The Ukraine War has profoundly disrupted the delicate balance of power in Europe, rendering the continent almost unrecognizable when compared to its state prior to 2022. In a remarkably short span of time, Germany’s foreign policy underwent a complete reversal of sentiments and perspectives. Prior to the Ukraine War, Germany sought ways to avoid being a mere follower of American policies in global politics. Prominent figures like Heiko Maas advocated for a new Germany that would counterbalance American policies, lead a united Europe, and forge an alternative to the United States in world affairs through collaborations with like-minded states such as Canada and Japan, emphasizing the importance of multilateralism. Alongside France, Berlin endeavored to explore alternatives to NATO in line with this vision. Consequently, NATO, perceived as a remnant of the Cold War era, was considered an outdated international organization that had outlived its purpose. Indeed, in an interview with The Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron expressed dissatisfaction with the role played by the United States and Turkey within NATO, stating that NATO was effectively “brain dead.” (1) What an unfortunate finding.
The pre-Ukraine War era witnessed Germany’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy that diverged from the prevailing Pax Americana paradigm. Notably, Germany sought to explore alternative approaches, striving to shape its own distinct foreign policy trajectory. Interestingly, within this context, a notable aspect of Germany’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy was the significant emphasis placed on fostering close cooperation with Russia.
LEGACY OF THE COLD WAR YEARS: DEFENSE WITHOUT COST
Germany, which experienced occupation and devastation during the Second World War, endured the consequences of the conflict through its division into East and West. Consequently, preventing the resurgence of German militarism became a paramount objective in global politics. As a result, the United States assumed a significant role in shaping Germany’s foreign and security policies. From the tenure of Konrad Adenauer, the inaugural chancellor of West Germany, the foundation of German foreign policy rested upon a dual “Western bond.” This bond encompassed a close alliance with the United States within the framework of NATO and a second affiliation with France within the European Union.
The presence of tens of thousands of American troops stationed in Germany, coupled with the provision of a nuclear shield, served to safeguard Germany against the Soviet bloc. In contrast to its allies, Germany allocated a relatively modest portion of its national budget towards military expenditures and weapon procurement. This restrained military expenditure played a pivotal role in facilitating Germany’s remarkable economic development.
Consequently, Germany willingly relinquished militaristic ambitions in exchange for security and economic interests, thereby entrusting its foreign policy and security predominantly to a “foreign” power, namely the United States. Consequently, German foreign policy underscored the imperative of collaborating with the United States on global matters and with France on continental affairs.
The foreign policy and security paradigm that emerged during the Cold War provided Germany with a sense of profound reassurance. This reassurance was so ingrained that even with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and the subsequent end of the Cold War following the dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 26, 1991, Germany remained steadfast in its foreign policy approach, maintaining a sense of coordination with the United States and France. Germany adhered unwaveringly to its established foreign policy stance. Perhaps, within this perceived stability, there existed a strategic calculation to avoid provoking the United States, Russia, and other Germany-skeptical European powers, notably France. Regardless of the underlying rationale, Germany exhibited a reluctance to hastily distance itself from its reliance on the United States in matters of defense and foreign policy in the post-Cold War era. Particularly, the Atlanticist CDU (Christian Democratic Union), especially with regard to the reunification of Germany, prioritized maintaining harmony with the United States across a broad spectrum of issues.
However, as the 2000s unfolded, even the United States began expressing dissatisfaction with its alliance with Germany. In 2011, US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates issued a cautionary message to Europe, including Germany, highlighting their lackluster military engagement. He underscored the importance of reversing the prevailing trend, stating, “If the ongoing decline in European defense capabilities is not halted and reversed, future US leaders may question whether the returns on America’s investment in NATO justify the costs.” (2) Gates‘ remarks held considerable validity. Despite reaping the benefits of extensive protection from the United States throughout the Cold War, Germany displayed a noticeable reluctance to augment its defense budget in the post-Cold War era. Instead, it was actively reducing its defense expenditures.
In 2014, a noteworthy voice emerged, urging Germany to pursue a stronger and more autonomous foreign and security policy. German President Joachim Gauck advocated for Germany to assume a more prominent role in global affairs, dispelling the notion that Germany remained insulated like an island from the tumultuous events of the contemporary era. Gauck asserted, “It is misleading to think that Germany is protected like an island from the turmoil of our age.” (3) Although Gauck‘s call resonated with the German elite, the prospect of allocating substantial budgets for change posed a formidable challenge. Breaking away from decades of entrenched comfort would have required significant courage, and Germany hesitated to take such a leap. The idea of pursuing a relatively independent foreign policy, separate from the United States, remained primarily an intellectual exercise. This status quo prevailed until 2016 when Donald Trump assumed the presidency of the United States.
