04 Oct 22: I was asked, two weeks ago, why did Germany insist on increasing its partnership with Russia in gas even after the 2014 Ukraine invasion? Was this “naivety”? I said this characterization obscures a conscious German geostrategy.
Two common explanations I constantly heard in Berlin over about eight years for the Russian gas partnership was the “Neue Ostpolitik” that originated with Willy Brant’s Cold-War-era Social Democratic Party and the conservative-business version of this, “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade), held up as an historic lesson of the late-mediaeval Hanseatic Trading League.
Indeed, these traditions certainly did motivate many elite German actors to partner with Russia on energy and on trade generally …
“But according to Thomas O’Donnell, a Germany-based energy analyst, it was also driven by a German desire for ‘strategic balancing — it was a way for Germany to break free from its dependence on the US’.
“Many in the German establishment, he said, resented US dominance in energy matters and disliked ‘this idea of a global fungible market in oil that’s traded in dollars and protected by the US navy’. That resentment, he said, was one of the reasons why Germany kept out of the US war in Iraq in 2003. And it was why it suited Germany to have direct access to Russian oil and gas.” [Guy Chazan & David Sheppard, Germany closes long energy chapter with Russia by turning on Rosneft, Financial Times, 17 Sept 22. https://www.ft.com/content/2fbbe104-93e3-48bb-8d69-211c79069624 ]
In this short post, I can’t fully explain the near unanimity of German elites over two decades (first during the two 1998-2005 Schröder chancellorships of his SPD plus the Greens, and throughout the the five Merkel coalition governments until December 2021, of her CDU/CSU with the SPD or FDP) in support of renewing and further deepening what by 1998 was already two-to-three-decades old energy partnership with Russia.
Within this remarkable unanimigy, various parties and business interests had a variety of rationales. [see Footnote 1, on what I see as the key German foreign policy group, the “realpolitik” group, which included Merkel and Altmaier, beyond the trade-as-geostrategy grouping mentioned above.]
However, both these sections participated/participate in a broad anti-Americanism.
I am speaking here about opposition to USA leadership of the transatlantic alliance most especially on trade matters and in the alliance’s geostrategy, especially when it may involve armed conflicts. This has various geopolitical and geo-economic aspects.
This was exacerbated during the late-Merkel years not merely by the Trump presidency’s open hostility; but by policies of administrations both before and after his administration (i.e., in “normal times”). This has to do especially with German opposition to the bi-partisan, USA strategic posture, initiated under Obama, of “Great Power Competition,” and especially to its international trade implications of decoupling from both Russia and China.
In both the realpolitik sections of German elites, who do recognize the threat Putin-ism represents and the dangers of German reliance on his regime for energy or in any other matters, and in the Putin-Versteher sections who worship trade-as-a-geostrategic-cure-all, the one common characteristic has long been a growing resentment of the USA, aka an “anti-Americanism” as I remarked to the Financial Times. This especially exists among party and ministry functionaries, and certain business associations, so much that this anti-Americanism has become institutionalized, a constant underlying feature of German official geopolitical and geoeconomic bureaucratic life. (Nota Bene: I am not speaking here of the German middle and working classes, where matters are generally quite different, except among various far-left and -right sections. I am speaking of elites.)
Until a few years ago (e.g., during the negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Treaty, TTIP up to ca. 2016), this official anti-Americanism phenomena was often noted and discussed by policy and academic experts on both sides of the Atlantic. It is not clear to me why this outward recognition has diminished; but the sentiment itself certainly hasn’t, especially.
Putting aside historical and social-cultural aspects of this “resentment” of the USA, in the political realm it is no secret that, over multiple USA administrations, the German side, often along with other Western European powers, has been deeply opposed to many major USA foreign policy decisions, and indeed many of these decisions did not go well for the transatlantic alliance.
One could point back 50 years, to the VietNam War, or to US coups and interventions in Latin America, or the stationing of intermediate-range nuclear missiles in West Germany (which the Russians did also in East Germany). All of this was clearly upsetting to broad sections of the European population; as this was often within the USA as well.
All these issues would likely have been forgotten by now; however, transatlantic-policy clashes over geostrategy have continued in the post-Cold War era.
These clashes include the two Iraqi Gulf Wars and, for many years USA Iran policy (up till the late-Geo. Bush administrationm when EU attitudes to Iran started to merge with the USA’s), the USA-led NATO intervention against Serbia to end the Balkan wars (which ushered in a renaissance for NATO within Europe that was clearly unwelcomed at the time in broad German circles), the mishandling and human-rights violations of the War on Terror post 9/11, and more recently USA policy w.r.t China and Russia – esp. the shift to a strategy of “Great Power Competition” as it disengaged from the “War on Terror” and USA military over-involvement in the MENA regions.
More generally, the fact that, during almost any post-Cold War crisis confronting the transatlantic alliance, the USA president has been “the decider” (in the words of George Bush), became a source of palpable resentment.
Economic and trade tensions served to fortify these political and geopolitical sensibilities and has been, by far, the primary vector which drew German business circles into resentment of USA leadership of the alliance. In German political parties, this ongoing resentment has been esp. notable within the SPD; in the extreme-right AfD party and, in a less ideological, more pragmatic manner, by conservative business sections of the CDU/CSU, and as always the traditional far-left.
