A realistic German Ostpolitik is hampered by old illusions

­­­­­The new German foreign minister Heiko Maas created a stir by calling for a ‘new Ostpolitik’, aimed at making Russia respect again international rules. His remarks gave rise to a discussion about the Ostpolitik in the 1970s, what was right and what was wrong about it. According to Hannes Adomeit old misconceptions, fear for Russia and anti-Americanism hamper a new and realistic German approach.

by Hannes Adomeit

In June, September and November of last year, German foreign minister Heiko Maas of the social democratic party (SPD) created a stir by calling for a ‘new Ostpolitik’. Since then, a discussion has ensued in Germany as to whether a new approach to Europe east of the Oder and Neisse rivers, some Ostpolitik 2.0, was necessary or appropriate. Questions have been raised as to what Ostpolitik 1.0 was all about; what was right and what was wrong about it; how the current approach is similar or different from that conducted in the 1970s; and what main elements, if any, should form part of a new direction.

Ostpolitik 1.0

The conceptual basis of the original German Ostpolitik as conducted by chancellor Willy Brandt in the coalition government of the SPD with the liberal party (FDP) in 1969-1974  essentially was formulated in a speech by Egon Bahr, Brandt’s close associate and confidant, at the Evangelische Akademie in Tutzing in July 1963. How to achieve German reunification was a central theme of his speech.

He proceeded from ‘the absolutely negative result of the reunification policy’ as conducted until then. If conditions for reunification were to be created, one could not expect this to be done in East Berlin and ‘not against the Soviet Union, not without it’. Reunification, furthermore, was not to be conceived as a one-time act, a decision on some historic day, but as a process with many steps and many stations. He emphatically ruled out ‘any policy for the direct overthrow of the regime[s] over there’. This he considered to be a ‘hopeless’ endeavor.

So what was to be done? In the penultimate sentence of his manuscript, he pointed the way with a formulation that would become the motto of Brandt's Ostpolitik and lead to a fundamental reorientation: ‘It is a policy that could be encapsulated in the formula of Wandel durch Annäherung (change through rapprochement).

Based on this precept, seemingly paradoxically, the essence of Brandt’s Ostpolitik was to accept the status quo (die Realitäten anerkennen) in order to change it. Initially, Wandel did envisage altering the fundamentals of the communist systems in the Soviet Union and the Soviet bloc, including the GDR. It hoped for policy changes to be enacted by the communist governments. These, in turn, were to be fostered by creating mutual trust. Contractual guarantees of borders, as they existed since 1945, and reaffirmation of the principle of the renunciation of force, were to take into account the security needs of the Soviet and eastern bloc’s governments.

Brandt's Ostpolitik was to accept the status quo in order to change it

Correspondingly, in treaties with Moscow, Warsaw, Prague and East Berlin, the German government officially recognized the state borders in Europe as ‘inviolable’ (unverletzlich); by implication borders could be changed by mutual consent. In exchange, with the conclusion of the Four-Power Agreement in September 1971, the freedom of West Berlin and its access routes was contractually secured. The Soviet Union guaranteed unhindered access to the western sectors through the territory of the GDR and confirmed West Berlin’s special ties to the Federal Republic. For the first time in years, West Berliners were once again allowed to visit relatives and friends in the eastern part of the city. To that extent, it served the Brandt government’s goal of achieving menschliche  Erleichterungen for the population in the GDR, that is, improving their life and alleviating the burden of the division.

brandt in warscgauWilly Brandt kneels at the monument for the victims of the Warsaw ghetto uprising

Brandt’s Ostpolitik also had an important moral dimension. This pertained above all to the acknowledgement and the expression of sorrow, regret and shame for the atrocities committed by Nazi Germany in Eastern Europe. The important and consequential gesture symbolizing this attitude came on 8 December 1970, the day after the signing in Warsaw of the Treaty between the Federal Republic and Poland, when Brandt laid a wreath of white carnations embellished with two ribbons in the black, red and gold of the German flag at the monument in honor of the victims of the Warsaw ghetto and fell to his knees with his head bowed low.

Change through trade and exchanges

 ‘Wandel’ in the binary term, as mentioned, was meant to alter the foreign policies of the Soviet Union’s and Soviet bloc governments, not the communist system. Yet over time its meaning was significantly broadened and became firmly rooted in the minds of large sections of the SPD until this very day. The alteration could be subsumed under the motto of Wandel durch Handel, that is, change through trade or, according to the slogan coined in 2006 by foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Annäherung durch Verflechtung, i.e. rapprochement through ‘interlocking’ or ‘interweaving’.

