A frank appraisal of the Press Briefing of the Détente Now! Initiative held in the Bundestag building
Berlin Diary: 16 December 2016
The gathering in Conference Room 3.101 of the Bundestag’s ultra-modern Paul-Loebe Haus on Friday, 16 December was described by its organizers from the Détente Now! / Neue Entspannungspolitik Jetzt! Initiative as a press briefing to officially launch the initiative in Germany. Détente Now! had already had its debut in the USA the week before with an op-ed article in the iconic Progressive weekly magazine of commentary, The Nation. The launch on two continents was meant to draw attention to the overarching objective of establishing a new peaceful Atlanticism to replace the Neocon-dominated Atlantic Alliance that has developed over the past two decades in a malignant way, bringing us into a New Cold War and, in the estimation of some of us, to the brink of a hot war.
Judged as a “press briefing,” the meeting in Conference Room 3.101 was a failure. Out of the twenty or so participants who sat around the oval table, there were just two journalists. One came from Deutsche Welle -not to prepare a report or take interviews but with the sole objective of kicking the tires. He asked with heavy irony why Putin’s signature was not on the document being discussed, the organizers’ Appeal to reinstate the policy of rapprochement with Russia that Chancellor Willy Brandt had championed. The other registered journalist was a minor figure from the Russian radio network Sputnik who did not seek any interviews, did not ask any questions and was quiet as a mouse.
The significance of the event lay elsewhere, in its de facto becoming a face-to-face discussion between several of the key organizers of the Détente Now! initiative and supporters and signatories, who till then had only a virtual relationship with one another. It provided an opportunity to see where the initiative stands and where Germany may be headed as 2017 rolls around and with it come the German federal elections when the CDU-SPD coalition splits and there is an open fight for the chancellorship. Will this campaign open the current foreign policy of sanctions against Russia and Cold War rhetoric to challenge and debate, as well, or will Germany quietly remain under another 4 year period dominated by the Iron Lady Chancellor Merkel.
There were in the room representatives of German church organizations, pacifist movements, one former Greens politician, the American friends of the initiative (myself and one other). But the single most important politician in the room was our hostess, Bundestag Member (Berlin) from the SPD party Ute Finckh-Kraemer, whose CV touches on many of the spiritual well-springs of the given initiative, ranging from pacifism to disarmament to keeping the memory of détente’s great thinker Egon Bahr bright.
Ute Finckh-Krämer is on the Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee and is Deputy Chairperson of the Subcommittee on Arms Control and Disarmament. She is not a retired voice from the past but a very active and dynamic voice of the present and future. In that context it was illuminating to hear her remarks in response to one somewhat hostile question: namely how can you consider implementing détente with Russia when Putin is doing so many nasty things, as, for example, flying military aircraft around the Baltic Sea with their transponders turned off?
In her answer, Finckh-Kraemer reminded the questioner, and the rest of us as well, of just how Entspannungspolitik came about and was first implemented by Chancellor Brandt. That was in 1969 soon after he took over the chancellorship, and it was in response to the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia the preceding August and its removal of the offending Dubcek government by force. Instead of imposing sanctions on the USSR and distancing himself from the violators of international law in the Kremlin, Brandt sent his assistant and advisor Egon Bahr to Moscow for extensive talks with the Kremlin with plans to draw closer to them and seek to influence their behavior from within.
Finckh-Kraemer argued eloquently that what is urgently needed today is precisely a policy of de-escalating the tensions and mutual threats with Russia, saying it is senseless to set preconditions.
By hosting the conference and by her words of address to us all, Ute Finckh-Kraemer demonstrated that within the SPD there are very able defenders of détente who understand with great clarity its why’s and wherefore’s. The problem, which came out in side discussions around the table, is that the party as a whole is enthralled to discipline of the coalition government with the CDU and to its own internal hierarchy, where the most senior voices of the party, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Sigmar Gabriel, lack charisma, and seem to lack as well the courage to openly challenge the group think coming from Washington and passing down through Moses (Merkel) to the whole German government.
