JAMES O’NEILL. Germany’s Ostpolitik in the Modern Era

Jul 26, 2017

Germany recognises that there is a fundamental shift in the economic, political and military balance of power to the east.  It is now flexing its political muscle to match its economic might.

When Willy Brandt became Chancellor of the German Federal Republic in 1969 he implemented a policy of rapprochement with the East, including not only the then German Democratic Republic, but all East European countries then under the influence of the Soviet Union. Brandt’s aim was to achieve the reunification of the two parts of Germany through “Wandel durch Annaherung” or “Change through Rapprochement” that had been developed by Egon Bahr in the 1960s.

Bahr sought détente with the Soviet Union through foreign trade and the interweaving of political, economic and cultural ties between East and West Germany. That policy was remarkably successful, although the reunification of Germany did not occur until 1989, fifteen years after the end of Brandt’s Chancellorship.

The lesson for future diplomacy, as Stephen Szabo put it (“Can Berlin and Washington Agree on Russia” Washington Quarterly 32 4 October 2009) was that “dialogue, diplomacy, mutual trust and multilateralism were the best approaches for dealing with seemingly intractable opponents.”

The Ostpolitik policy was opposed by the United States, and a particularly influential figure in that opposition and one who remained so until his death in May this year, was Zbigniew Brzezinski, a descendant of minor Polish aristocracy whose lifelong hatred of all things Russian exerted a malign influence on all US Presidents from Carter to Obama.

Brzezinski argued in his book The Grand Chessboard (1997) that China and Russia could never be friendly allies because, as he saw it, their differences were too great. It is ironic therefore, that long-term antipathy by the United States toward the Soviet Union, and since 1990 to Russia, has probably been more influential than any other single factor in driving those two super powers into a closer relationship.

They are, in many respects, natural allies. Each has major assets and attributes that the other needs. In Russia’s case, vast mineral and other natural resources, a huge and relatively still underdeveloped land space, genetically modified-free food, and multiple borders with Central Asian and European nations. The latter fact for example, is a critical element in the development of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China on the other hand is the dominant nation in North and East Asia: in terms of parity purchasing power is now the world’s number one economy; is a brilliantly innovative leader in technological developments, including military technology; and has vast human and financial resources. All of these assets are being deployed through, inter alia, the Asian Industrial Investment Bank, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and of course the BRI.

Germany, as the economically most important nation in Europe, would like to enhance ties with both Russia and China, as both geography and economic self-interest would dictate. The stumbling block has been the United States, desperate to retain its post-world war two role as the dominant world hegemon, and prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to undermine any challenge to that self-defined role.

In June 2017 however, the US Senate passed a sanctions Bill by 98 votes to 2, aimed at sabotaging the Nord Stream 2 pipeline under the Baltic Sea which has the capacity to double Russia’s supply of natural gas to Europe (and bypass Ukraine).

Five European companies are financing that pipeline; two German, one Austrian, one French, and the Anglo-Dutch Shell oil company.  The sanctions Bill passed by the US Senate includes a paragraph that threatens to penalize European companies (and individuals) that involve energy export/import programs with Russia. That includes the Nord Stream 2 project.

The American action is a thinly disguised attempt to force the Europeans to buy the much more expensive (among other disadvantages) US liquefied natural gas.  It is not a coincidence that US oil and gas companies contributed $50 million to Trump’s election campaign.

What the American action did however was to elicit an unprecedentedly blunt condemnation from both the Germans and the Austrians.  In a joint statement released on 15 June 2017 the German and Austrian Foreign Ministers said that the measure brings a “completely new and entirely negative quality to US-European relations.” 

The statement went on to say that they “cannot accept the threat of extra-territorial sanctions against European companies that participate in the expansion of European energy supplies,” and that further, “the US action “violates international law.”  The statement went on to directly accuse Washington of using the sanctions to squeeze Russian gas supplies out of Europe in favour of US energy exports.

Such US policies are not new.  The use of sanctions, political pressure, military blackmail and other measures were used to undermine Brandt’s moves to normalization of relations with Russia and Eastern Europe.  The Americans consistently undermined Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s “Haus Europa” (European House) policy that followed the reunification of Germany in 1989 and the Federal Republic of Germany – USSR Agreement on Economic Cooperation signed in 1978.

That latter agreement included facilitating the supply of gas in a transportation triangle involving Russia, Iran and Germany.   One of the principal architects of that opposition was the late Zbigniew Brzezinski.  When one looks at current US foreign policy, it is nothing if not consistent in its format.

The latest US sanctions Bill will encourage Germany in extending the modern Ostpolitik policy all the way east to Beijing.  According to figures released in February 2017, China overtook both the US and France as Germany’s most important trading partner.

By the end of 2016 China had approved a total of 9394 German investment projects in China worth more than $28 billion.

German Chancellor Merkel now visits China on an annual basis and President Xi is similarly a regular visitor to Germany.  At the recent G20 summit hosted by Merkel in Hamburg, the official group picture was symbolically significant.  Front and centre standing together were Xi, Putin and Merkel, while US President Trump was off to the far side.

It would appear that Germany is now flexing its political muscle to match its economic might. The G20 meeting, the US sanctions, and Germany’s increasing involvement in the BRI, including the European Central Bank converting for the first time 500 million of its Euro reserves to Yuan in June 2017, strongly suggest that Germany recognises that a fundamental shift in the economic, political and military balance of power to the east is occurring.

Germany’s modern Ostpolitik is clearly intending to be part of and benefit from, that fundamental shift.


James O’Neill is barrister at law and a geopolitical analyst.  He may be contacted at joneill (at) qldbar.asn.au

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