Stability in Central and Eastern Europe is one of Germany’s core interests – which is a card the countries of the region need to play. To become a guarantor of stability and security for the region Germany has not only to define its economic interests but also its security and ideological interests.

Not everybody outside of Germany remembers Horst Köhler today. Of course, the German chancellor always plays the most visible role – being the head of government. But one shall not underestimate the significance of the office of the president.

Next to ceremonial obligations, German presidents were always initiating important policy debates, influencing German public discourse – so was the aforementioned Horst Köhler.

He was a remarkably popular president, no doubt about that. But Köhler is remembered these days, out of all things, because he shaped German security debates to an extent he himself did not foresee.

Even by military might

Horst Köhler

It was in 2010 when Köhler was on his way back home after he had visited German troops in Afghanistan when he gave a radio interview. “A country of our size needs to be aware”, he said: “that when called for or in an emergency, military deployment, too, is necessary if we are to protect our interests, such as ensuring free trade routes or preventing regional instabilities which are also certain to negatively impact our ability to safeguard trade, jobs and income.”

There it was. Köhler defined German security interests that are safeguarded even by military might. What to international observers, especially in the security community or for students of international relations seemed obvious was highly unusual for a German politician of his generation, even more so for a president.

Security interests are something smelly, seen even as nasty, maybe backwards in the way politics worked before the times of multilateralism.

For his answer, Köhler got harshly criticised, some commentators even claimed his positions were unconstitutional. He eventually stepped down. But it was his heritage that Germany back then started to discuss its role in international politics and how it can or should project power.

This is a debate that still takes place today, even though times are different with Russia being more assertive, questioning the post-Cold War order and with Donald Trump in the White House. The latter is something that for the psyche of many Germans, who have something like a love-hate relationship with America sometimes seems to be harder to digest than the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Anyhow, the old international order is in decline, a new order has not emerged yet. It is certain that the world of the 21st century will be defined by China as well as by the United States.

What role Europe will play, however, is uncertain, which is also due to the fact that the so-called Berlin Republic has not made up its mind so far. Hence the debates about German power projection.

Seen as a free-rider

Germany is the EU’s biggest player, it is an economic powerhouse in the heart of the continent, an export-oriented country dependent on trade routes from Asia to the Atlantic. But it has no will to be a military power too. The country does not fulfil its obligations in NATO to spend at least two per cent of its GDP on defence and, therefore, by some is seen as a free-rider.

Of course, things are more complicated: Because Germany’s GDP is the biggest in Europe its military expenditure is remarkably high, although it is below the infamous two per cent. The country, too, is a pillar of European defence and an important contributor to NATO and various international organisations.

At the same time, Germany is nothing less than a „reluctant hegemon“, as The Economist labelled the country already in 2013. This is why Berlin is a complicated partner to its neighbours, sometimes unpredictable especially for the countries of Central Eastern Europe (CEE).

In a way the old question of Westbindung is back on the table, meaning former West Germany’s integration from 1949 onwards into economic, political and military structures of Western Europe and Northern America accompanied by a cultural commitment to be part of the West.

This is something Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, had to fight for proving that Germany is not naturally a part of the West. Its latent Anti-Americanism, unstable Transatlanticism, its cultural stubbornness, a secret conviction to be a civilisational space of its own and its hidden or not so hidden romantic relationship with Moscow are demonstrations of exactly that uncertainty.

All of this is closely related to the longing of big parts of the German electorate for military passivity, to become somewhat of a large Switzerland or not to have an army at all – like Costa Rica. This is how Margot Käßmann, a former bishop who led the Evangelical Church in Germany, put it in 2014.

Those words, similar to the at the outset mentioned story of the demission of Horst Köhler are particularly interesting, because Germany, of course, has vital security interests and has made use of military force several times after German reunification. Its military expenditure is even the seventh biggest in the world, with almost 50 billion dollars in 2019.

That does not sound like Switzerland, right? But the rhetoric of its political class most often indeed is quite Swiss or Costa Rican, as you like it.

National interests in disguise

German elites instead prefer an economic language, which, if one has a closer look, is a rhetoric of national interests in disguise. Nobody would doubt that Germany has economic interests. It is Exportweltmeister, export world champion, it is a highly globalised country, depending on global supply chains and open markets, selling cars, hight-tech and other luxury goods in Asia and the Americas and of course in the EU.