The apologists for Steinmeier around our table explain that, like Merkel, in the run-up to the Minsk-2 Accords, German Foreign Minister Steinmeier feared that in the context of the imminent defeat of Ukrainian forces in the Debaltsevo Cauldron the United States was about step up its military support for Kiev, risking an all-out proxy war with Russia that could spread the conflagration into Central Europe. It would appear that, unlike in France, where the Trump victory in the USA emboldened Republican candidate Francois Fillon to make improved relations with Russia a cardinal element in his campaign in his party’s primaries in November, Steinmeier and Merkel have remained fearful of breaking with Washington over the sanctions or over Syria lest the Obama administration do something truly dreadful in its final weeks in office.
Will this timorousness (SPD) or pure pigheadedness (CDU) continue in mainstream German politics as the 2017 federal elections assume center stage? Yes, unless the situation is properly ventilated now. In that spirit, and as an outsider who is not bound by rules of political correctness within Germany, I am obliged to point out the following.
Within the SPD, the two main contenders for party leadership and designation as the party’s candidate for Chancellor are Gabriel, who is presently serving as Deputy Chancellor for Economics, and a “returnee” to German domestic politics, the outgoing President of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz. Of the two, Schulz is arguably the more “charismatic” if that is taken to mean outwardly self-confident, even strident. But Schulz brings with him the wrong mind-set to help the SPD find its footing for a new foreign policy, in particular a new foreign policy towards Russia. During his years in the European Institutions, Schulz has been a great defender of what are called liberal democratic values, meaning democracy promotion. And in that context he has been arrogant and censorious towards Russia, very much in line with the policy that developed in Berlin over the same period. Meanwhile, far removed from foreign policy issues, Gabriel has not developed any message of his own that will see the party to a new détente with Russia.
Meanwhile, from my correspondence with leading experts on Russia within the SPD’s main think tank, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, I must sadly conclude that officers with a distinctly Neocon or Liberal Interventionist orientation continue to rule the roost there, and one does not get very far in the organization in calling for a change of direction without being labeled Putin Versteher, a pejorative that is fatal to any political career. The same is true of the Foundation’s magazine of foreign relations commentary: Internationale Politik und Gesellschaft (IPG). Reading through the issues since the US presidential election, you could easily assume the journal is edited by members of Hillary’s election campaign team. Its featured articles and authors are all anti-Trump, anti-détente. With a think tank like this, with a magazine of commentary like this it is hard to see where a new foreign policy in the SPD can come from.
Of course, there is more to German politics than the CDU and SPD, which together in the last elections gathered less than 60% of the votes. However, the other parties also do not give much reason for hope that Germany can change course. Die Linke has some very courageous thinkers and politicians on the issue of foreign policy, none more so that Bundestag Member Sahra Wagenknecht. But Die Linke is split internally and engaged in petty wrangling, so that its electoral performance remains well below its potential weight. Meanwhile, the German Greens, have been from their very beginning, going back to the days of Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Joscha Fischer, a virulently anti-Russian force. There are signs that the party has many dissenting voices today on this issue, but not enough to see in them a force for change of direction in German foreign policy. All of which leaves the far right Alternativ fuer Deutschland, which, like the Front National in France, is unequivocally in favor of normalizing relations with Russia. However, the anti-immigration and other social issues espoused by the nationalist and xenophobic AfD so far puts them out of play for any coalition formations.
For all of the above reasons, it will take a small miracle for the Entspannungspolitik initiative to move forward and capture the imagination of the SPD and win at the polls in the autumn of 2017. That miracle could come either from France, where a veto on current EU foreign policy is virtually certain following the April elections and will position France as a direct competitor to Germany for leadership in the EU. Or it may come from the USA, depending on how the Trump team handles relations with Germany and the EU.
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2016
* * * *
G. Doctorow is the European Coordinator of The American Committee for East West Accord Ltd. His latest book, Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 20, 2015.