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Misreading Ostpolitik and the Cuban Missile Crisis Screwed up German and US Foreign Policy

As usual, American pundits and politicians expect too much from demonstrations of power, sanctions against and isolation of Russia, while their German counterparts exaggerate the benefits of talking to Putin by establishing a contact group and attending the G8. Personally, I favor a mix of both approaches, of course. Though, I don't have much hope here and agree with Julia Ioffe's pessimism.

I do, however, would like to make a general comment beyond the current Ukraine crisis:

One reason for these different policies on Russia (and China by the way) is that many influential Germans and Americans drew the wrong lessons from important foreign policy successes in the Cold War: Respectively Ostpolitik and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The myth of the Cuban Missile crisis "deified military power and willpower and denigrated the give-and-take of diplomacy. It set a standard for toughness and risky dueling with bad guys that could not be matched -- because it never happened in the first place," as Leslie Gelb wrote in Foreign Policy article "The Myth That Screwed Up 50 Years of U.S. Foreign Policy":

In fact, the crisis concluded not with Moscow's unconditional diplomatic whimper, but with mutual concessions. The Soviets withdrew their missiles from Cuba in return for U.S. pledges not to invade Fidel Castro's island and to remove Jupiter missiles from Turkey. For reasons that seem clear, the Kennedy clan kept the Jupiter part of the deal secret for nearly two decades and, even then, portrayed it as a trifle. For reasons that remain baffling, the Soviets also kept mum. Scholars like Harvard University's Graham Allison set forth the truth over the years, but their efforts rarely suffused either public debates or White House meetings on how to stare down America's foes.

Similarly, far too many opinion shapers and decision makers in Germany are misreading Ostpolitik. Hans Kundnani from the ECFR wrote a great piece in IP Journal:

Thus the idea that ostpolitik can be a model for German foreign policy today is based on a lack of clarity about what ostpolitik was, in particular about what its objectives were, and about the context in which it took place. First, it was a policy that aimed above all to reunify Germany - and Germany is now reunified. Second, since ostpolitik did not aim to transform the Soviet Union, there is little reason to think a similar approach might be used to transform authoritarian powers such as China or Russia today. Third, the geopolitical environment is completely different now than it was at the time of ostpolitik. In particular, trade cannot be used as leverage in the way it was in the 1970s.

Ostpolitik II - Trade and the Rest Will Follow

In fact, however, although German policymakers such as Westerwelle frequently invoke ostpolitik, what they are doing with today's authoritarian powers is something quite different from the policy pursued by Brandt and Bahr in the 1970s. In fact, in seeking to apply it in today's environment and in particular in relation to authoritarian rising powers such as China, today's German foreign policymakers have distorted ostpolitik. Bahr had sought détente with the Soviet Union through the Verflechtung, or "weaving," of a variety of political and cultural ties between West and East Germany. But "Annäherung" has in today's German foreign policy been reduced to trade: Wandel durch Annäherung has become Wandel durch Handel.

This approach goes back to Gerhard Schröder, who hoped that, as he put it in his memoirs, "economic exchange" would lead to "societal change."

I find it baffling how strong and influential the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Ostpolitik myths still are. After all, you'd think there are enough people in media, think tanks and government with a decent understanding of history.

I hope that the current crisis with Russia will shatter both myths.


Photo credit: United States Library of Congress. Wikipedia

John F. Kennedy meeting with Willy Brandt, March 13, 1961

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