According to the definition provided by him at the EU foreign ministers meeting in Lappeenranta in September of that year, it had to be understood as a ‘modern interpretation of the proven concept of change through rapprochement’. Its central idea was that a transformation of the domestic political system of partner countries can be achieved by creating a broad network of economic and social contacts and exchanges.

Steinmeier hoped to modernise and democratise Russia through economic and social contacts

At a meeting of the steering committee of the Petersburg Dialogue on Russian-German civil society cooperation in March 2008, he provided some detail to the vision claiming that the net of contacts and exchanges was to be woven by ‘musicians, painters and writers who stimulate each other; entrepreneurs who work together for mutual benefit; scientists who learn from each other and together explore unknown territory; and journalists who are curious and openly discover and describe the society of each other’s country’.

Such notions also lay at the basis of the idea that Steinmeier suggested two months later to students at the Ural University in Yekaterinburg: the construction of a broad German-Russian ‘modernisation partnership’. The idea that such a partnership should not be limited to the economic and technological aspects but extend to the political domain surfaced in his conviction that ‘the modernisation of Russia can only succeed if domestic and foreign capital find a reliable legal framework’. Economic development required ‘trust, and not only that, but also reliability and predictability of processes, equal and open access to the legal system, and independence of the courts [because] effective, transparent and self-regulating institutions are the nuts and bolts of modernisation’.

To students of integration theory, such ideas sound familiar as constituting the ‘spillover’ from one domain in another and from ‘low politics’ into ‘high politics’. The problem, however, has been that in Russia the ‘spillover’ and the progression from the expansion of trade and economic, technological and civil society cooperation to the creation of a liberal democracy, market economy with fair competition and a law-based state that would shed its imperial legacies and policies failed to take place.

Relaxation is at odds with control

There is a fundamental reason for this phenomenon and one that applies equally to the problems of détente for Brezhnev’s Politburo and of Annäherung durch Verflechtung for Putin’s power elite. Bahr alluded to this problem in reference to the worker’s uprising in June 1953 in the GDR pointing out how ‘dangerous’ from the Soviet perspective it was to allow even modest ‘alleviations’. The central point here is that détente, the relaxation of tensions and close cooperation with liberal and democratic countries abroad are at odds with authoritarianism and repression in Russia and the Kremlin’s assertion of control in a self-proclaimed sphere of influence.

From the perspective of an authoritarian regime the required reaction to external détente is enhanced repression internally

That, quite in contrast to integration theories, is the essence of ‘spillover’, the fear of the ruling power ‘elite’ that rapprochement and transnational networks undermine the legitimacy of authoritarian rule and encourage processes of emancipation, liberalisation and democratisation at home and in the bloc.

To that extent, from the perspective of an authoritarian regime, the required reaction to external détente and rapprochement is enhanced repression internally and in the glacis. The Warsaw Pact intervention in August 1968, for that very reason, was more than some malheur and ‘accident on the road to détente’, as the French premier, Michel Debré, believed at the time; it was a logical corollary to the relaxation of tension.

helsinki agreement 1975Helmut Schmidt (left), Erich Honecker, Gerald Ford, Bruno Kreisky sign the Helsinki Agreements in 1975, marking the détente in Europe between east and west. Photo Bundesarchiv

That dialectical relationship is not always clearly understood. Thus, at the conference of the Centre for Liberal Moder­nity (LibMod) in January 2019, conducted under the heading of ‘Russia and the West: Do We Need a New Ost­poli­tik?’, a German participant pointed out that the Western focus in the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe on ‘basket 3’ of the CSCE − on matters concerned with ‘human interaction’, ‘freedom of information and the press’, and ‘cooperation and exchange in cultural and educational issues’ − had led to the formation of Helsinki Human Rights Committees and opposition movements such as Solidarność in Poland and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia.

However, as a Russian participant at the LibMod conference rightly responded, the consequences of their activities were not liberalisation and democratisation in the bloc but increased repression or repressive business as usual − a fact of life in the former satellite countries that fully applied to the GDR. This, in turn, led to a significant alteration of the content of German Ostpolitik as interpreted in the SPD and, at that time, also of the Greens.

Acceptance of the ‘realities’ without change

For Bahr, as noted, acceptance of the status quo had a dialectical quality. It was meant to provide the basis for change. But as the division of Germany was heading into its fourth decade, the SPD was increasingly veering towards acceptance of the status quo without change or, to put it charitably, for change to occur in some distant future – much in line with what Gorbachev was to tell West German president Richard von Weizsäcker (CDU) in July 1987. ‘The existence of two German states’, he said, ‘is a reality from which one must proceed’ and it was ‘on this basis that the effective development of political, economic, cultural and human contacts is possible. What will be in a hundred years, history will tell’.

