace and security come at a price—and to the business community that Russian gas alone would not see us through the transition to a carbon-free future.

All of this has led over the past ten years to momentous strategic mistakes in German policy toward Russia. These include three particularly grave errors: First, in spite of the disturbing developments in Russian domestic and foreign policy, we have relied on a close partnership with Moscow and disregarded the interests of our partners in Central and Eastern Europe. Second, we have been drawn ever more deeply into one-sided dependence on Russian energy, even seeking after 2014 to increase that dependence through Nord Stream 2. Third, we have forgotten that it is not enough to seek dialogue without paying attention to military resilience and deterrence. These errors were born of misconceptions that not only characterized SPD foreign policy, but also governed the actions of Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and other political parties toward Russia.

A New Ostpolitik

For Willy Brandt, there were two overriding principles: refraining from the threat or use of force and recognizing the inviolability of borders in Europe. Putin has repeatedly violated both principles. A Chancellor Brandt would certainly not have accepted these violations, which go against everything he fought for over decades, and he would have altered his course to take account of the new realities. When developing a new Ostpolitik for the Zeitenwende we should therefore learn from the successes of Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s and from the mistakes of the past years. It should be realistic and value-based, underpinned by military resilience and willingness to engage in dialogue, coordinated with the policies of our European and transatlantic partners and based on close involvement of civil societies.

Recognizing reality. With regard to Russia, we need more realism instead of naïve wishful thinking. Russia is an imperialist power that seeks to destroy our peaceful order in Europe and the rules-based system. Putin wants to build a new international order based entirely on compulsion and force in which the major powers have spheres of influence where they are free to do as they please. That is contrary not only to our ideas of political order but also to the UN Charter, over which Putin rides roughshod. For years Germany has been trying to maintain dialogue with Russia in order to preserve peace and security in Europe. This policy, which relied on understanding and economic exchanges, has been unable to divert Russia from its aggressive course. The fact is that security in Europe can only be achieved against Russia and no longer with Russia. As Chancellor Scholz rightly said, in relations with Russia there can be no going back to the period before the invasion of Ukraine.

Defending values. For far too long, a supposedly overriding interest in seeking peace and conciliation with Russia has induced us to compromise on the sovereignty and freedom of other Eastern European states and to trust blindly that the worst will never happen. The desire for stability at any price made us forget that the price must ultimately be paid in the blood of our partners in Eastern Europe.

Those who are calling for negotiations fail to realize that Russia currently has no interest whatsoever in negotiating. A dictated peace would bring neither peace nor lasting stability, for Russia’s imperialism does not end in the Donbas. A world in which imperialist powers win wars of conquest would threaten our very existence too. The fact is that values cannot be traded off against interests. It is also our freedom and security, our European values, that Ukraine is currently defending. For that reason, too, Ukraine must win this war.

We must therefore create a European security architecture against Russia, based on military deterrence and the political and economic isolation of Russia. We must become completely independent of Russian energy as quickly as possible. The political isolation of Russia should also be pursued beyond the circle of Western nations, as a number of states, representing a majority of the world’s population, have so far not condemned Russia’s war of aggression. To this end we shall have to build a global alliance against Russia. The war in Ukraine may be a European war, but the whole world is bearing its consequences.

Rooted in Europe and the transatlantic partnership. The new Ostpolitik must be deeply rooted in the Western Alliance, the EU and the transatlantic partnership. From now on Germany can no longer seek special arrangements with Russia at the expense of our Central and Eastern European partners. A common European Ostpolitik must always take account of the security interests of Poland and the Baltic States, which are keenly aware of a very real threat from Russia. Germany’s special relationship with Russia, which we tend to justify by reference to our historical responsibility arising from World War II, has always been regarded with great apprehension and distrust in those countries. Of course, we have that historical responsibility, given the fact that Nazi Germany’s war of extermination claimed 27 million lives within the territory of the former Soviet Union. But, in fact, these victims were not only Russians but also people from other former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic States. Let us not forget that Brandt went down on his knees in Warsaw, not in Moscow. Indeed, this is something else we can learn from him: less Moscow and more Warsaw, Riga, Vilnius, and Tallinn. Our policy toward Eastern Europe must always be coordinated with our European partners.

A willingness to engage in dialogue and military resilience. In spite of the Kremlin’s aggressive policy, Germany has been trying to the very end to maintain its dialogue with Russia. There is nothing wrong with dialogue as such, for we need open channels of communication with Moscow to make transparency possible, to dispel misunderstandings, and to prevent further military escalation. And it was Putin, of course, and not the West, who slammed the door shut on open dialogue. This door must not remain closed for ever, but without a ceasefire, without the withdrawal of all Russian troops, and without a clear commitment by Russia to international law, our relations cannot be normalized again.

During the past few decades, we have lost sight of the fact that willingness to engage in dialogue must always be accompanied by military resilience and deterrence. We must therefore invest heavily in our ability to defend our country and our allies. The creation of a special fund for the Bundeswehr worth €100 billion and the reinforcement of NATO’s eastern flank are landmark decisions. Regrettably, we must learn once more, as SPD Party Chairman Lars Klingbeil has rightly pointed out, that military force—alongside diplomacy, humanitarian assistance, development cooperation, and civil conflict prevention—is a legitimate instrument of a realistic peace policy when we are confronted with trigger-happy authoritarian rulers.

Involving civil society. The civil societies of Central and Eastern Europe were a decisive factor in the overthrow of the Communist dictatorships. Not only in Ukraine do we see daily what tremendous power civil societies can muster and how they can succeed in extracting freedom, human rights, the rule of law, and anti-corruption measures from their political leaders. We must never underestimate civil societies again; instead, we must actively promote their participation in political life. Accordingly, a new Ostpolitik, besides its governmental dimension, should also have a strong civil society pillar. The Russian component should involve maintaining contact with Russian civil society, protecting dissidents in exile, and providing them with safe refuge. The Eastern European component should involve strengthening civil society there, since it is a key to the transition of those countries and should support exchanges between civil societies in Europe.

We live in troubled times. Many people live in fear of a further escalation of the war, of rising energy costs, and of an imminent economic crisis. Yet we must not give in to despondency. When Willy Brandt laid the foundations for his Ostpolitik in the early 1960s, the world had only just recoiled from the brink of nuclear war, Soviet imperialism seemed unstoppable, and Europe was divided. But he did not allow any of that to shake his faith in the resilience and charisma of our liberal democracies. Self-examination and self-criticism are indispensable. But they must not cripple us. A new age requires the courage to adopt and pursue a new Ostpolitik.

Michael Roth is Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and a member of the SPD leadership council (Präsidium).

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