By Adil Rasheed
August 27, 2014
Although the Berlin Wall fell a quarter of a century ago, German hearts still appear divided between the West and Russia. On the face of it, Berlin has taken center-stage in the West’s diplomatic offensive against Kremlin’s intervention in Ukraine and in the imposition of sanctions against Russia over its ‘annexation’ of Crimea. However, this new-found German assertiveness is beginning to take a toll on its fledgling economic recovery, if not its strategic interests.
Initially, Berlin’s break from its much criticised ‘self-serving passivity’ in international affairs was well-received by its allies. However, Germany has found it difficult to fill in for the US, with the latter’s influence being in perceptible decline. The over 30 highly fraught phone calls between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin have only resulted in the hardening of Kremlin’s stance. The unprecedented fall in bund yields in the wake of sanctions has put an additional strain on the economy and the wedge between supporters and detractors of US policies in Germany is widening.
In its July 10 edition, weekly Der Spiegel carried a cover story audaciously titled: “Germany’s Choice: Will it be America or Russia?” It also featured results of its poll, which showed that 57 per cent of Germans feel their country should become more independent of the US when it comes to foreign policy.
In fact, much vitriol has been spilt in the country’s newspapers over the current foreign policy with two of the leading dailies Handelsblatt and Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) engaged in a fierce debate over it. While writers in the FAZ want Germany’s position against Russia to be more strident, Handelsblatt’s columnists like Gabor Steingart have issued a stark warning of the country sleepwalking toward militarism and war. Others believe that Germany’s current diplomatic engagement is not provocative but designed to avert major war and find a solution to the Ukraine crisis.
It is noteworthy that Germany depends heavily on Russia for oil and gas, which caters to a third of its energy needs. Germany also accounts for 31 per cent of all European exports to Russia (amounting to $52.75 billion in 2012). About 6,200 German companies employing 300,000 workers operate in Russia, selling a wide range of products such as machine tools, pharmaceuticals and cars.
Post-sanctions, these exports have suffered an alarming drop with the German national statistics office Destatis estimating 15.5 per cent fall (to the tune of $20.6 billion) in the first half of this year. More notable has been the decline in the German automobile sector, sliding by a mindboggling 24.4 per cent. These German car manufacturers include the likes of Renault, GM and Peugot Citroen. The prospect of Russia imposing a ban on all car imports has caused an even greater scare in EU markets.
As the economy falters, many Germans are criticising the Merkel government for reversing the ‘Ostpolitik’ with Russia that the country has pursued for over four decades. In fact, since the end of the Cold War, has Berlin struck close economic ties with Moscow, as exemplified in the construction of gas pipelines (like the Nord Stream which connects the two countries directly).
It was this growing relationship that spawned anti-Americanism in Germany in the early 2000s. When President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq, then Chancellor Gerhard Schroder vehemently opposed it.
Thereafter, the Bush administration branded France and Germany as ‘Old Europe,’ unlike the more forward-looking eastern European states opposed to Russia. It is believed that even now Schroeder’s Social Democratic Party (currently in opposition) is not supportive of Merkel’s turning the heat on Russia. Recent diplomatic squabbles with the US and Turkey on spying scandals have further strained Germany’s relations with its Nato allies.
There has also been some alarm over the government’s announcement of sending arms to war zones in Iraq. According to pundits, the move constitutes a fundamental break with the country’s old policy of banning weapons supply to crisis-ridden regions. It is charged that the decision requires Bundestag’s mandate.
In sum, the Fatherland would have to fight many of its inner demons before it charts its way forward. Just as Germany’s ontological struggle shaped the course of history in the last century, its current existential issues would influence the future. As the legendary US statesman Henry Kissinger wryly puts it: “Germany is doomed in some way to play an increasingly important role in the world.”