Gabor Steingart is the publisher of Germany’s leading financial newspaper Handelsblatt.
In view of the events in Ukraine, the government and many media have switched from level-headed to agitated. The spectrum of opinions has been narrowed to the width of a sniper scope. The politics of escalation does not have a realistic goal – and harms German interests.
Düsseldorf. Every war is accompanied by a kind of mental mobilization: war fever. Even smart people are not immune to controlled bouts of this fever. "This war in all its atrociousness is still a great and wonderful thing. It is an experience worth having" rejoiced Max Weber in 1914 when the lights went out in Europe. Thomas Mann felt a "cleansing, liberation, and a tremendous amount of hope".
Even when thousands already lay dead on the Belgian battle fields, the war fever did not subside. Exactly 100 years ago, 93 painters, writers, and scientists composed the "Call to the world of culture." Max Liebermann, Gerhart Hauptmann, Max Planck, Wilhelm Röntgen, and others encouraged their countrymen to engage in cruelty towards their neighbor: "Without German militarism, German culture would have been swept from the face of the earth a long time ago. The German armed forces and the German people are one. This awareness makes 70 million Germans brothers without prejudice to education, status, or party."
We interrupt our own train of thought: "History is not repeating itself!” But can we be so sure about that these days? In view of the war events in the Crimean and eastern Ukraine, the heads of states and governments of the West suddenly have no more questions and all the answers. The US Congress is openly discussing arming Ukraine. The former security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski recommends arming the citizens there for house-to-house and street combat. The German Chancellor, as it is her habit, is much less clear but no less ominous: "We are ready to take severe measures."
German journalism has switched from level-headed to agitated in a matter of weeks. The spectrum of opinions has been narrowed to the field of vision of a sniper scope.
Newspapers we thought to be all about thoughts and ideas now march in lock-step with politicians in their calls for sanctions against Russia's President Putin. Even the headlines betray an aggressive tension as is usually characteristic of hooligans when they 'support' their respective teams.
The Tagesspiegel: "Enough talk!" The FAZ: "Show strength". The Süddeutsche Zeitung: "Now or never." The Spiegel calls for an "End to cowardice": "Putin's web of lies, propaganda, and deception has been exposed. The wreckage of MH 17 is also the result of a crashed diplomacy."
Western politics and German media agree.
Every reflexive string of accusations results in the same outcome: in no time allegations and counter-allegations become so entangled that the facts become almost completely obscured.
Who deceived who first?
Did it all start with the Russian invasion of the Crimean or did the West first promote the destabilization of the Ukraine? Does Russia want to expand into the West or NATO into the East? Or did maybe two world-powers meet at the same door in the middle of the night, driven by very similar intentions towards a defenseless third that now pays for the resulting quagmire with the first phases of a civil war?
If at this point you are still waiting for an answer as to whose fault it is, you might as well just stop reading. You will not miss anything. We are not trying to unearth this hidden truth. We don't know how it started. We don't know how it will end. And we are sitting right here, in the middle of it. At least Peter Sloterdijk has a few words of consolation for us: "To live in the world means to live in uncertainty."
Our purpose is to wipe off some of the foam that has formed on the debating mouths, to steal words from the mouths of both the rabble-rousers and the roused, and put new words there instead. One word that has become disused of late is this: realism.
The politics of escalation show that Europe sorely misses a realistic goal. It's a different thing in the US. Threats and posturing are simply part of the election preparations. When Hillary Clinton compares Putin with Hitler, she does so only to appeal to the Republican vote, i.e. people who do not own a passport. For many of them, Hitler is the only foreigner they know, which is why Adolf Putin is a very welcome fictitious campaign effigy. In this respect, Clinton and Obama have a realistic goal: to appeal to the people, to win elections, to win another Democratic presidency.
Angela Merkel can hardly claim these mitigating circumstances for herself. Geography forces every German Chancellor to be a bit more serious. As neighbors of Russia, as part of the European community bound in destiny, as recipient of energy and supplier of this and that, we Germans have a clearly more vital interest in stability and communication. We cannot afford to look at Russia through the eyes of the American Tea Party.
