By Elisabeth Hellenbroich

In May of this year this author had the occasion to ask some panelists who had gathered for a strategic forum in Montabaur “The world in transition. Germany’s role in the world”. The reason was to try and unterstand how Germany intended to cooperate in China’s “One Belt one Road” initiative.

The answer given by Professor Braml (chief editor of the German Society for Foreign Policy Yearbook) was rather disappointing. He cast the question aside by arguing that China wants to demonstrate that it’s a “good hegemon” while underlining that there is a lot of Chinese rhetoric in respect to the “One Belt one Road” initiative. The ambivalence expressed by Braml is unfortunately a widespread phenomenon in German political circles.

In defense of a new European foreign policy

An inspiring counterpoint was outlined December 5th by German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) who gave a speech at the “Berlin Foreign Forum Conference” (organized by the influential Körber- Foundation). His speech is worth to be studied since it outlines some new concepts that stand in contrast to the usual lines given by the German press as well as some German strategists. A similar speech had been given by him beginning of September in Paris in front of the French Ambassadors’ conference. “Europe in a more uncomfortable world” was the title of the speech in Berlin, which outlined some parameters of a new European Foreign Policy.

While the European Union at its start was rather “domestically” oriented, i.e. concerned to create a functioning European domestic market, the present world is more “uncomfortable” and finds itself in transition, Gabriel stated. The choice for Europe is that either we actively “shape the future world order or we will be shaped by the rest of the world.” Three criteria were mentioned that are essential for defining a future European Foreign policy:

1. Europe and the US. According to Gabriel the “withdrawal of the US” as guarantor of Western “multilateralism” has “accelerated” the transformation of the global order. The US has a very “distant perception” of Europe, which sees Europe more as a “competitor and economic rival.”

2. Decomposition of states and the emergence of new power relations. Offensive actions initiated by states such as China, Russia, Turkey and Iran demonstrate a “global order in transformation” with far reaching consequences for international politics. The principles of the UN Charta and codified “International law” are in crisis while traditional nuclear powers were not able to prevent that other states seek to acquire nuclear status. At the same time we hear battle cries such as “Make America great again” or “Take back control”.

3. Instead of conceiving the world as some kind of post-Westphalia Peace order that marked the end of the 30 years war and the end of the second world war, or a “bilateral world order”, Gabriel spoke in favor of a third alternative, a flexible “multipolar order” which is based on a set of rules and binding structures. He emphasized that Europe will only survive in the future if it defines its interests and is capable to project its power.

The new role of Russia

One of the key concepts that Gabriel outlined was the shift in global politics created by the US (especially after the recent US presidential elections). The US is leaving the world stage and defines a world that is essentially based on the “right of the stronger”. He referred to the “power vacuum” which the US has at present left in the Mideast and elsewhere which is quickly filled by new powers. An illustrative example was the recent summit in Sochi, where Russian President Putin received the presidents from Iran and Turkey in order to define the new parameters for peace in Syria and the Mideast as a whole. The Foreign Minister advised the Europeans to make a critical self-inspection given the fact that in the last seven years there were no particular efforts made by the Europeans to mobilize concepts and resources for rebuilding the crisis areas. The “power vacuum” which the US left in the Mideast, according to Gabriel, got quickly filled, due to Russia’s military intervention 2015 which “has changed the dynamic of the Syrian civil war. It has militarily stabilized the Assad regime. What we are seeing see now is a Russia which will in a decisive way determine the future of Syria, since others didn’t do it. Russia has also changed the regional balance. Practically all regional actors reorient their policy.”

Similar withdrawal patterns like in the Mideast can also be observed in other parts of the world. “We look at Asia where China moves into a geostrategic space which so far has been exclusively determined by the presence and policy of the US.” Gabriel especially referred to “The One Belt one Road Initiative,” as the new “Silk Road” initiative which is not something reminiscent of Marco Polo, “but a geostrategic concept, with which China realizes its concept of a trade, geographical, geopolitical and military order.” Gabriel emphasized particularly that one “can say today, that China is the only country in the world which has a long-term geostrategic concept….We can’t accuse China for that, quite the contrary. I feel respect and admiration, to see how quickly this country has developed in the last 30 to 40 years.” The West should rather face that fact that it does not have a comparable independent strategy. Only if both things are fulfilled the definition of Chinese and European interests, a solid balance can develop for both sides.

