Lessons from the Russian invasion

US confirmed as Europe's leading power

John Kornblum, a member of the OMFIF advisory council, is one of the architects of post-war transatlantic relations. He played a key role in the 1971 four power agreement, the 1975 Helsinki final act, the 1995 Dayton Agreement and the 1997 Nato expansion. He was US ambassador to Germany in 1987-91. In 1987, and as US minister and deputy commandant of forces in occupied Berlin, he conceived and organised President Ronald Reagan’s visit and formulated the celebrated phrase: ‘Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!’

This is a translated and shortened version of an interview with Andrea Seibel of Die Welt.

Die Welt: What lessons can we learn from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? Isn’t the Ukraine war also a declaration of bankruptcy due to the European Union’s lack of military clout, weakened by its desire only to be a ‘peace power’?

John Kornblum: The enlarged transatlantic community is approaching an era of fundamental and at times destructive change. Is our goal peace or security? Peace is the absence of war, without reference to values or sovereignty. Security means protecting a country and its people with all their values and their way of life.

After the devastation of the 20th century, Europeans defined peace as their most important goal. There are peace movements, peace strategies and peace academies. The EU even calls itself a ‘peace project’ and thus puts peace before the goals of democracy, tolerance or justice.

Fixation on peace before security leads to paralysis in the face of someone who uses war as a tool for control. That’s what happened with Putin. Thirty years of peace programmes have twice left Europe helpless in the face of calculated military aggression – in Bosnia and now in Ukraine.

But the consequences go further. Risk-taking and innovation suffer. Citizens, especially young people, are swept into a culture of fear. We are entering an era of confusing and at times destructive change. Europe cannot prosper in this new era if it continues to define itself primarily as a project to overcome the past.

DW: If some on both the left and right say we are America’s vassal, what are the Germans in relation to Russia? Masochists? Masters of self-deception? Historical cowards?

JK: Germany and Russia still have more in common than you think. Mainly because they were excluded from the mainstream of European politics and culture for several hundred years. I’ve experienced it myself: when Russians and Germans meet, there’s always a sense of a common identity against the great Atlantic powers.

So, am I concerned about European, especially German, naivety towards Russia? Yes, I am. Europeans took a long time to understand the Russian threat. And the German government still seems unable to define a new strategy. When members of the German Social Democratic Party talk about their chancellor’s Ukraine policy, they like to use one word: ‘restraint’.

DW: Is it obvious that Germany neither wants nor can lead?

JK: Behind the scenes, Germany has exercised strong leadership over the rest of Europe and even America for decades. Look back at Germany’s behaviour with regard to the euro, nuclear weapons, energy policy, dealing with refugees or trade with China: you can see how decisively Germany can act when it wants to.

However, the same critical comments can also be heard about US influence. Chancellor Angela Merkel even once said that Germany had become the America of Europe. But who then plays the actual stabilising factor in Europe? America.

DW: What is Germany’s biggest problem and what is the EU’s biggest mistake in the eyes of an American diplomat like you are and were?

JK: Failure to provide sufficient defence. At the latest after the Balkan tragedy, it had become clear the EU was neither ready nor willing to mount sufficient mutual defence.

An American solution was to maintain strategic unity by merging the non-nuclear defence forces of both the EU and Nato, under command of a European senior officer. This would have ensured European control over EU missions, while at the same preserved the strategic consensus which brought Atlantic nations through the cold war.

Unfortunately, Chancellor Helmut Kohl acquiesced to French doubts about the plan and the European contribution to Nato defence deteriorated seriously. Despite unity among Nato members on a strategy for dealing with Russia, Germany’s turn away from Nato was a disappointment. You can see this bitterness in the statements of leading Americans, especially President Donald Trump.

When Europeans signed the Maastricht treaty in 1992, they failed to understand that they needed a new concept for the post-cold war era. They ignored the fact that the US had long since become Europe’s leading power – that it was important to harmonise Europe’s goals and those of the US in a joint effort by the western community and not in planning their own counter-structure to Nato.

The future question for Europeans and their friends will be: how can a united Europe be no more than an antidote to the past? Why do over 500m people have to live in a fearful, stagnant, defenceless Europe today?

DW: What does that mean for the concept of the West, which according to some critics, both in terms of its internal state and its external defences, does not seem to be cohesive enough and seems to be suffering a crisis of confidence?

JK: First the positive: after 1990, a western community was established with almost 1bn souls who act on the basis of the principles of freedom and tolerance. The western ‘operating system’ can deal with the challenges of digitalisation, globalisation and interdependence much better than any other.

It is precisely this achievement which annoys Putin. For him, the world is moving away from Russia. And he knows only one way to fight back: suppression.

The other good news is: we don’t have a choice. The existing order is destined to collapse. Everyone, including Europeans, will be forced to change. The only question is whether our institutions and their leaders are up to the challenge. Because the bad news is: these changes will be fundamental, destructive and disruptive.

DW: Despite all the criticism of America and its political crisis, what accounts for its continued strength and exceptionalism? Of the 100 largest and most valuable companies in the world by market value, 62 are from the US, 15 from China, 15 from Europe and zero from Germany.

JK: Every society has its own clockwork. American influence is due not just to leadership or sheer power, but to a self-igniting social and economic structure. Our unique mix of races and cultures continuously leads American society to break new ground and take off in new directions.

Somehow, despite the contradictions, disorganisation and narcissism, new patterns constantly emerge that serve as an engine for renewing American influence. And neither friends nor foes can escape this mixture of hard and soft power. America is like a cubist painting by Picasso. We can make out the rugged contours, but without a careful study of its inner workings, the essence remains hidden.

Read the full version of this interview in Welt am Sonntag, 31 January 2023.

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