The COVID-19 crisis, therefore, hit Germany particularly hard. But tectonic changes in global politics already before this were a massive threat to the German success model. It is no secret that Germany is the beneficiary of a global order it by itself cannot solemnly guarantee – Germany only is strong as a team player within the EU and NATO and together with the US – and nobody knows this better than Angela Merkel. This is the reason, why multilateralism is a golden principle for and a word often used by members of the German government.

This is where CEE comes in. The region, especially the countries of the Visegrad Group (V4) consisting of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, is of great importance to Germany despite political disagreements regarding, for example, the pipeline project Nord Stream 2 or the so-called reform of the judiciary in Poland.

The V4 members together are a more important trading partner to Germany today than China. Berlin has vital economic interests in the region.

Of course, CEE for Germany is a market for its goods, a workforce reservoir, a trading partner, one that increasingly invests in Germany too and whose growth since most of its countries joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 outpaced Germany’s. As economies of countries like Poland or the Czech Republic transform to more service and high-tech Mittelstand economies Germany sees them as equal partners.

The interconnections between Germany and CEE today are the result of a real success story. But this relationship still lacks a clear security policy angle.

A player to reckon with

Stability is what Germany seeks for CEE, a goal that is reached with diplomatic means, but partially with military means too. Since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis, Germany was diplomatically very active to stabilise the situation. This is worth mentioning because for the first time a German government entered a process, which was instantaneously harmful to German economic interests vis-à-vis Russia to reach the political goal of stability for Europe. That this effort could not prevent Moscow from further escalating the conflict is widely known.

But Germany has become a player to reckon with, regarding Ukraine; a likely solution to that conflict in the future will not be possible without Berlin. Since 2017, Germany is the lead nation of a multinational battle group in Lithuania. Its rotational stationing is a reaction to the illegal Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

All of that and the integration efforts of the German army with other armies in the region are dearly noted in Prague or Warsaw. But it is all not enough, Germany is still no real security provider for the region. This is exactly, what is becoming more and more important in times of increasing insecurity, a more aggressive Russia and a decline of multilateral institutions.

Germany’s reluctance is a result of its political culture and the effort to civilise its Prussian heritage of chauvinist militarism. After unspeakable war crimes committed by Germans in Eastern Europe and mass murder in concentration camps, West Germany after 1949 reinvented itself as Friedensmacht. It is a certain irony that because of that Germany today occasionally is seen by its CEE neighbours as an unsound partner.

The slogan „never again“ for example results in opposing politics in Germany and Poland. West of the Oder river it means „never again war“, east of it it means „never again slaughtered“. This dissonance has practical policy consequences, on the one side, they translate into the Friedensmacht concept and the idea to see military capabilities and diplomacy as two separated spheres, on the other side it results into distrust towards bigger partners, namely Germany, a widely positive image of the Polish army and the belief that military readiness is needed in the face of real or hypothetical threats.

Former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski is often quoted saying that he fears the power of Germany less than her inactivity. Sikorski said those words in his Berlin speech in 2011, but still today many Germans have not grasped its significance.

Deeply insecure country

Germany today is a country that has stepped out of its role of a sole security consumer though. For decades it could prosper under a US umbrella and is now prompted to be a security provider itself. But it is a deeply insecure country that does intensive soul searching instead of asking, what its responsibility is and how its partners eastwards see its role.

The recent debate about nuclear sharing is exactly an example of that. By demanding to exit the programme and to send US nuclear weapons back home the leadership of the Social Democrats (SPD), Merkel’s coalition partner, jeopardises Germany’s influence in NATO and would do serious harm to security in CEE already by causing damage to NATO deterrence, politically.

The only way to explain this approach is by the means of internal party dynamics. Moreover, there are no rational reasons for having this debate with regards to international politics. It does not matter if the concept of nuclear sharing will be a thing three, five or ten years from now. The damage to Germany’s reliability in CEE is done, as it is by projects like Nord Stream 2.

Germany has to define its interests in CEE, its security interests too in order to provide security and become a better partner for the region. Until then countries like Poland, Lithuania or Ukraine have to deal with an ambivalent friend, a friend though that is their only destiny.

