Constanze Stelzenmüller wrote earlier this year that “history is not destiny.” It’s a phrase she believes applies to many aspects of contemporary European foreign and security policy and the future of the European Union.
Stelzenmüller, who will speak at 10:45 a.m. today in the Amphitheater, is a senior fellow in the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. She was previously a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and her journalistic work has appeared in a range of American and European newspapers and magazines.
Born and educated in Germany, Stelzenmüller sees Germany’s relations with the U.S. and Russia in a transactional, evolutionary phase. From her German perspective, recent years’ Wikileaks revelations have certainly been a distraction for relations with America, but “this must be seen in perspective.”
“From an intelligence perspective, West Germany was the playground of foreign intelligence services for decades after the Second World War,” she said. “The German and U.S. services were extraordinarily close, despite the ‘original sin’ of American services recruiting ex-Nazi intelligence officers.”
On a pragmatic level, she said, the two nations must cooperate, and that will continue, “though there is an embarrassment factor. Politics can be theater in the U.S., so public posturing and polls can be taken with a grain of salt” at times.
“The U.S. took a hit in German public opinion after Wikileaks, but German views of the U.S. were sliding anyway over the Iraq war, which Germans did not believe was legitimate,” she said. “Germans felt differently about the Afghan war in the context of 9/11.”
The U.S. role in rebuilding post-war Germany after 1945 under the Marshall Plan is widely regarded as one of the finest examples in history of America’s positive world influence and potential, and Stelzenmüller acknowledges this.
“Until about 10 years ago, for my generation, U.S.-German relations were cozy, necessary and co-dependent,” she said. “Now, after the Iraq War and Wikileaks and other episodes, it has become more transactional, and thus more rational. I lived for four years in the U.S. as a diplomatic brat and went to grad school there. I still work in America. The U.S. and Germany need each other. But we’re now in a more mature relationship: Don’t take anything for granted. I think that’s healthy.”
Stelzenmüller notices two Germanys on the world stage.
“There’s the good Germany, holding together the European Union on sanctions against Russia’s misbehavior on Ukraine and other issues,” she said. “But there’s also the bad Germany, castigating Greece over their fiscal irresponsibility.”
Well acquainted with leading journalists in Washington, New York and in Germany, Stelzenmüller feels they are still reliable in writing about the transatlantic relationship, even if U.S. headlines reference Germany on the front pages much less frequently than in the past.
German relations with Russia were a touchstone of modern diplomatic history until the cataclysmic events of 1989-90 when Germany was reunited amid the rubble of the collapsing Soviet Union. For the previous 140 years, German economic influence in Eastern Europe accompanied the evolution of the modern Russian empire as the two rising European powerhouses eyed each other warily.
Germany was always at the heart of the 45-year Cold War between the Western NATO alliance and the Soviet bloc. German-Russian mutual suspicion and wariness has only intensified in the past 18 months.
“Russo-German relations right now are pretty bad,” Stelzenmüller said. “For a long time, the German government thought they could use economics to bring Russia into Europe on Western terms. And for Russia, Germany represented a bridgehead into Europe. All that has been scrapped now. I understand that Russian President Vladimir Putin needs foreign distractions to divert his own public from the sagging Russian economy, but I think Putin paid a phenomenally high strategic price for annexing Crimea and continuing to be a bad actor in Ukraine.”
Germany, because of its economy, is less vulnerable to Russian pressure than most of Europe, she said. There’s a growing German strategic confidence and waning influence of the U.K. and France, “Germany becomes the leader of European response to an increasingly bellicose Russia,” Stelzenmüller said.
At the same time, she said the Russians have been badly misreading German thinking.
“The Russians are thinking, ‘I know [the Germans] have to say these bad things about us, but meet me at the bar later and we’ll work it all out like we have been doing,’ ” she said. “The Russians don’t seem to realize German condemnation of their belligerence is quite genuine. In Berlin, Putin is regarded as potentially very dangerous for Europe. I realize that, for many reasons — including geography — the U.S. can categorize Russia as a ‘regional power.’ ”
But that’s not an option for Europeans, Stelzenmüller said. They don’t “have the luxury of selective engagement.”
“Germans see the menace from Russia,” she said. “The German defense budget has just risen by 6 percent, and there was no public protest. This would have been unthinkable at almost any other time in the past 70 years. Also, recent Russian misbehavior has had a galvanizing effect on NATO.”
Stelzenmüller wants Americans to realize there has been a “tectonic plate shift” in German attitudes toward Russia in recent years.
“I know the U.S. Congress and public opinion are almost reflexively introverted,” she said. “But what is happening in Central Europe is worth paying attention to.”