In accordance with such appeals to Realpolitik, on 22 June 1989 Walter Momper (SPD), West Berlin mayor from March 1989 to December 1990, told the city’s parliament after a visit to East Germany party chief Erich Honecker that ‘new thinking’ should not only be demanded of the ‘leaders of the communist states’. The West, too, had to start ‘thinking about things differently’. This, for instance, concerned the ‘ritualistic repetition of the demands for reunification and the abolition of borders’. Such demands did not in the least help the people in the east. On the contrary, ‘the perception of the SED [East German communist party] that the existence of the GDR as an independent state is being questioned, is an obstacle to far-reaching reforms’.

There is a straight line of the acceptance of the ‘realities’ prior to and after the fall of the Berlin wall and indifference to the emergence of the political system created by Putin

SPD leaders, some with justification others falsely, were later to reject the notion that they had opposed German unification. One of them is Oskar Lafontaine, the SPD’s candidate for the chancellorship in 1990. He rejected the charge that he had been against German unity as ‘fundamentally wrong’. He had always been a ‘supporter of European unification’ and this included ‘German unification’. However, he acknowledged that he had ‘underestimated [the strength] of the unification euphoria’.

There is a straight line of the acceptance of the ‘realities’ prior to and after the fall of the Berlin wall and indifference to the emergence and hardening of the political system created by Putin. Various experts on systems of government have attempted to give that system a proper name, characterizing it as ‘authoritarian’, ‘neo-patrimonial’, a ‘kleptocracy’, a ‘syndicate’, a ‘mafia state’; its economy as ‘corporatist’ and ‘state capitalist’; and its foreign policy as ‘neo-imperialist’. Not a single serious observer, however, has called it a liberal democracy and law-based state.

Stoiber Schrder Putin and Medvedev in October 2009Gerhard Schröder, second from the left, next to Putin watching a soccer match in 2009. Photo rights free

Yet when chancellor Schröder was asked in 2004 whether he thought that Putin was an ‘impeccable democrat’ (lupenreiner Demokrat), he replied that he was ‘convinced that he is.’ In the same year, in the context of the arrest of the chairman of the Yukos oil company, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, he expressed confidence in the development of Russia as a law-based state. There ‘are no indications that [the case] is not proceeding in accordance with the law’, he said, ‘every state wants to collect its taxes’. In fact, turning things on its head, he lauded Putin’s ‘reform efforts’ and claimed that he had ‘restored the confidence of foreign investors in Russia’.

The phenomenon of not calling a spade a spade and stubborn refusal to provide a realistic assessment of the authoritarian, anti-liberal and anti-democratic nature of the Putin system is not limited to the SPD but extends to the left-wing populist Die Linke, the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and to civil society organisations like the German-Russian Forum. The latter, in turn, is well connected to the SPD through its chairman, former premier of the state of Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, and to German industry, notably its Ostausschuss (Eastern Committee).

Replicating the Kremlin’s equation of ‘Russia’ with Putin, the adherents to this camp accuse critics of the Russian government and its policies of being ‘anti-Russian’ and engaging in the ‘demonisation of Russia’. Furthermore, referring to the war Nazi Germany unleashed on the Soviet Union and the millions of Russian casualties, the argument is being made by the defenders of the Putin regime that to criticise Russia was unacceptable ‘especially for us Germans’. This line of reasoning neglects the fact that the Second World War did not start in 1941 but in 1939; that the Nazi-Soviet Pact made it possible; that the first major victims of the collusion were Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians and Estonians; and that proportionally Ukrainians suffered more casualties in the war than Russians.

Yet another alteration of the content of German Ostpolitik as originally conceived concerns Russia’s role in European security affairs.

Détente minus deterrence

In the era of Helmut Schmidt (SPD) as chancellor of the CDU/CSU-FDP coalition government (1974-1982), German approaches to the east received another inflection. It was based on NATO’s 1967 ‘Harmel Report’ that called for a dual-track policy of the Western alliance toward the Soviet Union: deterrence and détente; maintaining adequate defence while engaging in negotiations and making efforts to reduce tensions. In application of this concept, Schmidt firmly supported NATO’s dual-track decision on INF, that is, to conduct negotiations with the Soviet Union for a mutual limitation of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Europe while threatening that in case of the failure of that track NATO would deploy nuclear-armed Pershing 2 and cruise missiles.

