“Let us lift Germany…into the saddle. Surely, when that is achieved, it will succeed in riding as well”.
Otto von Bismarck, 1867
A German, German foreign policy
Alphen, Netherlands. 20 August. Apparently, it did not go terribly well. Officially Saturday’s meeting between Kanzlerin Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin in the late-Baroque splendour of the Schloss Meseberg discussed Ukraine, Syria, Iran and the Nordstream 2 gas pipeline project. The meeting, like so many Russo-German meetings of late, involved ‘hard talking’ but made little official progress. And yet, in spite of the tensions, Nordstream 2 just ploughs ahead tying Russia and Germany ever closer together in mutual energy dependency and threatening to by-pass much of Eastern Europe with profound security implications. Nordstream 2 also reveals the two legs of contemporary German foreign policy which is both legalistic and mercantilist at one and the same time.
German foreign policy is increasingly neither European nor transatlantic, just German. The strengths and weaknesses of German foreign policy were reflected in the Merkel-Putin meeting. The German position reflects the deep and abiding commitment of contemporary Germany to international law, a kind of ‘Lexpolitik’. For all its undoubted power these days contemporary, democratic Germany remains essentially self-constraining with international relations viewed through a very legalistic institutionalist lens. Contrast that with President Putin’s world-view which virtually a polar opposite. Putin is buccaneering with a penchant for Machtpolitik, even though Russia has not actually got much ‘macht’ beyond the purely destructive (of which it has a lot!). The reason little progress was made at Meseberg thus becomes clear: the Germans would have pushed for ‘solutions’ commensurate with international law, whilst Vladimir Putin would no doubt have snorted that ‘law’ to him is whatever he decides it is.
Nordstream 2 and German strategy
German foreign policy is not all about the pursuit of virtue. Nordstream 2 reveals the strong mercantilist strand in German foreign policy. When it comes to the interests of German business it is Realpolitik that tends to become the norm. One only has to examine the influence German business has in the EU to understand the centrality of German business to the German interest, and the lengths Berlin is prepared to go to protect this interests. The repeated blocking by Germany of the EU Services Directive prevented powerful British firms gaining a competitive foothold in the German market and had a not unimportant role in Brexit.
And yet, Nordstream 2 is also where German legalism and mercantilism flow together. For Germany, this grand strategic project is a way to keep the Russians talking whatever martial fantasies in which President Putin might indulge. Indeed, it is interesting the contrasting ways Berlin and Moscow see the strategic utility of Nordstream 2. The Russians see the pipeline as a means to use gas supplies to coerce other Europeans into a grudging acceptance of Russian influence over Moscow’s near abroad and a bit beyond. The other day I was cold called by a Gazprom-led consortium here in the Netherlands offering me cheaper gas. Crimea led to some sanctions being imposed by Germany and other Europeans on Moscow which may be having some limited impact on Russia’s elite. After the Skripal attack on Britain by Russia one might have expected more sanctions, but no. This is because for the Germans the need to keep the Russians talking is at the very heart of the German foreign policy concept precisely because it was born in the charnel houses of Tannenberg in 1914, Stalingrad in 1942 and the divided Germany of the Cold War. Frankly, Berlin is right. Therefore, the best way to understand Nordstream 2 is to place the project firmly in contemporary Germany’s strategic and historical context.
Nordstream 2 should thus be seen less as a pipeline pumping Russian gas directly to Germany and beyond, but rather as a gigantic money-transfer conduit designed to keep Russia afloat. Berlin has reason to be concerned about Russia’s stability and all points European in between. In 2017 the Carnegie Moscow Centre stated: “A substantial part of Russia’s production capacity – more than 40% by some estimates – is both technologically and functionally obsolete and cannot produce competitive and marketable products. For instance, Russia’s machine stock has shrunk by almost a half in the last ten years…Over the next few years, we can expect a decline in investment…This downward spiral will eventually lead the country to economic collapse”. In other words, President Putin is committed to exactly the same course of action as the Tsars (both White and Red) before him: a level of strategic ambition that simply cannot be sustained over the medium to long-term and which unless mitigated or changed will lead to a crunch. If Russia catches a bad cold the rest of Europe…
Nordstream 2 is mercantilism as strategic stability and thus very German – both noble and self-interested at one and the same time. Saturday’s meeting reflected that eclectic mix of German values and interests. It was thus perhaps fitting that today is the fiftieth anniversary of the Prague Spring and the then-Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia to prevent it from breaking out of the Soviet straitjacket. The Prague Spring played an important role in pushing then West Germany to develop its first real post-war independent foreign policy – Ostpolitik. At a time when the Americans were deeply distracted with Vietnam Willy Brandt sought to establish a direct relationship with both the ‘other’ Germany, the German Democratic Republic and the Soviet Union.
What price gas?
History is still the eloquent driving force in German foreign policy but it is history that paradoxically leads to the contradiction from which Berlin’s internationalism suffers. German foreign policy is not all about Russia, Nordstream 2, or that other great elephant in the room at Meseberg, at least in spirit, US President Donald J. Trump. Germany is now simply too powerful IN Europe to simply remain yet another European ally OF America. Viewed from Berlin Germany is surrounded by supplicant states all either seeking German money, German blessing or both on a continent in which only Germany can guarantee order. That includes Britain and France. And yet Germany still seems ill-at-ease with the very idea of German power and leadership. It is strategic recalcitrance that could well flunk lead Berlin to flunk the hard test that is inevitably coming Germany’s way.
Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, Chairman of the Munich Security Conference, suggests the problem with German foreign policy is that it does not want to get ‘wet’, i.e. face hard realities when things go wrong and have the will and the means to do something about them. It is also why the Nordstream 2 strategy could fail. Given the nature of the Putin regime, Moscow might simply use the new gas money that will flow up Nordstream 2 to further reinforce the very tools of international coercion which threaten other Europeans and upon which Russia has been investing for a decade since the August 2008 invasion of Georgia. What price gas then?
Can ‘Wet’ Germany Lead?
Europe certainly needs German leadership and Europe has not had a better Germany to lead since 1870. Unfortunately, German foreign policy is also a two-legged stool critically lacking a third leg – hard power. Back to Germany and Russia. Today, Russia commences Vostok 2018, the largest Russian military exercise for forty years, Germany’s weakness is that its foreign policy is an ‘anything but war’ policy, whilst Russia’s foreign policy is ‘war or the threat of war as a means to an end’ policy.. At Meseberg these two very different ideas of power tried to speak to each other and failed, which is why Europeans will continue to need American engagement in its affairs. Sadly, Russia will not be a ‘normal’ power (nor have a future) until it reduces the level of state investment in intimidating others and starts investing in its own people. Germany will not really be a normal power until Berlin recognises that ‘shit happens’ when dealing with the likes of Putin’s Russia – big shit! It is not Russian power that is a threat to Europe but Russian economic weakness in conjunction with an over-bearing and unaffordable Russian security state. No amount of money Germany pours into Russia via Nordstream 2 will avert eventual Russian collapse unless Berlin can convince Moscow to change course.
The need for a three-legged German foreign policy is pressing. If the transatlantic relationship is not reinforced and Germany continues to seek the fruits of leadership but refuses to bear its burdens there could come a moment when the ‘correlation of forces’ are so adverse for the European democracies that the military opportunism that has pot-marked the Putin era will be impossible for Moscow to again resist. In that case, it is unlikely to be Germans who will suffer in the first instance, even if Berlin would bear a lot of responsibility.
Europe needs German leadership but as President Teddy Roosevelt might have put it Germany must also continue to speak softly but learn again to carry a reasonably big stick.