“National Interests – Orientation for German and European Politics in Times of Global Upheaval”

Klaus von Dohnanyi’s plea for a change of political course

by Winfried Pogorzelski

In his book published before the Ukraine war, the former SPD politician Klaus von Dohnanyi (born 1928), formerly active i.a. in the Ministries of Economics and Foreign Affairs of the Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt governments, pleads for an orientation of politics towards fundamental national and European interests. The European states, he notices, are too different in terms of their history and culture to be able to grow together into a homogeneous European Union, which in any case runs the risk of being instrumentalised by the USA for its world and power political plans. Europe’s most important real chance lies in becoming a competitive economic power. He took a critical stance on Germany’s current Ukraine policy in interviews.

Since 24 February, events have been unfolding at a rapid pace. The book already seems like a relic from times past, but it shows all the more which opportunities were missed and why, to make the world safer and more peaceful with different political decisions.

The nation state as a foundation, especially in the relationship with the great powers

Klaus von Dohnanyi argues for a clear commitment to the “democratic nation-state” (p. 149f.), because only this – in contrast to an association of states such as the European Union – is fully legitimised by free elections and the separation of powers. As such, he says, it is obliged to act with its institutions in the interest of the population; because it is responsible for their well-being and for ensuring that the chances of a secure future and general prosperity are intact. Be they democracies or dictatorships.
  The great power that most influences the decisions on our continent and those of the nation states with its interests and political measures is the USA. They dominate Europe in terms of foreign and security policy, which has considerable consequences for the nation states: They are drawn into conflicts between the USA and other great powers and have to face the decisions that set the course, whether these are in their interest or not.
  Traditional North American policy, he says, is to impose its system on other states as the only blissful one, without regard to history and mentality – be it with sanctions or military force – usually with the result that exactly the opposite is produced of what one wants to avoid: a strengthening of authoritarian political systems. Here, too, the interests of affected states are not taken into account (p. 73).

For a good neighbourhood with Europeanised Russia

The author doubts that Russia has an interest in expanding towards the West; there is no evidence of this. On the other hand, he can understand that for Russia, NATO expansion to the East is “the most irritating issue in Western policy towards Eastern Europe” (p. 65), all the more so because the then US Secretary of State James Baker had assured Mikhail Gorbachev that he would refrain from NATO expansion to the East. This fact, as Dohnanyi demonstrates in detail, was the basis for the talks between Helmut Kohl and Mikhail Gorbachev, who, “on the basis of the US promise, gave” the West and “then also Kohl approval for monetary union – and thus for reunification –” (p. 67). US President George H. W. Bush disagreed with Baker and retracted his promise with the pithy words: “To hell with it. We came out on top, they didn’t. We cannot allow the Soviets to snatch victory from the claws of defeat and thus turn defeat into victory at the last minute” (pp. 68f.). For the author it is clear that the USA thus missed the greatest opportunity to ensure lasting peace in Europe.
  Since 1990 and until today, the policy of the West under the leadership of the USA towards Russia has been confrontational without reason. Diplomacy, on the other hand, was needed to protect the security interests of Central Europe, Russia’s neighbour. Instead, NATO’s eastward expansion has been pushed forward, thus poisoning relations with Russia and dragging Europe into conflicts with other great powers (p. 72).
  In addition, he says, the USA sees itself as an “exceptional nation” that feels called upon to push other countries and ultimately the whole world towards democracy in the conviction that this will make the world a safer place. Opponents of this imperialist policy were already confronted with Theodor Roosevelt (1858-1919), who roundly defamed them as “futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type” who exhibited “a flabby type of character which eats away at the great fighting features of our race.” (p. 74).

USA and Europe – a community of values with cracks

This policy is concealed by the much-vaunted Western community of values, which for Dohnanyi consists only of the common features of universal suffrage, freedom of the press and democracy. With regard to the responsibility of the individual citizen for his or her future, the extreme gap between rich and poor and the private financing of political parties, the differences are considerable, he notes. Even some US scholars speak of “plutocratic democracy”. And Presidents Bill Clinton and Donald Trump had been able to afford offences that, if committed by a German prime minister, would immediately lead to impeachment.
  There are also serious differences when it comes to international law: “Because US citizens are obviously something better than the citizens of other states” (p. 77), Dohnanyi smugly remarks. The great power just refuses recognition to the Hague Tribunal and even threatens with sanctions if one of its citizens should be called to account. At the same time, it is not afraid to undertake one intervention after another in violation of international law. And one rubs one’s eyes: American law even permits the murder of persons (“targeted killing”) if they are seen as a danger to the security of the USA (p. 77).
  Sanctions, i.e., economic warfare, are also part of the arsenal of US foreign policy. They are used when other methods seem unsuitable or too risky. Yet they are usually of little or no use, as Dohnanyi shows with the example of the Uyghur problem in China. On the contrary: the affected states react stubbornly, and above all the population of the affected states is harmed, which is why they are also illegal under international law. It is to the author’s credit that he clearly states these facts, when at the moment all German politicians are competing to see who can make himself the fastest and most unconditional accomplice of US policy!

Is Europe protected by NATO or a potential theatre of war?

