Skip to content

The Need for a New Transatlantic Ostpolitik

Ronald D. Asmus of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMFUS) calls for "a debate across the Atlantic about a new Eastern policy:"
The Russia we face today is a different one than what we hoped for. EU and NATO policy toward an enlarged Europe's new neighborhood needs to be rethought. And the United States and Europe need to get their act together on energy policy. With leadership changes coming up in Paris, London and Washington, the time is ripe to get out our laptops and debate the framework for a new policy.
Historically, there is no area where the United States and Europe have worked more closely and accomplished more historically - both during the Cold War as well as in the 1990s. Americans and Germans do often have different policy impulses. Americans have traditionally been more committed to democratic transformation -- in part because we are more powerful, more distant and have a different foreign policy ethos. Germany - weaker, closer, more dependent on Russian energy and burdened by history - errs on the side of stability. But if we can't bridge differences like these, what can we do together?
Given the different geographical position of Germany and the US, I am not sure if a preference of stability over transformation should be seen as "erring." An instable Russia could be worse than a stable, authoritarian Russia. Transformations can go into the wrong direction.
Asmus' op-ed is available in English at the GMFUS website and was published in Die Zeit in January, i.e. before the controversy over ballistic missile defense. This controversy is discussed by John Vinocur in his NYT op-ed "Trying to Legitimize Missile-Shield Hostility in Germany" (subscribers only). I think the term "hositility" is inappropriate since Germany would like to turn the US missile defense project in Eastern Europe into a NATO project.

Chancellor Merkel said "We would prefer a solution within NATO and also an open discussion with Russia." (Personal note:
If the missile shield will not be able to intercept Russian missiles, then we Germans should not be all that concerned that Moscow freaks out over this.) The International Herald Tribune describes how NATO and US officials reject Merkel's suggestions:
Immediately countering Merkel's call for the debate to move to Brussels, a NATO spokesman said Tuesday the alliance would not interfere in negotiations between the United States and Poland or the Czech Republic, which has also agreed to deploy parts of the shield. "NATO must first agree on the threats and, to the extent possible, a common approach," said James Appathurai, the alliance spokesman. "NATO is in no way engaging in these bilateral talks." (...)
NATO diplomats said that the United States was pursuing bilateral agreements because it did not want to become bogged down in protracted debate within the alliance. "We saw what happened during 1999 when the U.S. was trying to get support from the alliance to stop Serbia's policy of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo," said a senior NATO official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter. "Later, we saw how NATO was almost torn apart over the Iraq war when the U.S. sough support. The point is, the U.S. does not want endless delays, nor does Poland or the Czech Republic."
Ray D. presents long and interesting quotes from John Vinocur's op-ed "Trying to Legitimize Missile-Shield Hostility in Germany" in Davids Medienkritik. Ray agrees with Richard Nixon's 1992 book and opines that the "German tradition of keeping one foot in the East and one in the West is alive and well." I disagree with Ray and Nixon, who seem to believe in the concept of: You are either with us and agree 90% with everything the current US, Polish, and Czech governments are saying or you are flirting with the terrorists/Russians/evil doers. I think such black-and-white thinking is not what "the West" is about.
Germany does not have "one foot in the East" anymore. Book recommendation: The first volume of Heinrich August Winkler's tome "Der lange Weg nach Westen" ( was finally translated into in English: "Germany: The Long Road West" (,, but costs 65$.

Germany's approach towards Russia is different from the US approach, because Germany is weaker than the US and geographically much closer to Russia, and more dependent on Russian energy, as Ronald Asmus explained in the above quote. Though, Germany is also not as weak and as close to Russia as "New Europe" is. These simple geopolitical factors explain the different policy approaches much better than some former tradition, Ray and Nixon focus on. Another factor might be that Germans tend to perceive Détente (Chancellor Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik) as more instrumental in ending the Cold War than Ronald Reagan's arms race, while Americans tend to perceive Ronald Reagan's policies more important. Germans and Americans draw different lessons from the Cold War.
Chancellors Helmut Kohl and in particular Gerhard Schroeder are to blame for having put too much faith in Russian presidents Yeltsin and Putin. These chancellors had hoped that Russia would transform into a liberal democracy and a country without strong geopolitical interests. Chancellor Merkel is more realistic.

Ronald Asmus points out that Germany has made a new Ostpolitik a priority for its EU Presidency and seeks closer coordination with Washington. He concludes: "It is time to debate over what such a new Ostpolitik could and should look like." Do you have some policy ideas to share?

