Germany's New Ostpolitik

An Old Foreign Policy Doctrine Gets a Makeover

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attend a news conference in Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier attend a news conference in Moscow, February 14, 2014. (Maxim Shemetov / Courtesy Reuters)

When Frank-Walter Steinmeier was appointed Germany’s foreign minister in December 2013, Europeans wary of Russia took it as an ominous sign. A bookish Social Democrat, Steinmeier was known as one of Germany’s most forceful advocates for close relations between Berlin and Moscow and for a style of realpolitik toward Russian President Vladimir Putin that bracketed human rights concerns in favor of deepening economic ties. Steinmeier’s enthusiasm contrasted with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s skepticism about Putin, but most expected that the chancellery would cede the Russia portfolio to the new foreign minister.

The German government’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis has calmed most of the initial fears. Merkel has offered a tougher than expected response, threatening broad-based sanctions that would do “massive” damage to the Russian economy. But it’s Steinmeier’s response, which has largely matched Merkel’s in forcefulness, that gives an indication that Germany’s strategy toward Russia may be undergoing more than just a temporary shift. It increasingly seems that Steinmeier and his fellow Social Democrats are intent on rethinking their traditionally conciliatory posture toward Russia, as well as the underlying foreign policy doctrine that informs it. If so, German foreign policy will be entering a new era.

Steinmeier was born in 1956 in Detmold, a provincial city in West Germany. In 1975, he became a member of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) at the height of Neue Ostpolitik, a foreign policy introduced, a few years earlier, by Willy Brandt, West Germany’s first SPD chancellor. Neue Ostpolitik, literally “new eastern policy,” aimed to improve Bonn’s relations with the Soviet Union and its communist allies in central and eastern Europe under the banner of “change via rapprochement” (Wandel durch Annäherung). Brandt’s policy led to a number of groundbreaking treaties between West Germany and the Soviet Union as well as its satellites, Poland, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia. As a result, tensions between Germany and the communist bloc diminished, and economic ties grew. In the long run, the theory went, friendlier ties would lead to more stability and security in Europe, and perhaps even a gradual subversion of Soviet authoritarianism.  

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