Every mistake starts with a mistake in thinking. And we are making this mistake if we believe that only the other party profits from our economic relationship and thus will suffer when this relationship stops. If economic ties were maintained for mutual profit, then severing them will lead to mutual loss. Punishment and self-punishment are the same thing in this case.
Even the idea that economic pressure and political isolation would bring Russia to its knees was not really thought all the way through. Even if we could succeed: what good would Russia be on its knees? How can you want to live together in the European house with a humiliated people whose elected leadership is treated like a pariah and whose citizens you might have to support in the coming winter.
Of course, the current situation requires a strong stance, but more than anything a strong stance against ourselves. Germans have neither wanted nor caused these realities, but they are now our realities. Just consider what Willy Brandt had to listen to when his fate as mayor of Berlin placed him in the shadow of the wall. What sanctions and punishments were suggested to him. But he decided to forgo this festival of outrage. He never turned the screw of retribution.
When he was awarded the Noble Prize for Peace he shed light on what went on around him in the hectic days when the wall was built: "There is still another aspect – that of impotence disguised by verbalism: taking a stand on legal positions which cannot become a reality and planning counter-measures for contingencies that always differ from the one at hand. At critical times we were left to our own devices; the verbalists had nothing to offer."
The verbalists are back and their headquarters are in Washington D.C. But nobody is forcing us to kowtow to their orders. Following this lead – even if calculatingly and somewhat reluctantly as in the case of Merkel – does not protect the German people, but may well endanger it. This fact remains a fact even if it was not the American but the Russians who were responsible for the original damage in the Crimean and in eastern Ukraine.
Willy Brandt decided clearly differently than Merkel in the present, and that in a clearly more intense situation. As he recalls, he had awoken on the morning of August 13, 1961 "wide awake and at the same time numb". He had stopped over in Hanover on a trip when he received reports from Berlin about work being done on the large wall separating the city. It was a Sunday morning and the humiliation could hardly be greater for a sitting mayor.
The Soviets had presented him with a fait accompli. The Americans had not informed him even though they had probably received some information from Moscow. Brandt remembers that an "impotent rage" had risen in him. But what did he do? He reined in his feelings of impotence and displayed his great talent as reality-based politician which would garner him a stint as Chancellor and finally also the Nobel Prize for Peace.
With the advice from Egon Bahr, he accepted the new situation, knowing that no amount of outrage from the rest of the world would bring this wall down again for a while. He even ordered the West-Berlin police to use batons and water cannons against demonstrators at the wall in order not to slip from the catastrophe of division into the much greater catastrophe of war. He strove for the paradox which Bahr put as follows later: "We acknowledged the Status Quo in order to change it."
And they managed to accomplish this change. Brandt and Bahr made the specific interests of the West Berlin population for who they were now responsible (from June 1962 onwards this also included this author) into the measure of their politics.
In Bonn they negotiated the Berlin subvention, an eight-percent tax-free subvention on payroll and income tax. In the vernacular it was called the "fear premium". They also negotiated a travel permit treaty with East Berlin which made the wall permeable again two years after it was put up. Between Christmas 1963 and New Year’s 1964, 700 000 inhabitants of Berlin visited their relatives in the east of the city. Every tear of joy turned into a vote for Brandt a short while later.
The voters realized that here was someone who wanted to affect the way they lived every day, not just generate a headline for the next morning. In an almost completely hopeless situation, this SPD man fought for western values – in this case the values of freedom of movement – without bullhorns, without sanctions, without the threat of violence. The elite in Washington started hearing words that had never been heard in politics before: Compassion. Change through rapprochement. Dialog. Reconciliation of interests. And this in the middle of the Cold War, when the world powers were supposed to attack each other with venom, when the script contained only threats and protestations; set ultimatums, enforce sea blockades, conduct representative wars, this is how the Cold War was supposed to be run.
A German foreign policy striving for reconciliation – in the beginning only the foreign policy of Berlin – not only appeared courageous but also very strange.
The Americans – Kennedy, Johnson, then Nixon – followed the German; it kicked off a process which is unparalleled in the history of enemy nations. Finally, there was a meeting in Helsinki in order to set down the rules. The Soviet Union was guaranteed "non-interference into their internal affairs" which filled party boss Leonid Brezhnev with satisfaction and made Franz Josef Strauß's blood boil. In return, the Moscow Communist Party leadership had to guarantee the West (and thus their own civil societies) "respect of human rights and fundamental freedoms, including that of thought, conscience, religion or belief".
