Germany’s Russia Question

Constanze Stelzenmüller. Foreign Affairs. Volume 88, Issue 2. March/April 2009.

Last July, more than 200,000 people flocked to a public park in Berlin to hear Barack Obama, then the Democratic candidate for president of the United States, deliver a speech calling for renewed transatlantic partnership and cooperation. The choice of Germany’s long-divided capital as the backdrop for his only public speech in Europe was deliberate. To the Germans listening to him that summer evening in the Tiergarten, Obama made a special appeal, citing “a set of ideals that speak to aspirations shared by all people,” the same “dream of freedom” that was the basis of the relationship between the United States and West Germany during the Cold War. Now that Obama is president, will Germany respond to the call and join the United States as a key European partner in addressing global challenges and threats?

There are many reasons for Germany to rise to the occasion. For one, there is a dearth of leadership elsewhere in Europe. The European Union remains embroiled in a debate about institutional reform. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Gordon Brown—despite his confidence during the current financial crisis—remains disengaged from both the EU and the transatlantic alliance. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, meanwhile, shows more Atlantiást inclinations than any of his predecessors, but he has yet to prove that he can build lasting coalitions in Europe or convince his country of the need for economic modernization.

Likewise, there are many reasons why Obama should look to Germany for leadership: its 82 million inhabitants, its strategic location at the crossroads of the continent, and its strength as one of the world’s foremost exporters, even in the current economic downturn. Germany has thoroughly examined its guilt for perpetrating the Holocaust and World War II—and in the process has become a robust democracy. Since regaining full sovereignty after unification in 1990, Germany has developed an increasingly active foreign policy, with more than 6,500 troops currently dispatched on operations outside the country) from the Balkans to Afghanistan. Last October, the German parliament approved an additional 1,000 troops for NATO’s stabilization operations in Afghanistan. Berlin is also at the forefront of diplomatic efforts in countries it formerly ignored, such as Georgia and Iran, and has claimed a leadership role in dealing with the global challenge of climate change. Germany now has the chance to truly become a European “partner in leadership” with the United States, as suggested in 1989 by then U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

But to grasp this opportunity—and to be recognized as a leader not just by the United States but also by fellow Europeans and her own voters—German Chancellor Angela Merkel will have to overcome some formidable obstacles. She must grapple with the ongoing economic crisis while steering her grand coalition government through more than a dozen local and regional elections, culminating in a federal election in September. At the same time, the German government will face a test of its willingness to use military force, as President Obama will expect greater involvement from Germany in international security missions, most notably in Afghanistan. The success of that mission is crucial to the credibility of the transatlantic alliance, but it is viewed with mounting skepticism by the German public.

The most important relationship Germany will have to navigate is that with Russia, with whom it has deep historical ties. Germany is Russia’s largest trading partner and has become increasingly reliant on Russia’s energy supplies, buying a third of its oil and gas from the country. There is a genuine military threat to Europe from Russia, as became clear in the August 2008 war between Georgia and Russia and in Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s threats to counter U.S. missile defense plans by stationing Russian missiles in Kaliningrad. But the key challenge for the West—and in particular Germany—is political, not military. Fueled by revisionist nationalism, a newly resurgent Russia appears determined to keep Europe and the United States out of its “near abroad,” all the while doing business with the West. At worst, Russia’s regional and global ambitions could end up rolling back democratic reforms on Europe’s eastern borders -splitting the transatlantic alliance in the process.

In Russia’s effort to gain leverage in Europe, its close ties to Germany are its greatest strategic asset. At the same time, Berlin’s pursuit of what German policymakers have insisted on labeling a “strategic partnership” with Moscow has put Germany in the middle of the evolving tensions between Russia and the West. It has also given Germany a unique responsibility. The old German question has long been solved, with Germany firmly positioned within Europe and the Western group of nations. But now, there is a new and similarly urgent German question for the twenty-first century: Is Germany able and willing to use its considerable political resources to change Russia’s behavior and to stand up to Moscow when necessary?