Endnote: The above mentioned quotes from the NATO spokesman and the senior US official of NATO confirm the widespread assumption that nobody wants to disolve NATO, but defense cooperation outside of NATO is preferred. Does this mean that NATO won't play a meaningful role in the future?


Global American Discourse on : Prospects of Presidential Election in Russia

Show preview
Also, Russia will have presidential election next year, as President Vladimir Putin promised to quit his job. In “The List: Next President of Russia” on Foreign Policy web exclusive this January, Julian Evans,

Atlantic Review on : Poll: Americans in Favor or a More Realistic Foreign Policy

Show preview
David S. Broder writes in his Washington Post column (via: Kosmoblog): When President Bush, in his second inaugural address, pledged to "support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal


Display comments as Linear | Threaded

Pat Patterson on :

I think the use of "Ostpolitik" in the headline would hardly be reassuring to many Americans or Germans for that matter. Perhaps another word would fit better without the conotations of Stasi spies and intrasocialist tactics?

JW-Atlantic Review on :

Are those the only connotations you see? Re spies: Think of the radiation poisoning. What policy towards Russia do you suggest? And what would be an appropriate name for it? I used the term "[url=]Ostpolitik[/url]" in the headline because Ronald Asmus used it. He wants to see a dual track policy, similarly to the policy during the Cold War: "Cooperation in key areas should be continued and indeed expanded if possible." and "We will also have to compete with Moscow in other areas."

Don S on :

Ummmm, is this a good use of the power of the US? I think not. There are many much more urgent matters for the US to concern itself with. Russia is a long way from the US and unlikely to make war on the US at any time. Besides, our good friends the Germans have been assuring us that the Russians are good, stable people for more than 30 years now. Veritable lambs of a pople and a government. It is impossible that Germans can be wrong.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"Ummmm, is this a good use of the power of the US?" What part of Asmus' op-ed do you refer to?

JW-Atlantic Review on :

@ Don Your polemicism is getting boring. "Besides, our good friends the Germans have been assuring us that the Russians are good, stable people for more than 30 years now." What's your point? Are you saying the Russians are not "good, stable people." Are you racist, who thinks that the Russian people are evil and instable?

Don S on :

Joerg, All I am asking you (and Germany) to do is prove to me (and the US) that this is a major problem which the US needs concern ourselves with. And that we can 'win' it. I don't think we can win, so I don't believe the US should take part.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

"I don't think we can win" Win what? Are you saying you don't want any cooperation with Russia on Iran, Afghanistan, war on terror, climate change, North Korea, arms control, Middle East quartett, UN reform etc? I thought President Bush saw the soul of President Putin and realized he can work with that good man... Not even Schroeder has seen Putin's soul...

David on :

I'm not surprised that RayD is nostalgic for Nixon and the Cold War. Nixon's lawlessness and contempt for the constitution fits Medienkritik's retrograde politics perfectly.

Pat Patterson on :

I'm not a defender of any kind of revisionist Nixon however it was Nixon who ended the US involvement in Indochina, the ABM Treaty, emphasized detente with the Soviet Union and initiated rapproachment with the PRC. The bill of impeachment that Congress was considering did not make one charge of any violation of any of the Articles or Amendments of the Constitution. It was criminal conduct concerning Watergate break-in that Congress was having hearings regarding. An insult against DMK can be effective if the charge is nothing more than old misunderstood history. Why not charge Nixon with the "Trail of Tears" as well? I think the US's best policy toward Russia is to simply stall and let the incompetency of Putin, his successors and demographics finish off the Russian state. I don't think anything the West does will change that sad future for the Russian people. I suspect that Germany might be better off in the short term by concentrating on acting as an honest broker regarding Kaliningrad. A German instigated solution there would definitely make Poland much more sympathetic to PM Merkel's entreaties for solidarity.

Zyme on :

"concentrating on acting as an honest broker regarding Kaliningrad" You mean put claims on Königsberg ? How is this supposed to better our relations to Poland ?