In this way "non-interference" was bought through "involvement". Communism had received an eternal guarantee for its territory, but within its borders universal human rights suddenly began to brew. Joachim Gauck remembers: "The word that allowed my generation to go on was Helsinki."
It is not too late for the duo Merkel/Steinmeier to use the concepts and ideas of this time. It does not make sense to just follow the strategically idea-less Obama. Everyone can see how he and Putin are driving like in a dream directly towards a sign which reads: Dead End.
"The test for politics is not how something starts but how it ends", so Henry Kissinger, also a Peace Nobel Prize winner. After the occupation of the Crimean by Russia he stated: we should want reconciliation, not dominance. Demonizing Putin is not a policy. It is an alibi for the lack thereof. He advises condensing conflicts, i.e. to make them smaller, shrink them, and then distill them into a solution.
At the moment (and for a long time before that) America is doing the opposite. All conflicts are escalated. The attack of a terror group named Al Qaida is turned into a global campaign against Islam. Iraq is bombed using dubious justifications. Then the US Air Force flies on to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The relationship to the Islamic world can safely be considered damaged.
If the West had judged the then US government which marched into Iraq without a resolution by the UN and without proof of the existence of "WMDs" by the same standards as today Putin, then George W. Bush would have immediately been banned from entering the EU. The foreign investments of Warren Buffett should have been frozen, the export of vehicles of the brands GM, Ford, and Chrysler banned.
The American tendency to verbal and then also military escalation, the isolation, demonization, and attacking of enemies has not proven effective. The last successful major military action the US conducted was the Normandy landing. Everything else – Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan – was a clear failure. Moving NATO units towards the Polish border and thinking about arming Ukraine is a continuation of a lack of diplomacy by the military means.
This policy of running your head against the wall – and doing so exactly where the wall is the thickest – just gives you a head ache and not much else. And this considering that the wall has a huge door in the relationship of Europe to Russia. And the key to this door is labeled "reconciliation of interests".
The first step is what Brandt called "compassion", i.e. the ability to see the world through the eyes of the others. We should stop accusing the 143 million Russian that they look at the world differently than John McCain.
What is needed is help in modernizing the country, no sanctions which will further decrease the dearth of wealth and damage the bond of relationships. Economic relationships are also relationships. International cooperation is akin to tenderness between nations because everyone feels better afterwards.
It is well-known that Russia is an energy super-power and at the same time a developing industrial nation. The policy of reconciliation and mutual interests should attack here. Development aid in return for territorial guarantees; Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier even had the right words to describe this: modernization partnership. He just has to dust it off and use it as an aspirational word. Russia should be integrated, not isolated. Small steps in that direction are better than the great nonsense of exclusionary politics.
Brandt and Bahr have never reached for the tool of economic sanctions. They knew why: there are no recorded cases in which countries under sanctions apologized for their behavior and were obedient ever after. On the contrary: collective movements start in support of the sanctioned, as is the case today in Russia. The country was hardly ever more unified behind their president than now. This could almost lead you to think that the rabble-rousers of the West are on the payroll of the Russian secret service.
One more comment about the tone of the debate. The annexation of the Crimean was in violation of international law. The support of separatists in eastern Ukraine also does not mesh with our ideas of the state sovereignty. The boundaries of states are inviolable.
But every act requires context. And the German context is that we are a society on probation which may not act as if violations of international law started with the events in the Crimean.
Germany has waged war against its eastern neighbor twice in the past 100 years. The German soul, which we generally claim to be on the romantic side, showed its cruel side.
Of course, we who came later can continue to proclaim our outrage against the ruthless Putin and appeal to international law against him, but the way things are this outrage should come with a slight blush of embarrassment. Or to use the words of Willy Brandt: "Claims to absolutes threaten man."
In the end, even the men who had succumbed to war fever in 1914 had to realize this. After the end of the war, the penitent issued a second call, this time to understanding between nations: "The civilized world became a war camp and battle field. It is time that a great tide of love replaces the devastating wave of hatred."
We should try to avoid the detour via the battle fields in the 21st century. History does not have to repeat itself. Maybe we can find a shortcut.