Becoming Normal

When Obama places his first phone call to Berlin, one of the top items on his agenda will be military support, particularly in Afghanistan. After reunification, it was widely understood that a fundamental test of the maturity of a newly sovereign Germany would be its willingness to use military force. This threshold was crossed in March 1999, when it joined the NATO air campaign against Serbia. As former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said at the time, German foreign policy had finally “become normal.”

Since then, Germany has sent thousands of troops to serve in NATO’s stabilization mission in Afghanistan, and in 2006 it led an EU peacekeeping force in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The German navy sent warships to the waters off the coast of Lebanon in 2006 and, more recendy, to those off the coast of Somalia. The return of the military option to Germany’s foreign policy tool kit was a necessary—if long deferred and reluctantly undertaken—step toward normalizing the country’s international profile. Adversaries such as the Bosnian Serb militias and the Taliban posed new and demanding challenges for the Bundeswehr. In the course of these missions, the German military has transformed itself more than perhaps any other army in Europe, moving from a bloated force focused on territorial defense to a streamlined military with sustained and varied operational experience.

However, Germany’s military deployments have not heralded a new paradigm of military engagement. In each case, German policymakers framed the decision to use force as an exceptional measure required of the nation by exceptional circumstances, such as the prevention of genocide in the Balkans or the need for alliance solidarity in Afghanistan. Invoking absolute moral imperatives has proved effective and highly popular with the German public, which has a deep sensitivity to the guilt and shame of twentieth-century German history—and a resultant yearning for its country to act righteously in international affairs.

Yet by playing to this desire, and by repeatedly portraying decisions about military intervention as a binary choice between good and evil, Germany’s policymakers have lost an important opportunity. They have missed the chance to challenge the German public to a serious and nuanced conversation about foreign policy that extends beyond the black-and-white landscape of moral imperatives. As a result, it has become difficult to rally popular support for military intervention without the specter of genocide or an existential threat.

The price for this strategy first became evident in the summer of 2001, when Macedonia, a tiny country in the Balkans, was on the brink of civil war. The conflict had the potential to destabilize the fragile peace in the region and push streams of refugees into western Europe-but there were no signs of an impending war crimes catastrophe. This left then Chancellor Schröder with little support for intervention, and he was ultimately forced to rely on opposition votes in parliament for authorization to join a modest combined NATO-EU mission to Macedonia. Less than six months later, after the 9/11 attacks, Schröder had to threaten resignation to get the necessary votes in parliament to provide German support for the U. S. -led fight against the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Why has it been so difficult for Germany to transcend this selfimposed binary framework? The powerful postwar taboo against the use of force is one reason. Second, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war against terrorism were seismic shocks for a German political culture accustomed to developing foreign policy in cautious and incremental steps. And finally, the habit—honed during more than 40 years of partition and limited sovereignty-of formulating policy in terms of external constraints rather than choices has proved very difficult to break.

In recent years, the German government has made a sustained effort to convince the public that keeping troops in Afghanistan reflects the country’s values as much as it serves its interests. Defense experts from all the major German political parties have echoed this argument. Nonetheless, the German public, although supportive of Germany’s development efforts in Afghanistan, remains skeptical of the military component of the operation. With less than a year until Germany’s next election, complying with additional troop requests from the United States or NATO would likely cost the Merkel government more political capital than it can afford.

Nonetheless, it is clear that Germany has developed the necessary capabilities to use military force effectively. It has crossed the threshold of hard power, and whether it decides to use force in the future will be a question not of ability but rather of political will. The latter, however, is a resource that German policymakers will continue to deploy sparingly.