This is because Germany has – like it or not – vital economic interests in the region, which, until now, was beneficial for most parts for all CEE countries too. There is criticism of Germany’s role in CEE since the 1990s in terms of foreign direct investments, the brain-drain towards the West and the partially failed transformation of sections of the industry. All those are valid points seen in a different, a more ambiguous light than ten or fifteen years ago.

There is in Poland, Hungary or the Czech Republic a re-nationalisation trend and parts of the political elite are challenging European integration, globalisation and in that context Germany’s influence. But even Czech Prime Minister Andrej Babiš or the leaders of Poland’s PiS party see to what extent economic integration with Germany was beneficial for their countries.

Russia and China

Besides that German foreign policy might be complicated for some, even unpredictable, but at the same time, there are serious attempts by Berlin’s political establishment to be transparent and fair towards CEE – one cannot say that about the former imperialist power in the East: Russia. Moscow has proven to be a far more complicated partner than Germany, a dangerous, belligerent country, not even a partner, for obvious reasons.

China clearly is unreliable and it is still unclear what the policy goals of the new superpower in the region are. The so-called 17+1 initiative is a format of which governments of the region are sceptical towards. We simply do not know to what extend Beijing will translate its economic might into political postulations or demands.

But China’s methods are to be seen already in Prague, where city mayor Zdeněk Hřib is under pressure for not cooperating with Chinese authorities as they wish or in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orban voted against an EU declaration, likely because of Beijing’s influence.

America is far away, on the other side of the Atlantic, and has a relatively low intensity of economic interconnectivity with the countries of the region.

Although Washington has stepped up its military commitment to partners like Poland by sending additional troops to the country, nobody knows what’s next under erratic President Donald Trump. His „America first“ is a promise that in the end might mean a pullback of American military and investment out of regions to which the US once provided security and stability.

Provide partners with a vision

That leaves us with Germany. Stability in CEE is in its core interest – which is a card the countries of the region need to play. To become a guarantor of stability and security for the region Germany has not only to define its economic interests but also its security and ideological interests, which is to say: it has to provide its partners with a vision of what the next decade or two are going to look like for the EU and especially for the EU’s East.

Germany’s security policy community is actively discussing the country’s role, which in some respect is a good sign. Jan Techau, Head of Speechwriting at the German Ministry of Defense, together with Leon Mangasarian introduced the concept of dienendes Führen, servant leadership, already in 2017. It means that Germany has to partially sacrifice its short-term hard power goals in order to take one for the team.

The Ukraine crisis was and is an example of that, the corona crisis maybe is going to be another one. Servant leadership is a soft power concept and a way to build up trust, something that is particularly difficult and even more necessary for Germany in CEE, because of its difficult history.

Despite all the irritation and muddle because of the request to get rid of the old concept of nuclear sharing, Nord Stream 2 and for sure there is more to come. Despite all that, Germany is CEE’s best option. Now Berlin has to enter a dialogue with the region on security policy to become a provider of it and to establish a modus operandi that is mutually beneficial – together with CEE and including a transatlantic partnership as soon as Washington is ready again.

There are still people in the American capital that see the importance of a partnership with Europe; they understand that international politics is not equal to business deals. It would be misguided and silly to exclude America from a discussion on European security in spite of the irritations and at times discrepancies of recent years.

For Germany, while CEE is more than a mere buffer zone, it is also a realm of cultural and economic interconnections by a margin nobody expected a few years ago. That has to be understood in Berlin and, too, in the capitols of the region.



Editor’s note:

On 4 June, Philipp Fritz moderated a transatlantic Visegrad Insight Breakfast discussion with Carlo Masala, full professor for International Politics at the Bundeswehr University Munich, our editorial team and invited participants on Germany’s perspective on Central and Eastern European security and the future of Europe. Watch it below:


This article is part of the #DemocraCE project.

Philipp Fritz is a foreign correspondent for German WELT and WELT AM SONNTAG based in Warsaw. He reports from Central Eastern Europe, first and foremost from Poland, but also from Ukraine, the Baltic countries and the Czech Republic. Before Philipp started reporting for WELT he worked for different German media companies, his texts were published amongst others in Die Zeit, Tageszeitung, Berliner Zeitung or Frankfurter Rundschau. (Photo Credit: Grayson Lauffenburger)

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

Visegrad Insight is published by the Res Publica Foundation. This special edition has been prepared in cooperation with the German Marshall Fund of the United States and supported by the International Visegrad Fund.

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