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It’s time Germany abandons its foreign policy la-la land

Andreas Umland is an analyst with the Stockholm Center for Eastern European Studies at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs and associate professor of political science at the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. 

In a historic speech to the Bundestag in late February, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a Zeitenwende, a turning point in post-war European history and German foreign policy. 

The start of Russia’s military invasion and bombardment of Ukraine three days before had not only emphatically ended any hopes of restoring East-West cooperation but also put into question many dearly held German beliefs — beliefs regarding international relations in general, and Berlin’s Eastern Europe facing Ostpolitik in particular. 

Despite the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and the recent sea change in German support of an EU oil embargo against Russia, Germany’s foreign policy is still in need of a long overdue reboot. 

Up until two months ago, much of contemporary German thought on geopolitics had been built on a rosy view of world affairs. For decades, large parts of the German public lived in a Wolkenkuckucksheim — a cloud-cuckoo-land — with the prevalent foreign political paradigm assuming that armed confrontation spreads from misunderstandings and lack of communication. The idea was that political dialogue, cultural exchange, development help, economic relations and diplomatic negotiations produce sustainable security and peace — not military alliances and defense readiness. 

The rise of West Germany’s pacifism was less informed by lessons from the past than a luxury afforded by Western Europe’s protection by American troops and the umbrella of NATO’s nuclear weapons. 

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the enlargement of the European Union and NATO in the 1990s only fed the Wolkenkuckucksheim. Germany’s fortunate geographic location, surrounded by reliable allies, provided the circumstances for an introverted foreign affairs doctrine celebrating high moralism, unreflective pacifism and impractical idealism. 

West Germans’ exaltation of the so-called Neue Ostpolitik, the new Eastern policy, remains a prime example of this skewed German thinking. A new approach to the Soviet bloc by the dovish coalition governments of the social democrats and liberals during the 1970s is widely assumed to have prepared the end of the Cold War 20 years later. 

However, this self-congratulatory narrative ignores that following Neue Ostpolitik, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979. There was a rapid escalation of East-West tensions in the early 1980s. The Soviet Union had already started to plan, develop and build its infamous SS-20 intermediate range missiles during Neue Ostpolitik’s heyday, and worse, Moscow’s armament drive was made partly financially feasible by the large-scale Soviet-German energy cooperation. 

The problematic end result of rapprochement with the Kremlin in the 1970s should have taught the German political elite, and wider public, a lasting lesson. Yet, the ambivalent results of Neue Ostpolitik were never critically reflected upon, and its spectacular collapse in 1979 was quickly forgotten, leading to a strange repetition of West Germany’s foreign approach to Moscow just a few decades later by a united Germany. 

In 2005, the construction of the first Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia to Germany — the largest European energy investment project until then — was initiated, only to be followed nine years later by Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and the fomenting of a pseudo-civil war in Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, Berlin and Moscow struck the Nord Stream 2 contract was followed, only seven years later, by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. 

Against this backdrop, Scholz’s Zeitenwende speech, as well as numerous similar statements from other mainstream German politicians, has been encouraging. But the recent announcements of a new Berlin foreign policy doctrine remain limited in scope and depth. And the German turnaround has not triggered sufficient self-reflection on the origins of past missteps.  

Nor has it yet led to a full recalibration of foreign policy prerogatives. 

Pointing out troublesome ambivalences in the Bonn’s 50-year record and Berlin’s Ostpolitik is still regarded as taboo in many German public debates, and former Chancellor and current Rosneft employee Gerhard Schröder continues to be a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.  

The gap between Berlin’s loudly pro-Ukrainian statements on the one hand, and its hesitant decisions regarding military help and economic sanctions on the other, continues to irritate Germany’s allies in both the West and East. And in order to fully reboot its foreign policy, Germany needs more than a few political speeches. It needs deeper investigation and wider debate running the entire gamut of past mishaps, helping to finally dismantle the geopolitical Wolkenkucksheim many still live in.

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