Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has upended decades of German foreign policy in what is clearly the biggest seismic shift since World War II.
Emily Haber, Germany’s ambassador to the United States, outlined the latest developments in a June 22 webinar with John B. Emerson, chairman of the American Council on Germany. The discussion took place on the eve of the G7 Leaders’ Summit, held June 26-28 at Schloss Elmau in the Bavarian Alps.
In January, Germany assumed the 2022 chairmanship of the Group of Seven, which includes the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the United Kingdom. Together, its members account for more than half of global net wealth and about 10% of the world’s population.
“At that time, I thought the focus would be on sustainability, promoting economic equality, public health, COVID, those kinds of things,” said Emerson, a political appointee who served as US ambassador to Berlin from 2013 to 2017. “But now I think it’s safe to say the agenda has changed to a certain extent.”
An understatement indeed, said Haber, who has a 40-year diplomatic career under her belt.
“I entered the German Foreign Service in 1982, and I don’t think that in my lifetime in service, I’ve seen a greater policy shift than the one that happened after Feb. 24,” she said. “Obviously, after reunification [in 1990] there were massive shifts too, but they didn’t relate to the fundamental principles that informed our foreign policy, security policy and energy policy.”
Haber: ‘The fundamental pillars have broken away’
But Putin’s aggression against Ukraine and the continuing bloodshed there has effectively shattered all that, she said.
“The fundamental pillars have simply broken away—the conviction, for example, that interdependence would produce either alignment or greater stability, which, by the way, it often does. But that rests on the assumption that both parties share the same cost-benefit analysis. And obviously in this case, we didn’t.”
The result: a sea change in German public opinion, one that swiftly led the Bundestag on April 27 to pass a resolution authorizing the delivery of heavy weapons to Ukraine—a move unthinkable only a few months earlier. Then, on June 3, German parliamentarians voted to create a €100 billion fund to strengthen defense capabilities and inter-allied cooperation.
This will allow Berlin to finally achieve NATO’s long-sought goal of having its members spend 2% of their GDP on military spending by 2024 (up from the previous German cap of 1.5%).
In responding to the Russian threat, Haber said it’s clear that Putin is guided not by any rational decision-making process but by a geopolitical agenda “informed by a lopsided historical view,” and that this trumps all other perspectives.
Discussing how it all went wrong
Another assumption that was ripped apart was the idea that after reunification, all of Germany’s neighbors would be allies.
“We were obviously surrounded only by friends. But the assumption was that Russia, too, would adapt to a changed landscape without returning to revisionism. That was standing on very thin ice, and that ice has been broken, too. So all of that has led us to rethink interdependence and vulnerabilities, energy dependence, and fundamental aspects of our foreign policy—and that’s where we are now.”
Indeed, “we are having in Germany right now, as we should, a no-holds-barred discussion on how did it go wrong, and why we got our assumptions wrong,” Haber said.
“When the GDR [German Democratic Republic] broke down, or even with the implosion of the Soviet Union, we saw that interdependence had produced an openness that was actually conducive to more stability and fundamental change in the countries that we sought to interact with,” she explained. “The key takeaway right now is that it only works if you share the cost-benefit analysis. If political agendas take over—and that has been the case in Russia—then you’re bound to fail.”
Emerson noted a recent speech given by Sigmar Gabriel, chairman of the nonpartisan German think tank Atlantik-Brücke and former leader of the German Social Democratic Party. In that speech, Gabriel—who briefly served as Germany’s foreign minister—admitted that his government had underestimated Putin’s intentions all along.
“He [Gabriel] actually took personal responsibility for what role he may have played in that,” said Emerson. “That is pretty extraordinary, even from a former politician, to make that kind of admission. I sometimes wish in our country we would see a little bit more of that.”