Germany’s new coalition government says it is willing to take on more responsibility for peacekeeping around the world. But its interests lie closer to home.
“Europe can’t leave France on its own” in the Central African Republic, said Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the social democrat foreign minister, after a meeting with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius earlier this month. France, the former colonial power, intervened in the Central African Republic in December after violence had erupted between the country’s majority Christian population and Muslim rebels. “We can’t look away,” said Ursula von der Leyen, the conservative defense minister, about the same conflict. She agreed that Germany needs to “take more responsibility around the world,” if within the framework of its alliances. Germany won’t go it alone but it seems it is becoming more comfortable about sending troops broad. Strictly on humanitarian missions, of course, but in its diplomacy, Germany is also becoming more assertive — and there, its self-interest shines through.
Central and Eastern European neighbors of Germany’s have worried for several years about its burgeoning ties with their former Soviet master Russia. Although relations appeared to have cooled somewhat last year — even before the social democrats, who had been critical of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Russian policy, came to power — Germany’s interests are undeniable. It gets more than a third of the natural gas it uses from Russia. Once it has closed all of its nuclear power stations, planned for 2022 — a policy the German left does endorse, apparently without thinking through the foreign policy consequences — that share can only rise, unless Poland, Ukraine and the United States start exporting shale gas to Western Europe.
The Nord Stream pipeline on the bottom of the Baltic Sea symbolizes the German-Russian condominium. When Germany imports natural gas from Russia directly, the transfer states in the middle lose leverage and Moscow can balance its relations with Europe at their expense.
Russia still cannot afford to turn off the gas supply that runs through Poland and Ukraine indefinitely for it would ultimately inhibit its ability to sell — and the Russian state is heavily dependent on hydrocarbon exports for its income. But Nord Stream makes Russian threats to suspend gas supplies more credible and the countries that would be affected by it are unlikely to be able to turn to Germany for help. Germany seems to have recognized this apprehension and started acting on it.
Whereas Guido Westerwelle, the former foreign minister, was still cautious in 2012, saying “On the one hand, we don’t want to hold back on criticism regarding Russia’s internal development but on the other hand, we are very keen for the strategic partnership with Russia to be expanded,” Merkel censured Russian president Vladimir Putin for the treatment of nongovernmental organizations in his country last year. Economic progress, she said, “can happen most successfully when there is an active civil society” — which Russia clearly lacks. She added, “We must intensify these discussions, develop our ideas and we must give the NGOs, who we know as a motor for innovation, a good chance in Russia.” A year earlier, Putin had started kicking out NGOs that promoted democracy and transparency in government, labeling them as “foreign agents”.
Whatever the arguments for a close German-Russian relationship, the case for a strong German relationship with its eastern neighbors might be stronger. These countries, Poland especially, are deeply intertwined with the German economy. Divergence between France and Germany over economic policy and the future of the European Union should also convince Merkel to look east for allies. Whereas France’s socialist leader François Hollande sympathizes more with the heavily indebted eurozone member states in the Mediterranean, Poland’s liberal prime minister, Donald Tusk, shares many of Merkel’s priorities for economic and fiscal reform. His country is one of Germany’s top export markets while many German companies have set up manufacturing in low-cost Eastern European neighbors.
Last year, Germany signed up to a Polish initiative to strength the European Union’s Eastern Partnership program which it now officially regards as a gateway to membership for former Warsaw Pact countries — another affront to Russia which seeks to halt Europe’s eastward expansion. That battle is on display today in Ukraine where a relatively pro-Russian government shelved an association agreement with the European Union at the last moment and turned to Russia for financial support. But it is also quietly raging in Hungary where the government this month accepted a Russian loan equivalent to 11.5 percent of the country’s annual economic output to build a nuclear power station. This is the most important fight, not just for the soul of “Europe,” even if that is what hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are demonstrating for, but for its own interests and Germany’s in particular.
German leadership in Central and Eastern Europe gives it the strategic comfort it needs to continue to dominate Europe when the Franco-German axis inevitably comes apart at the seams. For historical reasons, Germany won’t state that as its goal. Many German policymakers might not even be aware that it is if not the aim then the natural outcome of their foreign policy. If that means severing ties with Moscow, it is a price Germany must pay.