After Dohnanyi’s astonishingly naive appreciation of the merit of the “non-European hegemon” (p. 90) USA in freeing Europe from outbreaks of violence and wars - most recently “through its saving intervention in the Balkan war” (ibid.) – he also names the high price, namely the loss of Europe’s sovereignty through the USA’s assumption of responsibility for the continent’s security. In concrete terms, this means that in the event of an exchange of blows between the USA and Russia, Europe would be the theatre of war where nuclear weapons could also be used – without any risk to the USA, of course.
  Thus, for the author, the question arises whether Europe could become sovereign as a military power, for example, to defend itself against the great power Russia. General de Gaulle had already envisaged a European defence power independent of NATO, in which France, as a nuclear land power and permanent member of the UN Security Council, could claim a leading role.
  Today, Dohnanyi sees an obstacle to this concept in the diversity of Europe, which also consists of the most varied interests of the countries. A common security policy is possible, he says, but not a common defence policy. The talks initiated by Angela Merkel and Emanuel Macron with Russia were successful and led to the Minsk agreements. Germany and France – he recommends – should continue to move forward and pursue an active peace policy by remaining in dialogue with Russia in the interest of Germany and Europe.

Astute German or European Ostpolitik as security policy? Not at all!

Once again, Dohnanyi criticises the eastward expansion of the military alliance under US leadership. In the meantime, he says, this policy had been criticised by such prominent minds as Zbigniew Brzezinski, security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, and Williams Burns, former US ambassador to Russia and current head of the CIA. These steps had nothing to do with an astute European peace policy for the good of the European continent. It would have been possible to offer Ukraine security even without joining NATO, that is via the two Minsk agreements. But Ukraine had not been moving on this issue for years, and the United States had never been interested in any progress in this process.
  Klaus von Dohnanyi refers to the courage of Mikhail Gorbachev, whom the West should take as a model: there is a need for fresh thinking. At the end of 2021, he was still placing his hopes in the new federal government, made up of members of the SPD and FDP, whose task it was to “preserve a valuable common heritage from the 1970s and 1980s and to breathe new life into it.” “After all, both parties have a great tradition of successful Ostpolitik, which they could now [...] bring to mind. In doing so, the new government should convey to the U.S. that its ‘bridgehead’ on the European continent will be all the more welcome if the US pushes for a détente in relations with Russia.” (p. 111)
  Dohnanyi anticipated the danger of the worst possible turn of events when writing the book. This turn has occurred, indeed, and all hopes have given way to total disillusionment: Germany’s and Europe’s once astute Ostpolitik is in ruins, and moreover, the new government – led by Minister for the Economy and Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, both from the previously pacifist Green Party – is standing toe-to-toe and blindly follows the US bellicose policy with sanctions against Russia and arms deliveries to Ukraine.

The European Union and its prospects

In addition, the author comments in detail on the EU and its structural and economic peculiarities. Her states that militarily, the EU is neither able nor willing to play a decisive role by international standards. Therefore, the goal must be “a neutral stance towards any alliances” (p. 119). For those unable to defend themselves alone against a more powerful nation, the safest way is to refrain from intervening in conflicts of the larger nations.
  On the other hand, the diversity of cultural, scientific and economic capabilities is unique in the world. Europe demonstrates strength and competence in terms of climate and environmental protection, while at the same time maintaining social harmony. However, some economic indicators show that the USA and China are still ahead of Europe, e.g. with regard to the foundation of new large companies in the last 25 years; the Economist diagnoses that the continent has “lost its entrepreneurial ambition [...]” and “the most important reason for Europe’s falling behind in global competition” is probably “a misguided policy of the European community” (p. 163).
  In terms of foreign policy, the author especially focuses on Germany: The policy of “change through rapprochement,” as started by Willy Brandt and Egon Bahr and always rejected by the US, led to reunification under Helmut Kohl. This policy is still a diplomatic model today, not only for Germany, but also for the EU in shaping its relations with the world powers.

On the Ukraine-war

In the ARD TV talk show “Maischberger” (11 May 2022), the 94-year-old steadfastly resisted all attempts by the moderator to paint a negative picture of Vladimir Putin. With good reason, the latter had been insisting for a long time and again that Ukraine not become a member of NATO. The West, first and foremost the United States, imposed sanctions on Russia and turned a deaf ear. “What is important to you will not be the subject of negotiation,” has always been Joe Biden’s attitude toward Russia. The possibility of preventing an escalation of the conflict had been clearly in the hands of the West, in the hands of the USA, which, contrary to all warnings – including from its domestic ranks – kept on disregarding Russia’s interests and thus making the Kremlin’s efforts to negotiate a dead end.
  The book is highly meritorious: for the author is a responsible former politician reflecting on the future of Germany and Europe; he draws on his rich political experience, on his study of history and on his reading of publications by numerous experts and contemporary witnesses. He encourages the Germans to free themselves from political dependence on the United States and to work with partners on the Eurasian continent toward reconciliation and cooperation in order to approach the goal of stable peaceful coexistence and economic exchange. He hopes for “political courage and the patience to debate extensively” (p. 224), including and especially in parliament.
  The elder statesman Klaus von Dohnanyi certainly thinks in longer-term time stages. So far, his wish has not come true; but every responsible politician is advised not to set his admonishing words at naught.  •

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