A Soft Touch

As Germany continues to increase its profile abroad, its most cherished foreign policy tool—Zivilmacht, or “soft power”—is being challenged by a resurgent Russia. After World War II, West Germany rebuilt its identity and legitimacy based on a commitment to multilateralism, international law, and human rights; proud of its achievements, it set out to export this model. This has led Germany to promote dialogues and exchanges on culture, the rule oflaw, and regional issues—particularly with Russia. The goal in engaging Russia, as the German Foreign Ministry put it in a key strategy paper in 2006, has been “Annäherung durch Verflechtung” or “rapprochement through economic interlocking.” It is a clunky, but wholly intentional, echo of” Wandel durch Annäherung? or “change through rapprochement,” the legendary motto of West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik of the 1970s. Berlin’s current policy of engagement has been based on the assumption that successfully guiding Russia into the rule-based world of Europe would be the greatest triumph of Germany’s soft power. Last summer’s war between Georgia and Russia, therefore, came as a most unpleasant surprise.

German reactions to the conflict were predictable at first. Compelled by a sense of impending crisis, German policymakers and parliamentarians had rushed to visit Georgia in the months before the war. As the war unfolded, Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili was widely condemned in Germany as a dangerous, irresponsible gambler and was blamed for his country’s quick defeat. While the Russian military was swiftly routing Georgia’s military forces, many German policymakers and commentators called for avoiding discussions about causes and responsibility and stressed the need to maintain a dialogue with Russia. Some German analysts even pushed for a stance of strict neutrality on the part of both Germany and the EU.

However, as Russian troops continued their march through the disputed territory of South Ossetia and into the Georgian heartland, the mood in Berlin shifted abrupdy. A long-planned meeting between Merkel and Medvedev in Sochi, a Russian resort town on the Black Sea, turned into a frosty exchange. Immediately afterward, Merkel flew to Tbilisi, where she publicly reaffirmed Georgia’s right to become a member of NATO. Back in Berlin, a spokesperson in Merkel’s office said that the war marked a “caesura” in Germany’s relations with Russia. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier called Russia’s actions “illegal” and “disproportional.” The German Chancellery and the German Foreign Ministry—not previously known for agreeing much on Russia policy—were at pains to demonstrate total unity on the subject.

The harsh tone emanating from Berlin clearly startled Moscow. Germany’s response, combined with the strong stance of the eu and the brutal punishment meted out by the global financial markets, may be what stopped Russia from pushing even deeper into Georgia. It also prompted a wave of temporarily constructive behavior on the part of Russia’s top diplomats, who were suddenly willing to cooperate on a range of previously thorny issues, such as a U.S. -European proposal for imposing sanctions against Iran in the UN Security Council.

Hugging the Bear

For the West, the war in the Caucasus was a “defining moment,” as the German weekly Die Zeit wrote last September. But was it the beginning of a new era in Germany’s relationship with Russia? For now, the signals remain mixed. Germany did push, along with France and Italy, to resume EU-Russian talks on a new partnership agreement, and it also led European resistance to U.S. efforts to move Georgia and Ukraine closer to NATO membership. At the same time, Germany sternly rebuked Medvedev for threatening last fall to deploy missiles against Europe and began referring to its relationship with Russia as a “modernization partnership” instead of a “strategic” one, which seemed to be a subde downgrading of the relationship. Recent polls suggest that the German public is becoming increasingly concerned about Russia: although most Germans see little connection between the events in the southern Caucasus and the state of German-Russian relations, those surveyed nonetheless say they disapprove of Russia’s belligerence and distrust its reliability as an energy supplier.

Conventional wisdom holds that the German political landscape is split between those who are suspicious of the Russian embrace and those who choose to walk into it deliberately—between bear haters and bear huggers. Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union are said to spearhead the former group, whereas Foreign Minister Steinmeier and the Social Democratic Party are thought to lead the latter. Although there is, of course, some truth to this cliché, the political reality is more complicated.

Merkel has recalibrated the German-Russian relationship coolly and deliberately, especially compared to her predecessor, Schröder, who called then Russian President Vladimir Putin a “flawless democrat” and signed plans with Moscow for a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea just before leaving office. Merkel met with Russian human rights groups during her first state visit to Moscow, she has criticized top Russian policymakers in public, and she has forged closer relationships with countries in eastern Europe, especially Poland.