President Trump swiftly shattered Germany’s long-held assumptions about foreign policy. Adopting a transactional approach to international relations, Trump did not view Germany as a steadfast ally and indispensable friend forged over decades. Instead, he treated Germany as a debtor who had evaded settling its obligations for an extended period. Trump‘s viewpoint was evident in statements such as, “Germany owes vast sums of money to NATO & the United States must be paid more for the powerful, and very expensive, defense it provides to Germany!” (4) According to Trump, the United States had been fulfilling Germany’s defense needs at an almost negligible cost, while the Germans were deemed to be exploiting American assistance. Trump consistently voiced his monetary demands and criticisms of Germany, seizing every opportunity to highlight them.
Curiously, German elites and statesmen did not appear to take these criticisms with the gravity they deserved. Rather than carefully considering the critiques, they began discussing the belated pursuit of an independent German foreign and security policy, detached from the United States. According to this perspective, Germany should have severed its dependence on America years ago, making the criticisms all the more poignant.
In 2018, Heiko Maas, the German Minister of Foreign Affairs, expressed his country’s stance clearly. According to the Maas understanding, Germany should act as a “counterbalance to the United States when necessary” and forge alliances with “multilateral countries” like Japan and Canada, as well as seek greater unity within Europe. Maas pointed out several areas of political disagreement between Germany and the US, including trade policies, climate change, and the Iran nuclear deal. He advocated for a partnership between Germany and the United States that is based on balance, mutual respect, and equality. Maas has called for a balanced partnership between Germany and the United States. Heargued that both countries should respect each other’s sovereignty and work together as equals, while also acknowledging the different perspectives and interests they may have. Maas occasionally criticized certain unilateral actions or decisions taken by the United States, particularly when they have diverged from the positions held by Germany or the European Union.
Maas advocated for Germany to shift its focus towards European integration rather than the Atlantic, and to strengthen its bonds with European partners, particularly by deepening the Franco-German partnership as the core of European integration.
Maas‘ views reflected a growing sense of weariness within Germany towards American leadership in Europe. This sentiment was not limited to the German elite but also permeated the general public. According to a 2018 survey conducted by Pew, a significant majority of respondents (69 percent) believed that Germany should cultivate stronger relations with Russia, surpassing the proportion of those who believed the same about the United States (41 percent).
Furthermore, 82 percent of Germans expressed a desire for increased cooperation with France, 69 percent with Russia, 67 percent with China, and 55 percent with the United Kingdom. In contrast, the percentage of Germans desiring closer cooperation with the United States remained stagnant. The research also revealed that while only 35 percent of Germans viewed America as the “most” or “second-most important partner” of Germany, the percentage of those considering Russia as the most important partner had risen to 17 percent. The survey also indicated that 73 percent of German respondents perceived the state of USA-Germany relations as negative. (5)
BUILDING THE FUTURE ON RUSSIA
During the Trump era, Germany and the United States held divergent views on various issues such as the Paris climate agreement, nuclear negotiations with Iran, and trade tariffs. However, one particularly intriguing point of contention was regarding Russia. Despite consistent opposition from the United States, Germany considered Russia to be a reliable political and economic partner. The construction of Nord Stream 2, following Nord Stream 1, served as tangible evidence of Germany’s commitment to cultivating ties with Russia. President Trump asserted that Germany had fallen under Russian control due to its energy relations, even going so far as to claim that Germany had become a captive of the Russians. (6) While Trump criticized Germany’s approach, the German Minister appeared cynical during his speech at the United Nations.
In reality, Germany exhibited an overly optimistic outlook concerning the “taming” of Russian aggression and irredentism, even during the Cold War. Following World War II, German foreign policy relied on mitigating, or some would argue, disregarding Russian aggression through trade and diplomacy, while relying on the protective shield provided by the United States. According to this perspective, although the Russians were deemed dangerous, it was believed that military means alone would not permanently deter them. A lasting solution required tools that could induce permanent changes in Russian behavior, and increasing Russia’s dependence on Germany was seen as one such tool.