Large sections of the SPD replaced the axiom of ‘speaking softly but carrying a big stick’ in  ‘speaking softly and carrying a bunch of carrots’

However, whereas Schmidt firmly stood behind this stance, large sections of the SPD leadership and rank and file members did not. In October 1982, parliament approved of a vote of no-confidence in the government and with the support of the Liberals elected Helmut Kohl (CDU) as chancellor. The position Schmidt had taken on INF, as he later acknowledged, had cost him his job. A major if not the main part of the SPD no longer appeared to accept the principle of ‘speaking softly but carrying a big stick’ in the approach to Moscow but to have replaced it by an axiom of ‘speaking softly and carrying a bunch of carrots’.

It clung to the notion that it was not the Bundestag’s consent to the stationing of INF and the Kremlin’s failure to determine NATO defence policies that had led to Gorbachev’s ‘new political thinking’, the doctrine of ‘reasonable sufficiency’ and the INF treaty but détente and the ‘peace movement’. It also downplayed the idea that Gorbachev’s perceived inability of the Soviet Union to keep up with the United States and NATO in the military-technological competition, notably in an arms race in space, had played a significant role in the Soviet leader’s fundamental change of direction and ultimately for the end of the Cold War.

Such perceptions solidified with the return of the SPD to government, first in the coalition with the Greens/Alliance 90 with Gerhard Schröder (1998-2005) as chancellor and then in the ‘grand coalition’ governments with Angela Merkel (CDU) as chancellor and Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel at different times (2005-2009 and 2013-2017) ministers for foreign affairs, and economics and energy respectively. The party’s attitudes under the triumvirate included ‘understanding’ for the Kremlin’s positions, acceptance of its narratives, deference to its proclaimed interests, and stubborn adherence to the idea that Annäherung and Verflechtung would eventually bring about democratic change in Russia.

Even after Moscow intervened with full military force in Georgia, a report by the Frankfurt Peace Research Institute, an institution with close affinities to the SPD, postulated that the requirement of the time was now to ‘bind’ Russia into Western institutions rather than to contain it (einbinden statt eindämmen).

The Kremlin’s turn from socio-economic modernisation to military-patriotic mobilisation, its annexation of the Crimea and military intervention in eastern Ukraine produced shock waves in the SPD but it did not lead to a fundamental change of policy. It did not hold primarily internal factors responsible for Putin’s turn to open hostility towards the West and the creation of a siege mentality but, at least in significant part, NATO’s eastern enlargement. It continued to neglect the importance of ‘hard power’ in European affairs taking comfort in the (patently erroneous) axiom that problems can never be resolved militarily, only by political means.

nato baltics 2NATO exercise in Estonia. Photo Estonian Defence Forces

A vivid demonstration of this mind-set came in then foreign minister Steinmeier’s commentary on the military maneuvers held in June 2016 by NATO countries in Poland and the Baltic states. ‘What we should not do now, is to add more fuel to the situation by loud saber-rattling and war cries’, he said with a view to the relationship with Russia. Anyone who believed that more security could be created by ‘symbolic armored parades’ on the eastern border of NATO was mistaken. No pretexts should be provided for a new confrontation.

Steinmeier’s comments were held to be unacceptable also in the SPD – an indication that there are internal divisions on how to deal with security issues. This is also shown by SPD attitudes concerning the INF issue. In an interview with Der Spiegel on 11 January, foreign minister Maas squarely put the blame on Russia and deplored that it had ‘violated the treaty for a number of years’. The task at hand now was ‘to move the Russian side to deal with the charges and restore adherence to the treaty’. He has also supported the position taken by the CDU/CSU coalition partner in government that a ‘tit-for-tat’ response to the Russian move in the form of stationing missiles in Europe was unnecessary but that, as defence minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) has stated, the adoption of a ‘broad mix of measures’ might be called for. Part of this mix, as Johann David Wadephul, deputy chairman of the CDU/CSU parliamentary party suggested, could be a ‘system of interceptors equipped with conventional arms’ to provide protection against Russian nuclear armed missiles.

Vladimir Putin and Frank Walter Steinmeier 2016 03 23 03Putin, Lavrov and Steinmeyer. Moscow 2016. Picture Kremlin.

Deputy chairman of the SPD parliamentary party Rolf Mützenich spoke of a ‘fundamental disagreement’ with such a measure because even if one were to respond to the Russian INF move with conventional weapons, this would still ‘pose a high risk of escalation and provoke a new arms race’.