Axel on :

In my opinion, Asmus's black-and-white-characterization is far from being accurate. German "Ostpolitik" in the 70's is best described as the political recognition of European after-war facts, especially the existence of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) as "the second German state" in the Basic Treaty and the acceptance of the Oder-Neisse Line as the Western border of Poland in the Treaty of Moscow and the Treaty of Warsaw. Egon Bahr's slogan "Change Through Rapprochement" said it all. No more political daydreams or self-deceptions like the Hallstein Doctrine or revanchist claims for former German territories. Even from today's perspective I don't see any realistic alternative. You had to arrange with the political circumstances to be capable to act. Concerning democratic transformation, I've never heard that German politicians had downplay the importance of the CSCE process which originally was supported by the Eastern bloc for reasons of a better public image and ultimately turned out to be some kind of a "democratic" trojan horse, especially for the communist regimes in Poland and the GDR. As seen from West Germany, the CSCE at least offered an opportunity to work for greater permeability of the inner-German border and – in the long reach – for an end to the nation's division. The second long-term goal was the liberalization of Eastern Europe by opening up the Soviet empire to the West, thus weakening the hold of the Soviet Union 's hegemonic power over its allies. Was this a wrong assessment of the situation? I don't think so. And for the arms race - the role of German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt in formulating NATO's double-track decision remains his main legacy within the history of the alliance in the late 1970s and 1980s. During that period, Schmidt was one of the major players within the alliance and was regarded as such by his political counterparts both in the US and in Western Europe. He, facing the protest of a vociferous minority as the bogeyman of the left, stood firm and paid the highest political price for his perseverance - he lost office (see "NATO-Doppelbeschluss" in the German Wikipedia for Schmidt's importance). There's also a nice [url=]English academic website[/url] about Ostpolitik and the CSCE process as part of an an international history project at the University of Mannheim.

JW-Atlantic Review on :

Yes, West Germany was a big supporter and even a driving force for the CSCE process. Obviously, I agree with your description of German policy. I am just a bit softer on Asmus. He is talking about different US and West German "policy impulses" and points out that in the end we agreed and "worked more closely and accomplished more historically" than in any other field. I don't know what exactly he means by "impulses" in this case. An impulse is what your gut feeling tells you to do, right? So, okay, the US gut feeling is "We have to support democratic transformation." Then a few seconds later, the gut feeling gets overruled by some rationalization... So basically, the word "impulses" is not of much meaning to me. Do I misunderstand something here? Asmus says that "Americans have traditionally been more committed to democratic transformation." Does that refer to American rhetoric or to real support for democratic movements? US rhetoric probably was stronger. German politicians make less bold and more diplomatic statements. Germans are concerned about upsetting Russia. (Probably too much concern as we see in the Missile Defense discussion.) But hey, diplomacy is important and expressing yourself politely, while being firm in your actions, is good. Let's put rhetorical statements and "moral support" aside and look at the question: [b]Has the US supported Solidarnosc and other citizens movements in the Warsaw Pact much stronger than Germany has? [/b] I don't know. I did not study that period. If anyone knows more about this period, please let me know. I have read several times in US books that the US was more supportive, but is that really the case? I seem to recall that German church leaders, intellectuals, and political foundations have been very supportive of various dissident groups. And kept a low profile, obviously. I heard several stories about smuggling fax machines to them so that they can better coordinate themselves etc. Neither the US nor Western Europe helped the Hungarians 50 years ago. Today the US is also talking more loudly than Europe about democratic transformation (and tried to do so in Iraq militarily), but I doubt whether the US is more committed to democratisation than Europe. [b]How do we measure "commitment" anyway?[/b] I don't think the US has been more successful in achieving sustainable democratic transformation than Europe has been. Any examples to suggest otherwise? Two years ago, Secretary Rice gave an impressive speech in Cairo. She said: [quote="Rice"]For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East -- and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people. [url][/url] [/quote] Dr. Rice's audience did not applause much and was skeptical about the alleged U-turn. I think they were right to be sceptical. I don't see a change in US policy towards Egypt. I don't see how the US is "supporting the democratic aspirations of all people." Yes, Germany and Europe in general are not doing any better job, but our politicians make less bold statements, I believe. And what has gone so wrong in the last thirty years, that Iran is still a foe, while Saudi Arabia is still a strong US ally despite everything they did and do? Shouldn't it be the other way round?: [url][/url]

Don S on :

"Germany does not have "one foot in the East" anymore." Of course not. Germany has (and needs) at least 4 feet to keep everything balanced. One in the East, one in the Far East (China), one in the EU, and one in North America. Under the enlightened foreign policy of the last government but one, the foot in North America lost most of it's blood supply and began turning gangrenous. Currently the appendage is getting a little more blood, so the immediate danger of high amputation has receded for the moment. It's still not what one would call healthy - and not likely to become so anytime soon with the other three feet taking 95% of the blood supply.