Yet at the same time, she has been adamant about the need for continued engagement with Russia. She has firmly resisted calls from some eastern European countries to cancel the Baltic pipeline project, as well as calls for a common European energy policy that would minimize the influence of large Russian and German energy companies. And Merkel has avoided defending U.S. missile defense plans or championing the cause of post-Soviet countries, such as Georgia or Ukraine, that are seeking to align themselves with the West. She has left the details of Russia policy to the diplomats and the business community. There has been much speculation about the chancellor’s caution: Is Merkel afraid of offending Russia, her Social Democratic coalition partners, or the energy companies? Quite possibly. But there is another reason for her caution that is much closer to home: pro-Russian sentiment, aloofness toward eastern Europe, and a sense of alienation from the United States are all common in her own party.

Meanwhile, some foreign commentators have pointed to Steinmeier as the chief embodiment of the pro-Russian faction in Berlin. Indeed, he has insisted on the importance of a “strategic partnership” with Moscow, even at times when to do so was to come across as tone-deaf with regard to Russia’s faults, such as after last year’s clearly flawed Russian presidential election (“One could have imagined more choice,” he casually remarked in an aside during a speech in Berlin). But this is an equally simplistic characterization. Steinmeier has a detached rationalism that makes him disinclined to seek a personal relationship with his Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Unlike some other top figures in his party, he has not described Germany’s position as “equidistant” from Russia and the United States; in fact, he considers himself an Atlanticist. In an attempt to move Germany away from dependence on Russia, he has pushed harder than any of his predecessors for energy-supply diversification, looking to develop resources in the Black Sea, in Central Asia, and by pursuing renewable-energy technologies. Overall, it is perhaps most precise to describe Steinmeier’s position as one of realist balancing in an increasingly multipolar world.

Unfortunately, the Foreign Ministry’s policy of “rapprochement through economic interlocking” has turned out to have a fundamental flaw: it assumed a reciprocity of interests and intentions. Whatever economic interlocking there is appears to be happening strictly downstream, with Russian state-owned companies purchasing German assets while German companies struggle to get a foothold in the Russian market. Nor has there been any noticeable diversification in Germany’s energy supplies. Finally, this strategy of rapprochement offered no guidance when Russia invaded and occupied parts of a neighboring sovereign country. Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of the war in the Caucasus, many of Germany’s diplomats seemed to be in a collective state of shock.

A Generation Apart

The divide between German policymakers over Russia is largely driven not by institutional or party affiliation but by age and experience. Many of those who set Russia policy in Germany spent time in Russia in the 1990s, when the memory of the Soviet threat had already begun to fade. Germany had just been reunified, thanks in no small measure to the leadership of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin. This German generation, now around 50, witnessed a Russia that embraced reform against all historical odds yet soon slid into chaos and rampant commercialism. They see the flaws of Russia’s current leadership and are disturbed by its recent aggression, as well as by its willingness to use energy deliveries as a political weapon abroad—but are nonetheless grateful for stable energy supplies and a burgeoning market for trade.

The opposing generational cohort is a decade younger and is found mainly in parliament and the press. The Russia they know—and, in some cases, have studied in and lived in—is that of Putin and his selfproclaimed “power vertical.” It is a state marked by vicious tribal rivalry and rampant corruption and where journalists, nongovernmental organizations, and opposition activists face constant persecution. It is no wonder, then, that they are appalled at talk of Germany’s “equidistance” from Russia and the United States and that they accuse Germany’s Russia policymakers of naively overestimating their influence on Moscow.

Differing views of the United States also feed into German attitudes about Russia. The generation running Germany today grew up in peace and prosperity under the benign protection of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, with little préparation for the leadership challenges thrust on them by the post-Cold War world. Habit and instinct made them side with the United States throughout the 1990s and, once more, -m m outburst 0f sympathy and grief, after the 9/11 attacks. But as they see it, what they received for their solidarity was rejection, demands for allegiance, and little credit for their contributions. For many, the gradual unraveling of the web of falsehoods surrounding the Iraq war further undermined any sense of commonality with the United States. The depth of their disillusionment is a measure of the strength of the belief in the United States they felt growing up. For a generation of Germans with parents and grandparents tainted by the Third Reich, the United States—or at least the ideal of the United States—really had stood in loco parentis.