OSTPOLITIK AND OSTHANDEL
In 1955, the German Chancellor visited Moscow, thus establishing diplomatic relations between the two states. His first visit was followed by trade agreements signed in 1958 and 1960. Willy Brandt‘s “Ostpolitik” added new dimensions to relations with the East, such as economy, trade, culture, and social relations, and removed the German-Soviet Bloc relations from being purely military relations. Ostpolitik was a farsighted, visionary point of view and was a pioneering example of the detente that the West would discover in later years. The “Osthandel” policy, the understanding of increasing trade with the Soviets, was the most important element of Ostpolitik. If Ostpolitik has succeeded, it can easily be said that it owes it to Osthandel. Osthandel, which had a legal and political infrastructure in the early 1960s, faced the US’s efforts to slow it down in the 1960s. However, American efforts slowed trade but could not stop it, and in 1970 the Russian gas pipeline “Transgas” extended to the German state of Bavaria. Germany’s gas imports from Russia continued to increase throughout the 1970s. Russian energy supplies for the emerging German industry were cheap, reliable and stable. In addition, the interdependence of the German elites permanently changed the Soviet attitude towards Germany. The lifestyle and threat perceptions of the Russians, who were accustomed to German consumer goods in exchange for energy, were changing, and it would be possible to make Russia a permanent peaceful neighbor as a result. At least that was the dream of the Germans…
The increase in German-Russian trade disturbed American presidents, especially Carter and Reagan, and they tried to slow down this trade. But the US policy of obstruction was doomed to be ineffective because the Americans did not offer the Germans an alternative to trade with Russia. In addition, geography and the daily needs of German industry were natural and inescapable forces behind the development of relations with Russia. While Germany’s gas imports from Russia were 1.1 billion cubic meters in 1973, this figure increased to 25.7 billion cubic meters in just 20 years, namely 1993. The increase in 20 years was more than 25 times.
Osthandel was deemed necessary and useful by nearly all German governments, and American warnings were ignored. In 2008, social democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder signed the Nord Stream 1 agreement with Putin. Thanks to this line, Russian gas would reach the German lands directly, without intermediaries, and the insatiable energy hunger of the German industry would be met to some extent. The personal friendship of Putin and Schroeder further facilitated relations. So much so that, after becoming prime minister, Schroeder became so close to the Russians that he started working for the Russian company Gazprom.
During the 1990s and 2000s, following the conclusion of the Cold War, German-Russian relations experienced a significant upswing across various sectors. Notably, German direct investments in Russia and Russia’s emergence as a key trading partner for Germany contributed to Russia’s economic prominence, surpassing even Germany’s NATO allies.
For many Germans, the North Stream 1 project was viewed as a strategic economic and political investment for the future. Shortly thereafter, plans for North Stream 2 were also devised. However, unlike in the past, these plans faced strong opposition from the United States. The reason behind this heightened opposition was Germany’s substantial trade with Russia, which involved billions of dollars flowing into Russia. This economic bolstering of Russia was deemed intolerable by Washington, as it perceived Russia, along with China, as a primary potential adversary.
Contrary to American criticism, the German elite displayed indifference and maintained an optimistic outlook regarding the potential “taming” of Russian aggression through trade and investment. They believed that fostering interdependence would mitigate Russia’s military aggressions towards neighboring nations and potentially facilitate the democratization process within Russia itself. Although this hopeful perspective was held, it has proven futile in the face of numerous influential events during Putin’s tenure.
For instance, when the Russian military occupied Georgian territory in 2008 or annexed the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014, Germany, like France, failed to respond adequately. Following the Georgian attack, France, along with Germany, impeded the United States’ efforts to take a more assertive stance. Berlin, perhaps under the misconception of appeasing Russia, hoped that this course of action would satiate Russia’s ambitions. However, this turned out to be a grave misjudgment. The Franco-German alliance regarded Ukraine and Georgia as part of Russia’s sphere of influence, possibly due to their previous affiliation with the Soviet Union, and believed that interference in these regions was unwarranted.
