Beyond the "Strategic Partnership": A Neo-Bismarckian Paradigm for German-Russian Relations

By Srdja Trifkovic
Thursday, 15 Sep 2011

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(Presented at the IIIS & EU-Russia Centre Conference in Munich on September 15, 2011) -- To truly unite Europe by helping Russia modernize and by integrating it into the common European home, we need “Europe” but not in its current EU form. We don’t need arbitration from Brussels when major European nations seek common ground. Bismarck would see this, Putin does; the German political and business elite should do likewise during Putin's next mandate.

The “Strategic Partnership” between Berlin and Moscow is usually understood in the English-speaking world in somewhat simplified terms: Russian energy meets German technology with a lot of high-minded political rhetoric on top. In the meantime, the received wisdom goes, Germany remains firmly anchored in the Euro-Atlantic framework of political, economic and military institutions and relationships. In other words, Moscow may be Germany’s partner, “strategic” or otherwise, but Washington remains Berlin’s primary ally and its primary institutional focus is still in Brussels.

This may have been so over the years but it need not be so in the future. A foreign policy realist would argue that in the years ahead of us the German decision-making elite would be well advised to critically reconsider old assumptions and to develop an overall strategy of greater equidistance vis-à-vis Moscow and Washington. (Instead of equidistance, “more equal proximity” may be a better term.) If German political, economic and civilizational interests are considered in realist terms, without the rhetorical ideological shackles of common values and ideals, it transpires that the Federal Republic has a more natural community of long-term geopolitical interests with Russia than with the United States.

The fundamental German-Russian compatibility is that they are traditional European nation-states pursuing limited objectives by limited means. By contrast, the leaders of the United States of both parties still subscribe to the notion of America’s exceptionalism and to the propositional creed rooted in Puritan millenarianism.

In world affairs this neurosis translates into self-appointed missions of “spreading democracy” and “humanitarian interventionism.” There is precious little to choose between the neoliberal interventionists, notably the ladies’ trio of Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, Samantha Power, and their neoconservative counterparts, such as Richard Perle, Paul Wofowitz, or Douglas Feith. They are but two sides of the same coin.

Germany has gone along with various American idiosyncrasies for a long time, but its elites have never been fully comfortable with the ideological arsenal of American postmodernia. Let it be noted that announcing the failure of the multiculturalist experiment, as Chancellor Merkel has done earlier this year, is unimaginable for an occupant of the White House from either party.

In geopolitical terms, like Russia but unlike the U.S., Germany is a continental power; and also like Russia but unlike the U.S., Germany has limited and “rational” strategic and security objectives. Both are weary of America’s self-appointed global missions, although Russia is unsurprisingly more vocal about its misgivings. Looking back over the past decade we find numerous areas of actual discord between Berlin and Washington reflecting divergent interests and strategic philosophies:

1.            During the Bush years Germany was consistently lukewarm about NATO’s eastward expansion and notably unsupportive of the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia in the Alliance, although this course was strongly advocated in Washington.

2.            In 2003-4 Moscow and Berlin effectively developed a common front against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

3.            In the fall of 2004 Germany took a back seat during the U.S-driven financial, political and financial support for the “Orange” takeover in Ukraine.

4.            In 2005, having rejected the U.S.-endorsed Polish proposal for a Western energy alliance, former Chancellor Schroeder went on to initiate the Nord Stream project, regardless of Washington’s displeasure at the bypassing of its Baltic-Polish clients.

5.            Although reputedly more Atlanticist than her predecessor, Angela Merkel was unwilling to join the U.S.-led chorus of condemnation of Russia after Moscowt responded forcefully to Saakashvili’s aggression in South Ossetia in 2008.

6.            In 2009 the U.S. exerted political pressure on General Motors, which had just received a massive Federal bailout only months earlier, to cancel plans to sell Opel to a Russian-backed consortium, although the deal was supported by the German government.

7.            On the southeastern front, the Germans have been lukewarm about the stalled Nabucco pipeline, which has been strongly favored by the U.S., and have suggested Russia’s inclusion in it, even though it is clear that this would defeat the project’s rationale.

8.            At the same time Germany is not averse to the Russian South Stream project, which is anathema to Washington and a number of its chronically Russophobic East European clients.

9.            The United States and its European clients (notably Poland) would prefer the EU to present a single interface in its foreign and economic relations with third parties – including above all energy – while Germany wisely pursues bilateral arrangements which are also preferred by Russia.

10. Last but not least, earlier this year Germany remained on the sidelines while the U.S., Britain and France intervened in Libya under the aegis of NATO.

It is noteworthy that some of these trends have gelled, or maintained momentum, under Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, even though her government has made few moves to deepen German-Russian relations from the pinnacle of the Schroeder-Steinmeier years and she is personally by no means a cultural Russophile. This indicates that the logic of interests and objectives determined by the relatively constant factors of geography, resources and political culture, operate to a considerable extent independently of the decision-makers’ personal preferences.

The likely return to Russia’s presidency of Vladimir Putin in 2012 would be beneficial to the development of various currently untapped potentialities in German-Russian relations. As a cultural Germanophile with a strong sense of history and a firm rooting in the realist approach to grand strategy, Putin would also give an impetus to the return of what I would like to call the Neo-Bismarckian Paradigm. It was under the Iron Chancellor, the towering genius of the European 19th century diplomacy, that Germany and Russia last had a genuine strategic partnership, based on the compatibility of interests and the absence of truly insurmountable obstacles. Bismarck’s incompetent successors had abandoned this paradigm in favor of an unnecessary and ultimately fatal bid for multi-spectral hegemony – a Wilhelmine brand of neoconservatism – which finally entangled Germany in the affairs of the Habsburgs in The Balkans – which, as Bismarck had rightly pointed out, were not worth the bones of a Pomeranian grenadier.

In the neo-Bismarckian  framework Russia will pursue a strong, but bilaterally-based relationship with Germany and with other key European partners, such as France and Italy. It is neither in Russia’s interest, nor in the interest of Germany, to allow the apparatus of the European Union to impose itself as an interface. As the current financial crisis clearly indicates, the interests of different members and groups within the EU are too diverse, incompatible even, to allow for a single platform to interfere in the conduct of what are properly bilateral affairs.

It is almost axiomatic, for instance, that Russia cannot have the same kind of partnership with Britain as it does with Germany, and the terms of such relationships need to be determined in direct dialogue with London and Berlin, or Paris, or Rome. That is the optimal model for Russia benefiting from the German connection on its path to necessary modernization, and that is the optimal format for Germany to make its contribution. Had the Nord Stream project been subjected to a Brussels-based interface, it would not have been built.

As the global distribution of power regains its multipolar character and the United States continues to lose its briefly held position of full-specter dominance, as the European Union is in a period of chronic crisis, the traditional nation-states of Europe need to rediscover the benefits of togetherness based on spontaneously emerging, interest-based links, and not on multilateral, bureaucratically mediated institutional mechanisms.

To truly unite Europe by helping Russia modernize and deploy its full potential and by integrating it into the common European home, we need “Europe” indeed, but not necessarily in its current Brussels form, or let me be frank, not at all in that form -- and certainly we don’t need interference or arbitration from Brussels when its traditional nations seek common ground on the basis of a plus-sum-game. Bismarck would understand this, I believe Vladimir Putin does, and I hope the German political and business elite will do likewise during V.V. Putin's next mandate, to the benefit of all.