German Diplomacy: Reckless or Clever?

From Yugoslavia to Ukraine, Berlin has often opened crises that the United States must step in to resolve. It might be foolishness. It might also be Machiavellian brilliance.

Since the collapse of the Berlin War and the reunification of Germany in 1990, a lingering debate has been taking place in Berlin and in other Western capitals about the role that the Germany would or should play on the world stage in the post–Cold War era.

Officials and pundits have stressed that Germany needs to become a “normal” international power and start exerting influence that is commensurate with its enormous economic might. According to the conventional wisdom, unless Berlin embraces a more activist foreign policy and employs its political and military power to advance its interests and values, it is destined to become a bigger Switzerland, its national security dependent on decisions made by its Western allies and its Russian neighbor.

But while the “new” Germany has clearly emerged as the economic engine of the European Union, it has yet to proclaim a coherent post–Cold War foreign-policy doctrine. Instead, Berlin has maintained a somewhat manic-depressive posture, making in some instances critical decisions have had dramatic impact on international developments while in other instances adopting a more passive stand by responding to outside pressures.

In fact, chronicles of the wars of succession in the former Yugoslavia tend to ignore the important role that Germany had played in the events leading to the civil war there, when it decided to recognize Croatian and Slovenian independence in December 1991, which in turn led to the eruption of the war.

The German decision to recognize those two separatist governments was followed by an active diplomatic campaign led by then German foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher to press the then European Community (EC) to recognize Croatia and Slovenia, leading to the December 15, 1991 decision of by the EC members to recognize their independence.

Critics of German policy at the time argued that the decisions by Genscher were made without consultations with Britain and France, not to mention Washington that favored a more cautious response to the declaration of independence by Croatia and Slovenia. The Serbs and their supporters went even further, bashing the “Fourth Reich” for pursuing Germany’s WWII goals—dismembering Yugoslavia and providing support for an independent Croatia.

In any case, even proponents of Germany policy at the time agree that at the minimum, the German drive to recognize Slovenia and Croatia was taken despite the fact that Germany did not have the political-military muscle to pay for the costs that such policy would produce.

The United States and its NATO allies, including a small German military contingency, ended up paying the diplomatic and military costs. In fact, the NATO military intervention almost led at one point to a military confrontation between the West and Russia.

“The essential flaw in German policy was of course that Germany herself could not really contribute to an implementation of the policies that logically flowed from her own attitude; namely, to the protection, by military means if necessary, of the smaller Yugoslav republics and nations against Serb aggression,” concluded Michael Libal, then the head of the Southeast European Department of the German Foreign Ministry, in Limits of Persuasion, a study of German policy toward Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.

Yet in retrospect, the German policy seemed to benefit German long-term interests by drawing the United States, which at the time was reassessing its post-Cold War military commitments in Europe and considering shifting its attention to East Asia, into a geopolitical trap of sorts, leaving it no other choice but to spend its resources in a conflict that had only limited impact on U.S. interests while affecting Germany interests more directly.

In a way, the German diplomatic modus operandi in the events leading to the current Ukraine crisis recalls its policies towards Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Once again, a Germany-led EU makes the critical diplomatic move, this time by inviting Ukraine to sign a new cooperation agreement, without pondering the consequences of such an action.

If in 1991 Germany failed to assess the possible Serbian response and the ensuing war in Yugoslavia, this time the EU decision was depicted as bureaucratic decision affecting economic relations, without any assessment of the expected Russian reaction and its impact on the stability in Europe and the potential for a confrontation between Moscow and the West.

And once again, the EU under German pressure made the move despite skepticism by Britain and France, and at time when German officials were expressing their intention of pursuing a more activist diplomacy and the United States is in the process of refocusing its attention on China and East Asia while cooperating with Moscow on several fronts, including Syria and Iran.

So while on the surface the Germany approach may be seen as another example of irresponsible German free riding, of pursuing policies whose costs are going to fall on the shoulders on the United States, one wonders whether the Germans are playing here a more cunning diplomatic game.

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