Germany and the East – the seduction of history

Lessons from 'Jean-Jacques Servan-Schröder'

Six decades ago, western Europe was at a low ebb. The Berlin wall and Cuban missile crisis had raised war fears exactly at a time when the US was occupied with a military misadventure in southeast Asia. A French boycott of European community institutions and President Charles de Gaulle’s decision to leave the Nato military structure added to the pessimism.

Europe’s future seemed bleak. Seen from my standpoint – as a person who has toiled in the Atlantic for nearly 50 years – the similarities with today’s transatlantic relationship are striking. One big question, as ever, surrounds Germany – a country which then, as now, had to operate within the seductive historical and geographical thrall of the East.

The parallels over 60 years are epitomised by an extraordinary figure in post-war France: Jean-Jacques Servan-Schreiber. He was a rich and influential publisher who sensed that dramatising Europe’s economic stagnation represented an opportunity to build circulation and a hammer to attack de Gaulle, whom he despised.

In the columns of his magazine L’Express and in a best-selling book The American Challenge (Le Defi americain), JJSS became a global personality. He described the US and Europe as engaged in a silent economic war, with Europe outclassed on all fronts: management techniques, technological tools and research capacity. The results were resurgent French nationalism, stagnation of European integration and growing alienation from the US.

Six decades later, the European Union must make do without Britain’s global skills. It has again lost the technological race with the US. Its self-confidence seems as low or lower than it was in the 1960s.

In view of this dissatisfaction, many Europeans believe that they have no choice but to buttress their traditional iron and steel economy in China and Russia. Europe seems to be ignoring the geopolitical, cultural and moral drawbacks of this mercantilist approach.

Germany has invested billions of euros into seeking to build and protect eastern markets. It has joined other EU members in searching desperately for a means of ‘digital sovereignty’, used as a cover for regulatory strategies aimed at limiting Washington’s technological lead.

The US has focused attention on China’s miserable record on human rights, its threat to Asian neighbours and on the challenges to western digital hegemony raised by China’s startling industrial progress.

German leaders have argued that dialogue is more effective than confrontation, especially with eastern neighbours. Leaders as diverse as former Chancellor (and Nord Stream Chairman) Gerhard Schröder and the conservative chancellor-candidate Armin Laschet are calling for Europeans to reject the new ‘cold war’ the US is allegedly stimulating in the far east. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas seemed recently to have forgotten Russia’s role as aggressor in Crimea, when he argued that German sale of defensive weapons to Ukraine, would mean taking sides in what was essentially an internal Ukrainian conflict.

Schröder is in some ways the JJSS de nos jours. But his activities as a supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin look increasingly problematic. The rifts with the West over Russian action in Ukraine, the poisoning of opposition figure Alexei Navalny and now the illegal interception of the Ryanair flight over Belarus raise even more doubts about Schröder’s position as Nord Stream chairman. His role as de facto spokesman for the Russian government has become untenable.

What the Europeans would call a ‘balanced’ approach seems designed to achieve an intermediary European role between the big powers, making trade with both East and West equally lucrative.

Barely five months into Joe Biden’s presidency, officials in Washington are already referring to this unexpected tilt eastward as a ‘new German problem’. In return, some German commentators are beginning to wonder whether Biden’s emphasis on reinvigorating the western alliance is little more than a continuation of President Donald Trump’s efforts to control Germany’s ties to Russia and China. And the Nord Stream pipeline controversy – even though the US has retreated from imposing sanctions on western companies involved in its construction – has soured matters even more.

Such sentiments are familiar, but not terribly unsettling.  The special German fascination with the East reflects an old Berlin fixation which has nearly always failed. It rises to the surface each time Germany feels pushed by alliance pressure to modify its goals according to western needs. But reality soon catches up. Europeans know they have no alternative to the US, but many seem to misunderstand Washington’s political dynamics and are hoping that Biden will turn a blind eye to their manoeuvres.

Biden has no option than to maintain a tough line on both Russia and China. It will be very hard for him to harmonise his goals with German strategies as Henry Kissinger did while he was secretary of state in the mid-1970s when he went along with Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik.

Europe’s recovery from the Trump shock could take longer than expected. But no one can know exactly how long and what the costs will be. Are there potential Brandts and Kissingers waiting in the wings? Can Biden find a way to manage US dominance in a way that safeguards the western alliance? These central questions for the Atlantic partnership will be burning issues for years to come.

John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a Member of the OMFIF Advisory Council.

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