This gave rise to a deep urge among German business and political circles to find ways to escape dependence on and subordination to USA determination of policy within the transatlantic alliance in-general and, till now, on oil and gas in particular, linked as it has been to the Mideast Wars. This only deepened the instinctive urge to fix Germany’s connection to the Russian gas and oil supplies as a “strategic balancing” to the USA’s predominance in global energy markets and in energy geostrategy during the post-Cold War years and especially the “color revolutions” and most especially Ukraine’s struggle against Russian domination.
German elites got deeply involved in a project to guarantee continued Russian natural gas deliveries to their country and on into Europe should there ever be a conflict between Russia and Ukraine that might interrupt the flows transiting Ukraine into Germany and its EU allies’ markets.
Hence, this produced the agreements to assist Putin’s Kremlin to build the detour pipelines Nord Stream 1 and 2 (i.e., a mga-infrastructure plan to completely replace, using “more secure routes,” the Russian-to-Europe export pipeline system of the Cold War Era that mostly flowed across Ukraine, but Poland and Belarus as well, and which itself had only been built due to active West German [and French] participation).
In addition, German elites took the geostrategic and geo economic decision to constantly deepen the vertical integration of Germany (and with it, Europe) with the upstream Russian gas system … not in spite of Russian aggression against Ukraine, but precisely because of the threat and reality of such aggression.
From the CEE, Baltic, American and other opponents’ point of view, this amounted to “throwing Ukraine under the bus.” But, this was precisely the conscious, “realpolitik” decision (my characterization) by both groups of German geopolitical and geoeconomic policy elites. For the “realpolitik” group, there was little in the way of “naivety” … it was a calculated geostrategic gamble. This group benefited from the ideological traditions of Ostpolitik and Change through Trade groups, which had long infected broad sections of German elites, and would repeat the inane refrains this latter group believed in … such as “change through trade” and “this is only a commercial project.”
Footnote 1: On German-elite broad groupings, which supported/support the German-Russian energy alliance:
Group 1: In my view (assessments based on my research), the group who had little illusions about the dangerous and volatile nature of Vladimir Putin’s regime is this “realpolitik” grouping. Despite what was constantly said publicly about the renewal and strengthening of the German-Russian energy partnership being a “non-geopolitical” and a “purely commercial project, this group was actually deeply concerned about escaping the risks associated with Russian gas having to transit “insecure” and “risky” Ukraine in order to arrive in Germany and into Europe generally. Any potential interruption of this flow was widely seen as a looming existential risk to Germany and its EU allies’ energy and economic security.
In this regard, building Nord Stream 1 and 2, and deepening German energy integration with Russia via its Gazprom and other energy firms was seen as of the highest priority for guaranteeing German energy security, i.e., the continued delivery of Russian gas to Germany and on into Europe, no matter what might happen in Ukraine, whether it be war or internal destabilization that could undermine Russian gas transit across the country.
This group seriously misjudged what would happen in the event of a Russian war on Ukraine. Rather than the EU cherishing the transit of Russian imported gas which Germany had “guaranteed” by building the Nord Stream 1 and 2 pipelines as a “lifeline” during the war; Europe has largely been horrified at the Russian brazen rupture of the post-WW2 security system and its atrocities in Ukraine and had in fact made concerted efforts and plans to wean itself off any available Russian gas supplies. The absolute insistence of the USA, esp. the Biden administration, that the new NS2 pipeline must forever be abandoned by Germany from the first day this war began, played a crucial role in pressing (forcing?) Germany to agree to not certify the inauguration of this pipeline.
I called this group of German elites the “realpolitik” group.
Group 2: On the other end of the geostrategic/geo-economic spectrum, there was the “Putin-Versteher” or “Putin understander” among German political and business actors. Some of the most obsequious are pictured at this link from Die Welt, who, in contrast to the “realpolitik” grouping, have had such exaggerated confidence in Putin that some, in the more extreme cases, would be happy with still-deeper German-Russian economic and political integration, not only energy sector integration.
For example, there are actors on the fringes of various parties, nevertheless with positions in parliament or important business associations, who have had a habit of calling, in private meetings at least, for political “unity” with Russia and Austria, specifically adding “against” the Americans. This fringe has gone farther than, for example, Chancellor Schroeder’s public advocacy from the early 2010’s for a Free Trade Zone and some sort of unified polity “from Lisbon to Vladivostok,” albeit short of Russian “full membership” in the EU.
Footnote 2: A few articles I have written related to this analysis follow:
- “My DW live: Gazprom Germania bailout: German policy made EU hostage to Russian energy, enabled Moscow’s Ukraine war | German strategy 1980-2022 was “strategic balancing” of Russia vs USA to carve out a space for its freedom of action within sphere of USA predominance,” [posted on 14 June 2022.
- Here, I don’t use the phrase explicitly; but that German attitude to relations with the USA and within the transatlantic alliance, is explained rather clearly, IMHO: “Nord Stream 2: Berlin-Washington Mutual Intransigence Shows Transatlantic Divide on Russia,” My AICGS Analysis, posted on 14 Oct 2022. This is available at my blog or the original is at AICGS institute in DC.
- “Neue Neue Ostpolitik” My BPJ piece on German fury at Senate NS2 sanctions,” Posted on 14.Jul.2022. Originally published at the Berlin Policy Journal here of the DGAP (German Council on Foreign Relations), and later reprinted at my blog here.