One of Putin’s more shrewd insights into the German mind was his treatment of German policymakers as equals at a time when they were chafing at U.S. condescension. (The Russians nurse a similar resentment at being treated as strategically irrelevant by the United States.) The “strategic partnership” with Russia, therefore, has served to soothe German insecurities. But it has also inflated an unrealistic sense of influence over Russia that has produced notions such as “rapprochement through economic interlocking”—representing a misguided confidence comparable perhaps only to British hopes of being able to sway the United States during the run-up to the Iraq war.

Measured Engagement

The war in the Caucasus was a defining moment for German attitudes toward Russia—but there will be many more such moments in the months to come. Future challenges posed by Russia will thrust some hard choices on Germany’s leadership. It is time for a new policy.

An Ostpolitik for the post-Caucasus war era would continue to hope for the eventual democratic transformation of Russia and be open to cooperation whenever it is possible. Yet its most immediate aim would be the stabilization and democratization of the nations along Europe’s eastern boundary, from Belarus to Georgia. At present, membership in NATO or the EU is not a realistic or even useful prospect for any of these countries. Either accession process would create more problems than it solved: NATO asks too little of a candidate’s internal affairs, whereas the EU demands too much.

Nonetheless, it is clear that the benefits of access to Western clubs such as NATO and the eu are a key force for pushing democratic and economic change—and that this change is in the self-interest of those countries’ neighbors to the west. Germany should know this better than any country in Europe because it profited the most from the previous rounds of NATO and EU enlargement. The European Neighborhood Policy—a halfhearted method of engaging states on Europe’s borders that has so far served as a poor substitute for full EU membership was upgraded last December to the Eastern Partnership plan, which outlined a future free-trade zone and visa-free travel regime for the eu and six countries on Russia’s periphery. But what is needed is a genuinely transformational scheme. This would require an across-the board, rather than a bilateral, approach, ranging from high-level dialogue and capacity-building measures to substantial infusions of conditional development and reconstruction aid, cultural and academic exchanges, and generous support for building civil society. At the same time, these measures should be flanked by common European policies on migration, organized crime, the movement of goods and people, and energy. Germany and the West should engage Russia broadly and imaginatively—rather than grudgingly and selectively, as the Bush administration did—and contain or counter it when necessary. As the conflict in Georgia showed, firmness and unity from Europe can go a long way, especially when backed up by the United States. Eu members and the United States will all lose—to Russia, mostly—if they compete against one another in eastern Europe.

Such a comprehensive policy would by necessity be pan-European. But Germany should be its initiator and leader, not only because of its historical responsibility for eastern Europe but also because its special relationship with Russia gives it greater weight and authority with Moscow than any other country on the continent. The future of Germany’s legitimacy as a leader in Europe and as a partner for the United States—not to mention the future of its soft power—depends on its success in this role.

However, to take up this challenge, Germany will have to overcome an array of entrenched reflexes. First, it will have to think of eastern Europe as a zone of first-order strategic interest rather than as a disparate jumble of faraway countries. Second, it will have to conceive of its foreign policy not in terms of constraints but in terms of choices. Third, it must overcome its fear of dependency on Russia, recognizing that Russia needs its Western customers as much as they need Russia. Finally, and perhaps most important, Germany will have to understand that this new approach is not just about interests and strategy but also about solidarity, namely, defending the rights of countries that seek safety, prosperity, and democratic values and freedoms: the aspirations Obama spoke of in Berlin last summer and that the United States once protected in West Germany. To the extent that Russia acts to deny these essential rights, Germany and all of Europe must comprehend that they are being confronted with an authoritarian challenge to liberal Western democracy. For reasons of moral self-preservation as much as solidarity, balancing is then no longer an option. That, in the end, is the answer to the new German question.