The Case for Berlin: Bringing Germany Back to the West

I recall a small, private Berlin dinner at which a senior official of the government of Chancellor Gerhard Schröder chastised me, the American guest, over Guantánamo. It showed an egregious disregard for international law among other things, the cabinet minister advised me. During the course of the evening, that same official also volunteered that, were the Guantánamo detainees on German soil, the Federal Republic would not know exactly what to do with them. This reminds me of the undiplomatic remark of a Berlin-based British diplomat from around the same time who quipped to me: “When Germans face a dilemma, they stare it in the face—then proceed to walk away, leaving the hardest choices for others.”

Talking big and carrying a small stick is no longer possible for Germany if it hopes to adopt a more mature, responsible foreign policy. From the crisis in Ukraine we now know three important things: that Russia has a strategy toward Eastern Europe, that we don’t, and that the European Union is not yet close to existing as a serious strategic actor, not even in its own backyard. But facing a rising China in Asia and the looming threat of a nuclear Iran in the Middle East, Washington will need help in Eastern Europe in defending, advancing, and maintaining a liberal order. Germany is essential to the task of containing Russian influence and aims. Continuing to avoid the hard choices in Berlin will have serious consequences for the West and the world.

It’s not just in Ukraine that Vladimir Putin’s regime has been advancing its agenda. There were the 2007 cyber attacks on Estonia. There was the 2008 invasion of Georgia. There’s diplomatic and economic pressure today on Moldova, Macedonia, and Montenegro to discourage these (and other countries) from further Western integration. While the US was concentrating on Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Arab Spring, and while the EU has been largely preoccupied with its sovereign debt crisis, a Putin Doctrine toward Eastern Europe has emerged.

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The Putin Doctrine is straightforward. If you’re not in the EU and NATO by now—Georgia, Ukraine, Moldova top the current list—forget it. You belong to the Russian sphere of influence. If you are already a member of these Western organizations, Moscow will work to make you weak, divided, and dependent. To this end, Russia has been supporting extremist parties in a number of countries across the region, including in Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovakia, and Hungary. It provides financial assistance to separatists in Moldova and Georgia. The Kremlin pursues an aggressive media strategy, stirring up anti-Americanism and distrust of the West generally wherever it can. Putin also has been extraordinarily adept at using energy as an instrument of Russian foreign policy. Most nations of Central and Eastern Europe now depend heavily on Moscow for natural gas necessary for heating. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia rely on nuclear reactors for most of their domestic electricity—the fuel being supplied exclusively by Russia.

How did we allow Russia to assume such dominance? It started in the 1990s, when we told ourselves Russia was on the path to becoming “a normal country.” In 1994, Russia joined the Partnership for Peace program. In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was established. In those days, there was even talk in some Western circles of Russia eventually joining NATO.

That was then. Dmitri Rogozin, the Russian deputy prime minister who has served as his country’s envoy to NATO, recently underscored how much has changed. Displeased that Romania had closed off its airspace to him—the Russian official is on a sanctions list after Russian aggression in Ukraine—Rogozin tweeted to the Romanians that he would be back, but next time aboard a Russian strategic bomber.


Against this backdrop of aggression and truculence, one question dominates all others: What’s stopping Germany today from helping us to push back against Russia’s play for hegemony?

It’s surely in the German national interest that accountable government and rule of law sink deep roots across Central and Eastern Europe. Eleven countries of the region have now joined the European Union; a dozen belong to NATO. What would it mean if serious backsliding were to take place and democracies became wobbly?

Germany should be taking the lead in opposing the forces now attempting to undermine the vision of comity and cooperation that lies at the heart of “Europe.” But there are three principal reasons why Germany has hesitated.

The first one is perhaps obvious—the role of business and a narrowly geoeconomic approach to foreign policy.

Commercial interests shape Berlin’s considerations to an exceptional degree. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, united Germany was no longer “constrained by security dependence on the US,” writes Germany scholar Stephen Szabo, and “markets in Eastern Europe were no longer off-limits to German companies.” In Russia there are even larger stakes. When the crisis over Crimea erupted in March, the CEO of Siemens was off to Moscow before the first diplomatic envoy could be dispatched. In fact, the relatively new chief executive, Joe Kaeser, visited Russia three times during his first hundred days on the job. German foreign policy “cedes overall grand strategy to business interests,” says Szabo, adding that Russo-German relations are “ninety percent economics.”

There’s a broader political context to this as well. A top Berlin diplomat argued to me in the 1990s, in the context of the Balkan wars, that large-scale military conflict would become increasingly obsolete as a new era of geoeconomics replaced the old world of geopolitics. It was a theory taking hold in a number of international relations circles in those days. Just a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for instance, the analyst Edward Luttwak observed:

Everyone, it appears, now agrees that the methods of commerce are displacing military methods—with disposable capital in lieu of firepower, civilian innovation in lieu of military-technical advancement, and market penetration in lieu of garrisons and bases. States, as spatial entities structured to jealously delimit their own territories, will not disappear but reorient themselves toward geoeconomics in order to compensate for their decaying geopolitical roles.

