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Germany - the „honest broker“ between Russia and the West?!

Welche Rolle kann Deutschland als Vermittler zwischen dem Westen und Russland spielen? Nachfolgend ein Grundlagenartikel, der versucht mit Betrachtungen aus der Geschichte zu ergründen, warum wir als Vermittler zwischen Russland und dem Westen eine besondere Rolle einnehmen. Ebenso beleuchtet er Chancen und Möglichkeiten wie ein engeres Verhältnis zu Russland aussehen könnte. Aktuell im Gespräch ist eine vertiefte strategische Partnerschaft. Auf lange Sicht ist aber durchaus auch mehr denkbar, wenn beide Seiten - der Westen und Russland - es wollen.

Update vom 25.11.2010: Russland hat laut heutigen Medienberichten begonnen die EU stärker zu umwerben, um eine bessere Wirtschaftskooperation zu erreichen. Eine von beiden Seiten ernsthaft und ehrlich gewollte Partnerschaft dürfte viele Vorteile bringen. Eine gesunde Skepsis ist fürwahr weiter nötig, doch sollten auch die Chancen wahrgenommen werden, die sich bieten.

Germany - the „honest broker“ between Russia and the West?!

A phrase which was coined by Otto von Bismarck two centuries ago has not lost any of its relevance to describe today’s role of Germany between the East and the West. An honest broker is usually described as a neutral party able to mediate between two other parties. If it is well-played in geopolitics, it becomes an important enabling factor to solve international problems of various magnitudes on the world stage and rewards the mediator with credibility, appreciation and significance.

First of all, as a regional power in the heart of Europe, Germany fits geographically into the center between both great powers to fulfill this role. It is also Europe’s economic powerhouse with a total gross domestic product higher than that of France or the United Kingdom. But why is Germany good suited for a mediating role in general between Russia and the West? The answer to this question is at least partly rooted in German history and can be illustrated best with Germany’s role during the Cold War. It showed us that the Germans were always in the middle of both interest spheres, especially during the ideological battles of the 20th century and had to cope with both sides. The great divide after the Second World War created two states - a west-oriented democracy - the Federal Republic of Germany and a communist satellite – the German Democratic Republic. The whole world soon found its symbol of the east-west confrontation in the Berlin Wall – tons of concrete which should divide West and East Germany until its collapse in 1989. Only Korea and Vietnam also experienced similar political battles between the great powers which also lead to national divide and even further - to all out war.
German officials know and understand the significance of both Washington and Moscow in their calculations because they needed a good working relationship in the past with both to secure their interests. Without former chancellor Kohl’s initiative and good relationship with George H.W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbatshev, the chance of German reunification probably would have been lost due to time consuming diplomatic conflicts and the following collapse of the Soviet Union.

Albeit Germany is not “neutral” any more – e.g. it is a well-trusted alliance partner in NATO, Russia’s perception of Germany is that of a modern society which could be used as an opening gate to the West due to good political and economical relations. Germany is Russia’s most important foreign trade partner with a total trading volume of 20,8 billion Euros during the first half of 2009. The USA and Germany enjoy an even deeper and more reliable partnership, even though some disagreements show up from time to time (e.g. Iraq war of 2003; response to the global economic crisis) as they occur with close friends. Those disagreements should and can be resolved in a harmonious way.

But where can Germany be of help today to improve Russian-Western relations? Again history shows us a possible way forward. A mechanism that worked before exists: Germany and France were the driving forces to build the European Union. Two nations which were arch-enemies for centuries came together with the goal to build peace through an institution which deepened their economic ties. A lot of concerns had to be worked out, trust had to be build and there were setbacks to overcome on the way forward. But in the end, what was primarily seen as an economic institution evolved over decades into a complex political organization of 27 European countries bringing peace, wealth and prosperity to its citizens.

History doesn’t repeat itself nor does it provide a detailed roadmap which is to follow, but it showed that you don’t start a war with a country you have deep ties with. Disastrous consequences for both would be the result – inacceptable for democracies. Hence I argue in the following to deepen the relationship with Russia. Germany could act as an honest broker, as outlined in the introduction, between the West and the East since it has good relations with both sides.

The European Union and Russia already agreed to cooperate in four different areas, the so called Four Common Spaces: 1) Common Economic Space, 2) Common Space of Freedom, Security and Justice, 3) Common Space on External Security and 4) Common Space on Research, Education and Culture. I want to provide some policy recommendations with a focus on the first and the third area.

First, improvements in the taxation system and financial legislation already made investments into Russia more attractive. On the other hand, the case of ex-oil giant Yukos is still not forgotten as a warning signal to many foreign investors. Hence Germany and other Western partners must stress that Russia needs to play by the rulebook of international judicial standards. Strategic issues here are Russia’s WTO accession and conclusion of the new EU-Russia Agreement which is currently under negotiations. Progress on these topics is fundamental to the formation of a reliable legal basis for long-term business and economic relations between Russia and the EU. Second, the formation of a EU-Russia single market could further boost both economies due to usage of the technologies, capital, and set of skills from the EU to complement with Russia’s natural and human resources to a mutual benefit. Third, a better cooperation on the project level in the aviation, defense and space industry could also secure strategic advantages to both economies. Lastly, reducing visa barriers would also be a specific measure to promote an exchange of specialists and professionals who need to travel frequently between the EU and Russia.

In the security area, two fundamentally different perceptions of Russia still exist today. One school of thought points out Russia’s aggressive behavior, the conflicting interests and the value gap as evidence that any notion of security cooperation with Moscow is still a fantasy. Others stress the importance of integration since isolating the largest country in Europe from any meaningful security agenda makes little sense.

Again, I favor an integrating approach. The refusal of the West to give Russia room to articulate their interests in vital European security affairs was a significant error leading to mounting tensions between the West and Russia that resulted in the Five Day War between Russia and Georgia in 2008. In the near term solid talks on an issue-by-issue basis should be the norm. The successful START II negotiations could be a driving signal to solve other issues like –among others - energy security, fighting terrorism, the US Missile Shield or conflict resolution in Russia’s “troubled neighborhood”. In the long term even a NATO membership of Russia should be seriously considered. The advantages of such a bold move would be tremendous to increase security on a large amount of issues where both have a common interest in stability. The value gap which admittedly still exists between Russia and the West is not a decisive argument to deny Russia’s entry into the alliance as the US also cooperates with Saudi-Arabia, Pakistan and other countries on security issues who do not share western values. As there are conflicting views within Europe towards the relations with Moscow, the Europeans must find a way to reconcile their differences to confront Russia in a resolute united front. Washington can help to ease the tensions within the EU, especially due to its influence on “New Europe“. Otherwise a fractured Europe could weaken the overall interests of the West.

As a conclusion one can remark that Medvedev started a controversial debate with his proposal of a new European security agenda in which Russia needs to play a more substantial role. Successfully integrating Russia into Europe - even though major obstacles need to be overcome - offers many chances for both sides. History has shown us that such a bold move can work, as I have mentioned with the formation of the European Union. Germany is able to fulfill the role as a mediator and can bring Washington and Moscow nearer together without letting out the capitals in between.

The author is a law school student at the University of Freiburg and Chairman of the Association of International Relations and Security Studies (AIRES) since 2008 in Freiburg/Br., Germany.

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