Don S on :

"Immediately countering Merkel's call for the debate to move to Brussels" The trouble with moving the debate to Bruxelles is that it brings Chirac and Zapatero into the discussion. Our experience of those two gentlemen is that the one will seek the pound of flesh nearest the heart for French cooperation, and the other will denounce the entire thing on the general principal that Bush is evil. That is not to mention many in Germany (and Bruxelles) who agree with Zapatero. Let's also look at the US experiences with 'multilateral' diplomacy over the past 15 years or so. It has been a series of largely EU-driven disasters; Kyoto, ICC, Land mines treaty, expelling the US from key UN committees, threatened French vetos of Iraq intervention, successful efforts in the UN spearheaded by France (and others) to undermine the UN embargo on Saddam Hussein, and quite a few others. There is a pattern here and I don't believe it is a coincidence. The US has had a lot of success with bilateral negociations and almost none in the multilateral sphere. I believe that the nations who control the UN and other multilateral mechanisms have designed it that way and are not going to change anything for the US convenience. So why would the US take this (or anything else) to NATO? What happened the last time we went to NATO? Very little.

Don S on :

"Germany is weaker than the US and geographically much closer to Russia" Ummm, is it? Germany is certainly much closer to Russia than the US - but is Germany weaker than Russia? I doubt it on two counts: 1) Germany is certainly far stronger economically than Russia is. The only reason why this question is even in doubt (and then only militarily) is because Germany spends a mere 1% of it's GDP on defense (give or take a fraction). If Germany spent as little as 3 or 3.5% of it's GDP on defense (as the US does) - I think there would be little reason to worry. 2) Is 'Germany' the proper abstraction here? Shouldn't we actually be speaking of the EU? The EU is cerainly massively more prosperous than Russia is. Perhaps the EU is not as powerful militarily as Russia is, but there is no reason why the EU's military power should not equal it's economic might. Is there? So why is it that when Russia becomes a problem Germans turn to the US for answers? I can see why it was so in 1950 - but it is not 1950 any more, is it? Why does Germany not turn to France, Italy, and Spain for military support? From the POV of the US, Europe is a relatively peaceful area, and one moreover with the resources to solve it's own problems if they only take the trouble to do so. With the many other committments elsewhere - why does not Europe take care of it's own defense?

Fuchur on :

Just one small point: You say that Germany should spend more on its military. I've always found the idea to argue with percentages of GDP quite useless: Unlike the US, Germany does not have to sustain an arsenal of nuclear intercontinental missiles, bombers and submarines. We don't have to sustain aircraft carriers and military bases all over the world. Therefore it's only logical that we have to spend much less on our military. If you think we don't spend enough, then you also have to tell us what we lack: What should we invest in? New fighter jets? Oh wait - we just developed one. New helicopters or tanks? Don't know that they would be outdated. Maybe some ships? Well, we just developed a revolutionary new kind of submarine. And only a few years ago, we replaced the old G3 with the new G36 (I think) rifles. It's not a matter of money, it's a matter of politics: The German army simply is designed for defensive purposes. And if you know anything about German history, you'll understand that it's not easy to change this... I mean, think of Japan! By that standard, Germany is positively militaristic. As it is, the German constitution explicitely forbids German participation in an "attack war" (Angriffskrieg) - and it's still not absolutely clear how this is to be interpreted from a legal point of view. Right now, the PDS (party of democratic socialism) fraction has taken legal action at the German supreme court against the participation of German Tornados in Afghanistan... Germany's history can't be simply ignored, and it's hypocritical to act as if this wasn't an issue. I mean, what do you think will happen to the politician who suggests to scratch this "anti-war" paragraph from our constitution...? It's all not so easy.

Pat Patterson on :

Germany appears to be spending around 1.3% or 37.5 billion dollars while the estimated figure for the Russians is around 32 billion dollars. Russia has announced spending of around 200 billion dollars(petrodollars I might add) in weapons procurement for the next decade. Germany on the other hand is only committed officially to some 50 billion dollars. Russia has four times as many servicemen in uniform and another 2.7 million in reserve. Germany on the other hand has 250.000 active duty and another 3/4 million available in reserve. But probably the main reason that Germany must be wary of Russia is the 16,000 nuclear missiles and bombs that can be retasked to targets in Berlin and the US in less than 15 minutes. And as Russia continues to decline economically and demographically they may be tempted to precipitate even a limited conflict to stunt German, NATO or EU power before that power becomes overwhelming. Whatever the immediate likes or dislikes of the Europeans or the US are their interests are intertwined. But for the US to abandon Europe and Europe to provide for its own defense would be folly. Europe needs the gas and oil that Russia provides and it needs the military strength of the US to keep Russia reasonable.