The presumed future primacy of geoeconomics resonated strongly in Germany. West Germany, as a result of its history, had developed its identity as a largely “civilian power,” prizing multilateral diplomacy. The fact that the export-driven nation is also Europe’s biggest economy has also shaped German thinking about international order and committed it to the exclusive development of soft-power tools. In his forthcoming book, Germany, Russia, and the Rise of Geo-Economics, Szabo details many of these factors.

As a result, when the realities of hard power rear their ugly head in German policy, wishful thinking pushes back. It is sometimes a problem of public opinion even more than of government caution. In the wake of the Ukraine crisis, for instance, when German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen sensibly proposed additional NATO support for alliance members on the front line with Russia, she quickly had to drop the idea in the face of considerable public and political opposition.


There’s a second important obstacle standing in the way of Germany truly coming of age in terms of its dealings with Putin, and that’s the country’s unique relationship with Russia itself. Germany accounts for roughly a third of EU exports to Russia. More than six thousand German-owned companies are active in Russia, including prominent blue-chip companies like Daimler AG, BMW, and Volkswagen. Add to this the fact that Germany relies on Russia for approximately a third of its energy needs, and you begin to appreciate why the anti-sanctions lobby in Germany is so strong.

And that’s not all. There are a number of other reasons why Germany has trouble pursuing a more multifaceted, comprehensive policy toward Russia. The country has a fragmented but not at all insignificant coalition of unlikely bedfellows who make up the pro-Russia camp.

There’s the residual and still vibrant West German left, which has never given up its anti-Americanism. If the US opposes Russian action in Ukraine, goes the reflex, there must be some validity to the Russian side of things. This sort of thinking is exemplified by columnist Jakob Augstein (adopted son of Rudolf Augstein, the late, legendary publisher of Der Spiegel), whose reaction to events in Ukraine was to propose a new European security architecture, with Russia and without the US.

There’s the East German left, the post-communists who still play a role in united Germany. Charismatic former East German lawyer Gregor Gysi, the leading member of the largest lower-house opposition party in Germany, the Left Party, blames America and NATO for the crisis in Ukraine, and berates Kyiv as a government now run by “fascists,” echoing the Moscow line.

The apologetics for Russia go farther than the left, however. There’s the populist right that sees in Putin—much like Pat Buchanan and some social conservative allies in the US—a valiant protector of traditional values. Such a posture is seen clearly in the new anti-euro “Alternative für Deutschland” party. According to Clemens Wergin, an editor and leading foreign policy writer with the daily Die Welt: “They take up a conservative strain of German thinking dating back to the nineteenth century, which harbors a resentment toward Western civilization and romanticizes a Russia seemingly uncorrupted by Western values and free-market capitalism.”

War guilt may still play some role. Twenty million Soviet soldiers and civilians died in the war against Nazi Germany. And there is admiration for Russian “high” culture that has given the world Tolstoy and Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, and Chagall. Respect for Russian culture in Germany runs though the life and work of iconic literary figures such as Rainer Maria Rilke and Thomas Mann (Rilke thanked Russia for “making me who I am”).

A book published in 2000 by one of Germany’s leading Russia experts, Alexander Rahr—Vladimir Putin: The “German” in the Kremlin—advanced the case for deepening Russian-German rapprochement based not only on the two countries’ close historical, cultural, and economic ties, but also on Putin’s particular gifts as a “Deutschlandkenner” (an authority on Germany).

Authority or not, Putin has certainly been masterful at weaving together all the sometimes barely visible strands of German Russophilia. In an address to the parliament in Berlin in September of 2001, he spoke of history, reconciliation, common security, and the “unity of European culture”—in fluent German, no less, the “language of Goethe, of Schiller, and of Kant,” as he cannily put it to his audience. Never mind that Putin’s German came from his time as a KGB agent in East Germany.

This past never seemed to bother former leader Gerhard Schröder. The former Social Democratic chancellor embodies virtually every problematic instinct that modern Germany has toward Russia, defending Russian actions in Ukraine and blaming the European Union for provoking Moscow by inviting Ukraine to sign an “associate agreement.” Schröder is the chairman of the investors committee for the Gazprom-dominated German energy company Nord Stream. He made headlines in April when, just after the annexation of Crimea, he celebrated his birthday in St. Petersburg with Putin.

There’s ample evidence to suggest that unlike Schröder, Angela Merkel grasps the challenge posed by Putinism. Nor is the chancellor from the center-right CDU party alone. A letter sent in August to German lawmakers by Social Democratic Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, and Food and Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt laid the blame for turmoil in Ukraine entirely on Russia. The three German officials argued the need to sacrifice their country’s short-term economic interests on behalf of principle and longer-term security concerns.