A new realistic approach

The conditions in 2019 are quite different from those obtaining half a century ago. Reunification has been achieved and, therefore, the central goal of Ostpolitik 1.0 has become obsolete. What we are faced with instead is a return of the ruling ‘elite’ in Moscow to authoritarian, anti-liberal, anti-democratic and anti-Western attitudes at home and imperial policies abroad. Tension and confrontation reminiscent of the Cold War have also returned. But what is different today as compared to the Brezhnev era is Putin’s position in the centralized power structure.

Heiko Maas understands the need for a new Ostpolitik, not based on illusions but on realism

Unlike his Soviet predecessor, Putin is not embedded in and constrained by a conservative, ossified collective leadership. This makes him much less predictable. Furthermore, his foreign policy is not that of a status quo oriented power but essentially irredentist and revisionist. What is needed, therefore, is neither a return to Brandt’s Ostpolitik nor a continuation of the deferential attitudes and policies of the approaches associated with Schröder, Gabriel and Steinmeier, Die Linke and the AfD but, indeed, a new Ostpolitik that is not based on illusions but a realistic assessment of the current state of affairs.

Heiko MaasForeign minister Heiko Maas, whose ideas are controversial in his own SPD party. Photo rights free

The core of such an approach was provided by foreign minister Maas in an interview with Der Spiegel on 13 April 2018. ‘Regrettably’, he said, ‘Russia has been acting in an increasingly hostile manner’. He deplored that, for the first time since the end of the Second World War, ‘chemical weapons have been used in the middle of Europe’, obviously referring to the attack carried out by Russian GRU (military intelligence) officers against the Skripals in Salisbury; cyber attacks appeared to have ‘become an important part of Russian foreign policy’; and in Syria, Russia ‘is blocking the UN Security Council’. He ruled out the possibility of a step-by-step dismantling of the sanctions against Russia if Moscow only fulfilled some its obligations on eastern Ukraine as outlined in the Minsk-2 agreement, thereby adhering to the EU position that requires ‘full implementation’ of the agreement.

Some months later, as noted above, he called for a new Ostpolitik and appealed to the member states of the European Union to develop a coordinated approach. Only with the help of a culture of common political action would a common policy towards neighbours outside the EU become possible, he said. This applied in particular to policies toward Moscow. The goal should be for ‘Russia again to respect international rules and not to violate the territorial sovereignty of its neighbours’. For this to happen, one needed, on the one hand ‘clear principles’, and on the other to engage in a ‘genuine dialogue’ on common security in Europe.

The positions of foreign minister Maas on Russia, however, are controversial in his party. Thus, six weeks after having accused Russia of acting in an ‘increasingly hostile’ manner, the SPD party executive held a meeting on foreign policy. In thinly veiled criticism of the foreign minister, secretary-general Lars Klingbeil emphasized the ‘very high importance’ of German-Russian relations for the SPD (thereby falsely conveying the notion that Maas appeared to think otherwise). He then went on to say that ‘We want dialogue with Russia, we are looking for dialogue with Russia, and we want the dialogue to be strengthened.’ The problem is only that the partner for a productive dialogue is missing.

A new approach to Europe east of the Oder and Neisse rivers along the lines that Maas suggested is constrained by a large number of factors. These include

  • the SPD’s almost romantic attachment to Brandt’s Ostpolitik and the erroneous assumption that somehow this approach can be replicated half a century later;
  • the interpretation that it was that it was détente and the ‘peace movement’ that had led to fundamental changes in policy under Gorbachev and caused the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War;
  • ascendancy of the AfD which, like Die Linke, is permeated with anti-liberal, anti-European integration, anti-American attitudes and in that sense − without necessarily endorsing the Putin system – undercutting vigorous responses to Russian assertiveness;
  • anxiety and fears in German public opinion that a tough stance on Russia, rather than setting limits to malign behavior, is ‘provocative’, ‘escalatory’ and ‘counterproductive’ and therefore had to be avoided;
  • the perception held by a majority of Germans, as revealed by a number of recent public opinion polls, that president Trump and United States are greater threats to world peace than Putin and Russia;
  • and the split in Europe between countries, like Poland and the Baltic states, that are willing to confront Russia, and those, like Hungary, Slovakia and the southern European countries, that are not.

Faced with such domestic perceptions and international divisions, it is more than doubtful whether the government could develop an Ostpolitik that meets the Putin challenge while commanding support in Europe and in Germany.

Wekelijkse update?

Iedere donderdag uitgelichte artikelen in uw mailbox

Eerst doorlezen? U kunt zich ook later aanmelden via de home pagina.

Als u in uw browser de cookies blokkeert, ziet u deze popup steeds weer. Daarvoor excuus.