Don S on :

"But for the US to abandon Europe and Europe to provide for its own defense would be folly. Europe needs the gas and oil that Russia provides and it needs the military strength of the US to keep Russia reasonable." That is reasonable enough. I can certainly see what Europe's interests are in having the US army to protect it. But then - I always did see that. It's obviously better to have another country foot much or most of the cost of one's defense than pay for the whole cost oneself. What I fail to see (at this point) is the US rationale is. Russia is no longer a superpower - no longer a threat to Europe. Not really. So the US continuing to foot any part of Europe's defense bill is a luxury - an unaffordable luxury at this point. There are too many calls on America's resources elsewhere. What is it that continental Europe contributes to the US to justify the still large annual outlay? What the UK contribute is clear, but what Germany, France, Spain, and Italy contribute is far from obvious. No?

VinceTN on :

Indeed. I don't want us abandoning Europe on these issues but the US should definately be in the background. Its long past time for Europe to show thuggish Americans how diplomacy and soft power really work. Work without the immediate threat of America's thuggish power to back it up, that is.

Don S on :

"Indeed. I don't want us abandoning Europe on these issues but the US should definately be in the background. Its long past time for Europe to show thuggish Americans how diplomacy and soft power really work." Abandon? I wouldn't call it abandonment any more than Joerg agrees that Germany 'abandoned' the US in Afghanistan and Iraq by refusing to fight. That is not at all. It is indeed time for the US to allow the continental EU powers to show what they can do without US forces. Quite a lot I think. If they wish to. It's long been my view that the yawning gap between countries like Germany, France, and Italy occurs because these countries can't even begin to understand what the US has done for 50 years, much less value the contribuion of the US and it's soldiers. When Spanish, Italian, German, and French soldiers replace US ones I think mutual understanding will be much enhanced. And isn't that what we are all striving for?

bob on :

The question of what German-American co-operation could accomplish in Russia is moot. If our goal is to further the democratization of Russia through NGO civil participation or liberalizing economic policy recommendations, these initatives are doomed, if the federal government is, as it appears now, oppositionally hostile to any foreign engagement. NGOs are harassed and business law subservient to the will of the Kremlin. Russia cooperates with us on hunting al-queda. There are adversaries on every other major foreign policy endeavor we have. Wait, they think Koyoto is rubbish as well. What are the probable short-term Russian goals in the European theatre? Reestablishing dominance in the near abroad; diversifying fdi in the EU, especially gaining major if not majority equity stakes in energy companies; Serbia/Kosovo situation resulting in a Russian approved solution; the integration of Kaliningrad into the EU sphere (special trading area or something; squeezing the Baltics by "protecting" their minority's rights. There is not anything above which the us could agree to and even Germany is having a hard time, liberalizing energy laws; on the EU level, liberalizing national energy practices will be accomplished the same time the "golden share" is outlawed or the European anti-trust law comes up with solid predictable definitions for "unfair competition". The only thing the Germans can give the Russians is access into the German energy market and that is highly unpopular with the public. It follows the old Russian-German paradigm. The elites get together and hammer out a plan of cooperation and the people grumble. The Prussians grumbled when Frederick the Great alligned with the Russians; the Ribbentrop-Molotov treaty was very unpopular. Schroeder can talk for years, but its not going to change centuries old public antipathy. To paraphrase the British Ambassador after the Revolution, the Russian bear may be red, but he is still the bear. With the exception of energy policies, Russian objectives are remarkably similar to those from Catherine's time; and some of their tactics havent changed either. This post is among many articles and papers with titles like 'Who lost Russia?'. No one lost Russia. the Russians wanted to be lost. One can criticise the post cold war auction system, but if those administrating the system are prone to cheat it, there really nothing you can do. The West could not send 1000s of bureaucrats to trace shell companies and Cyprus bank accounts. If the Russians could not suss out that this was an historic time and a unique opportunity for becoming something more than quasi-asian despotic monarchy, so be it. Every one had the highest hope for a new Russia, but we cant flagellate ourselves, if the Russians didnt. Apropos a German prof once said to me, hey he speaks German, how bad could he be?

Add Comment

E-Mail addresses will not be displayed and will only be used for E-Mail notifications.

To prevent automated Bots from commentspamming, please enter the string you see in the image below in the appropriate input box. Your comment will only be submitted if the strings match. Please ensure that your browser supports and accepts cookies, or your comment cannot be verified correctly.

Form options