So, a serious debate—not only about Ukraine but Russia generally—may just now be starting. It will involve a lengthy education process and debate with the German public—as well as with businesses and banks—to assure that Schröderism does not define the country’s future. In one recent poll, half the German public (forty-nine percent) said they wanted their country to take a middle position between Russia and the West over the Ukraine crisis. Historian Heinrich Winkler warns of the danger, seeing now a significant minority questioning the country’s anchoring in Western institutions like NATO and the European Union.


The third major obstacle to Germany developing a more balanced, realistic approach toward Russia has to do with the country’s lack of a mature, self-confident strategic class. This deficit should come as no surprise. For its first forty years, West Germany developed under the protective umbrella of Western and US security. Imagine military officers promoted through the years to the rank of general, without ever having seen combat. Military and policy leaders alike grow through being tested, and wrestling with excruciating dilemmas. That means understanding that choices are often made between equally unfavorable options. It means understanding that unintended consequences happen and must be reckoned with. It’s an untidy business, dirtying hands and allowing little room for haughty moralizing.

A strategic class fosters a strategic culture of discussion and debate, something taken for granted in Washington, London, and Paris. While German strategic muscles were in a sense atrophying during the Cold War, for instance, France maintained a nuclear arsenal, a seat on the UN Security Council, and an independent foreign policy. Complain about the French as you like, but France understands grand strategy and the exercise of power in all its dimensions and is thus a factor around the world. (See “Hollande the Hawk?,” May/June 2014.)

Since unification, Germany has debated numerous times the subject of sending troops abroad. Anyone who follows these debates can easily get the feeling that many Germans see such commitments distastefully as a kind of compulsory fee for their membership in the security club of NATO. They do what they must, but there’s often little in the way of strategic context or larger purpose offered for these deployments. Is there a German role within a European context in maintaining a liberal world order? Does Berlin have a special responsibility to encourage and protect the young democracies of Central and Eastern Europe? Is it prepared, as a key member of NATO and the European Union, to make hard decisions in its relationship with Russia that may involve considerable economic loss and even, under some circumstances, the deployment of German troops to the region?

There are fine strategic thinkers in Germany, to be sure. Historian Michael Stürmer, Die Zeit publisher Josef Joffe, and think tank leader and leading commentator Christoph Bertram come to mind. Among younger voices, Clemens Wergin, Stefan Kornelius of the Süddeutsche newspaper, and writer Ulrich Speck, of the Carnegie Endowment, Europe, do important work. There are intelligent voices in government and the parties as well. But the bench is very weak, and the culture of strategic thought is not only underdeveloped but has “actually all grown weaker since the end of the Cold War,” claims Wergin. This lack of a realistic strategic vision allows those numerous disparate voices in Germany’s foreign policy debate to pull the country, sometimes quite forcefully, in different directions.


What can the US do? First, lead by example. The Iraq War damaged our credibility. We need to accept this fact and seek ways to restore trust and confidence in American leadership. Unfortunately, six years of vacillation and indifference from the Obama administration have made matters even worse. The US needs to get its foreign policy house in order, with some clarity and consistency about our own foreign policy objectives and priorities.

Second, reinvigorate transatlantic ties. Augment professional exchange programs with journalists, think tank scholars, and younger policymakers and parliamentarians. There is a new class of think tankers, Hill staffers, and members of Congress who know something about China, Central Asia, and the Middle East. That’s a good thing. But in the meantime, our own ties and knowledge of Germany and of Europe have been withering. (Disclosure: the author is working with the World Affairs Institute, publisher of World Affairs, on an initiative, the Transatlantic Renewal Project, aimed at tackling these problems.)

Third, promote a reinvigorated transatlantic partnership that includes Central and East Europeans—and Russians, however scarce at the moment—who share our liberal, Atlanticist view of Europe’s future. And support the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a free trade agreement that is as important politically and strategically as it is economically. On this score, Germany has been prodding us. It’s time that we respond.

Finally, we should reinvest in information policies. Doubling down on the efforts of Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty would be a good start. The West has a narrative to advance. Germany, with its experience in political party foundation work and Goethe Institutes, can help us think through current challenges in valuable ways. We need to continually and persuasively make the case for accountable government, rule of law, pluralism, and tolerance. It is precisely these things that are under assault today in that part of Europe that not so long ago held the promise of a renewed and reenergized Atlantic Alliance.

We can push back against Putinism and the Putin Doctrine in Central and Eastern Europe. When our own vision is clear, and when a strong Germany chooses to play its full and constructive role, we’ll have a chance to get back to the path of a Europe truly whole and free.

Jeffrey Gedmin is a senior fellow at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and a senior fellow at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, in London. This article was completed for the November/December issue and published online on September 4, 2014.

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