Gabriel had some critical remarks in respect to those strategists in Germany – as German historian Herfried Münkler had correctly observed in his recent book The thirty yearswar – which are obsessively fixated to the horizon of “moral norms and imperatives”, rather than soberly and pragmatically analyze a given strategic situation. Instead of facing reality as it is there is a lack of in depth “strategic – political thinking.”

An example is Syria where according to Gabriel we should engage in the reconstruction of the country by way of humanitarian aid.” We can’t close our eyes and deny that other actors have created facts on the ground (often beyond established norms and in contradiction to our morality, but efficient). Hence he advises that we must soberly analyze the situation and have a realist view on the world the way it is and not as it should be according to our vision. We have to be ready for “strategic compromises.” Taking into account the reality in the US which had been expressed in an article by Trumps chief advisors Mc Master and Cohn in the Wall Street Journal – for the US, as Gabriel understands, the “ world is no longer a global community, but an arena in which nations , non- state actors and enterprises fight for their advantage.” And this concept will remain irrespective of President Trump.

In order to illustrate with an example the present rift between US and Germany, he referred to the recent US Congress passing sanctions against Russia. According to Gabriel these are sanctions which concern aspects that “directly involve the German Pipelines (Nord- Stream 2) to Russia. “These sanctions endanger our own economic interest in an existential way.” Another example is the attempt to dissolve the Iran nuclear deal which could increase the war danger and has an impact on Germany’s and Europe’s security. This implies that Germany must define its own position and if necessary need to tell its allies (US) where “the limit of our solidarity is.”

For a “European Ostpolitik”

A key aspect of Gabriel’s Foreign Policy guidelines was dedicated to the question how we are going to deal with Russia. The Foreign Minister emphasized that it is our role to “maintain dialogue channels” and look for dialogue in difficult times. It would for example be very advantageous if we could get to an understanding with Russia for a sustainable “UN Blue Helmet Mission”with the aim to push through a durable ceasefire in Eastern Ukraine and the withdrawal of heavy weapons in the conflict zone. The offer to Russia should be clear: “After having implemented a durable ceasefire we Europeans could help to reconstruct the Donbass and realize first steps to bring the sanctions to an end. This would not be a final solution of the Ukraine conflict and not mean fulfillment of the Minsk agreement, but it would be a breakthrough and a big step towards a new détente policy with Russia.” Rather than having a German Ostpolitik, Gabriel emphasized the need to have a “European Ostpolitik”.

He sees the chances for a new start of the EU where, as he emphasized, a lot of impulse and energy has been coming from France, but also from Italy. He qualified the election of the French Pro- European President Macron as a lucky decision with “historical dimension”, adding that at present 90% of the Germans wish a closer cooperation with France. In Gabriels earlier speech in Paris he had also expressed the desire to define a “common European strategy” vis-a -vis China.

How the EU could cooperate in the One Belt- One Road initiative

In the context of Gabriel’s speech close attention should be paid to the recent “16+1 Summit” between China and the 16 CEE States (Central and Eastern European states) which took place at the level of heads of states on November 26/27th in Budapest. There were 300 companies from 16 CEE countries present, as well as 100 companies from China. As Hungarian Minister President Victor Orbán underlined in his opening speech “Europe must not turn inward, or else it will lose opportunities for development, especially at a time when it faces historic challenges which it cannot meet unless it has powerful allies.”

As interesting as this conference was, one should keep in mind the warning made by the German Foreign Minister Gabriel in Paris (September 2017) in front of the French Ambassadors, when he said that Europe should not allow China to divide the EU but have a common strategy towards China.