Prior to the Ukrainian War, the notion of a hot war erupting in Europe had been largely eradicated from the minds of European intellectuals. Europe, considered the “most civilized region in the world,” was believed to be secure and shielded from warfare and turmoil. The perceived risks seemed inconsequential for regions such as the Caucasus and Crimea. However, in 2022, the entry of Russian tanks and planes into Ukrainian territory unfolded in a brutal and aggressive manner, evoking immediate recollections of World War II. The perception of “Europe protected from war” abruptly vanished. Germans and other Western Europeans, who had regarded war as a relic of the past or a distant phenomenon, suddenly found themselves inhaling the scent of diesel fuel from Russian tanks on the streets of Berlin, Paris, or Brussels. Each missile that struck Ukrainian soil jolted Europe from its complacent slumber and confronted it with the realities of the real world.
The Ukraine War served as a wake-up call for EU member states, revealing three harsh truths: 1) Russian expansionism cannot be stopped by means such as diplomacy or interdependence, the only way to stop it is military resistance, 2) No European nation can effectively resist Russia on its own, and 3) The protection of the EU requires the involvement of NATO alongside European collective defense mechanisms because the European powers alone cannot protect Europe from the Russians. Germany was among the first countries to grasp these outcomes. The German government, predominantly comprising Social Democrats and Greens who had historically maintained a sympathetic stance towards Russia, exhibited no hesitation in severing energy ties with Russia and drastically increasing defense spending. Such a profound shift in foreign policy is rarely witnessed in history.
According to some perspectives, Germany failed to recognize the insidious growth of Russian aggression in a timely manner, inadvertently creating a formidable adversary on its own doorstep. Had the Ukraine War not erupted in 2022, Germany’s billions of euros would likely still be flowing into Russia today. However, can we solely blame Germany for this lack of foresight? The truth is that not only Germany but also the majority of the European Union committed similar miscalculations. France and the Netherlands, for instance, behaved no differently than Germany in this regard. Even traditionally neutral countries like Sweden and Finland, which had cherished their neutrality even during the Cold War, swiftly sought membership in NATO. Yet, just a year or two ago, the proportion of individuals sympathetic to American policies, let alone supporting NATO membership in Sweden, was minimal. Even the pacifist left-wing groups, environmentalists, and other anti-military currents advocated substantial increases in defense budgets and welcomed any legislation that brought their countries closer to NATO. The belief that NATO no longer serves European security was a common belief among Europeans before the invasion of Ukraine. Today, NATO is viewed and embraced as a “savior power” in the eyes of European public opinion. The American military leadership, which was on the verge of decline, has become a crown jewel and has returned to Europe even more potent than during the Cold War era. In reality, this is Putin’s “success,” not that of America or NATO. Putin’s grave mistakes led to the consolidation of Western countries into a bloc.
In summary, the Ukraine War profoundly shook the power dynamics within Europe, resulting in the emergence of a new Europe. However, this transformation should not be interpreted as a return to the Cold War era. While the US military leadership seems to have returned to Europe, the world has evolved significantly. The United States now perceives its greatest security threat as originating from outside Europe and seeks to redirect its focus towards the new competitor, namely China, without expending all its resources in regions like Europe. It is pertinent to recall the words of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in 2011: “Future US political leaders may question the return on America’s investment in NATO and whether it is worth the cost.” There’s a lot of discussion about this question right now in Washington, D.C. and across Europe, and Americans ask, “Should the US consume its power in Europe or not, while Europe does not care enough about its own security and spend enough on its defense?”
(1) “Emmanuel Macron Warns Europe: NATO is Becoming Brain-dead”, The Economist, 7 November 2019.
(2) David Alexander ve David Brunnstrom, “Gates parting shot warns NATO risks irrelevance”, Reuters, June 11, 2011.
(3) “Eröffnung der 50. Münchner Sicherheitskonferenz”, München, 31. Januar 2014, https://www.bundespraesident.de/SharedDocs/Reden/DE/Joachim–Gauck/Reden/2014/01/140131-Muenchner–Sicherheitskonferenz.html
(4) John Vandiver, “Trump Demands Germany Pay for US Protection,” Stars and Stripes, 18 March 2017.
(5) Jacob Poushter and Alexandra Castillo, “Americans and Germans are Worlds Apart in Views of Their Countries’ Relationship in 2018”, Pew Research, November 26, 2018, https://www.pewresearch.org/short–reads/2018/11/26/americans–and–germans–are–worlds–apart–in–views–of–their–countries–relationship/
(6) Rick Noack, “Trump Accused Germany of Becoming ‘Totally Dependent’ on Russian Energy at the U.N. The Germans Just Smirked,” The Washington Post, September 25, 2018.