Fritz Stern on US-German Relations

Scott Horton interviews Fritz Stern in Harper’s:

German-American relations have seen their ups and downs over the last fifty years—I can still remember Helmut Schmidt complaining bitterly about Jimmy Carter’s unpredictability—but I can’t remember a time when German confidence in its trans-Atlantic ally was ever quite as low as this. Recently we even had Schmidt suggesting in an interview with ‘Die Zeit’ that given the choice between the Bush White House and the Putin Kremlin, the latter seemed safer and more predictable. A shocking statement. Do you see an easy path to the restoration of good relations between Berlin and Washington once George W. Bush is gone? What do you see as the flashpoints for the relationship now?

[Stern:] I doubt that the bilateral relationship on the governmental level will ever be as close again as it was during the cold war or even as it was right after September 11. Germany has to consider its European links and, increasingly, its links to Russia and Asia. The prerequisite to better relations would have to be the de facto abandonment of American unilateralism.

[h/t Koch]

16 thoughts on “Fritz Stern on US-German Relations

  1. “Recently we even had Schmidt suggesting in an interview with ‘Die Zeit’ that given the choice between the Bush White House and the Putin Kremlin, the latter seemed safer and more predictable.”

    omg. Did Schmidt really say (and mean) that? Can anyone point me to the Zeit-Interview?


  2. “Safer and more predictable” under the present administration. Perhaps.

    That said, after reading about the last elections in Russia, as well as various strong-arm attempts to silence opposition, including murder of dissenting journalists, I wonder if seeds are being sown in Russia that will bear unpleasant fruit in the near future.

    Schmidt may live to view things a bit differently.


  3. Herr Schmidt does not seem to regard Russia’s destruction of Chechnya as a threat to ‘world peace’ – but the US invasion of Iraq is.

    It’s a strange POV given that the Russians are far less accomomodating to world public opinion than the US is, and the Russians are given to pushing their smaller neighbors about – which the US does very little of. We have our tensions with Mexico and even Canada, granted, but not on the level of Russia’s relations with Poland or the Ukraine.

    Nevertheless I can see Herr Schmidt’s POV, I believe. In the Schmidt worldview Iraq is a sovereign country which the US invaded – and Chechnya (and presumably Poland, the Baltic countries, Ukraine, Armenia, etc, etc, etc) are merely unruly provinces of thr Soviet empire. So What Russia does to Chechnya, Poland, the Ukraine, etc) are Russia’s own internal affair and none of the business of the outside world, but Iraq is a threat to everyone.


  4. “That said, after reading about the last elections in Russia, as well as various strong-arm attempts to silence opposition, including murder of dissenting journalists, I wonder if seeds are being sown in Russia that will bear unpleasant fruit in the near future.”

    Shame on you, Paul! ALL those things are the internal business of the Soviet (er I mean Russian) empire (er I mean state). None of your or my business. Iraq is the concern of everyone, especially Germany and Russia.


  5. Personally I agree with Herr Schmidt. If for example Russia takes steps to bring the states of the former Warsaw Pact back into line (Poland, Germany, etc) the US should ignore it and treat it as an internal matter for the Russian Empire. None of our business.


  6. Andrew, the part you quoted is a bit misleading without context:

    ZEIT: Finden Sie das überraschend?
    Schmidt: Jedenfalls ist der Fortschritt seit Jelzin enorm. Wladimir Putin würde nach meiner Vermutung bei einer echten Volksabstimmung zwischen 70 und 80 Prozent Zustimmung erhalten.
    ZEIT: Auch wenn er die Opposition nicht so unterdrücken ließe, wie er es jetzt tut?
    Schmidt: Das war in Russland nie anders.
    ZEIT: Finden Sie das tröstlich, dass es nie anders war?
    Schmidt: Nein. Aber Russland ist seit Iwan dem Schrecklichen in seiner ganzen Geschichte immer autoritär regiert worden – und im Verhältnis dazu ist das gegenwärtige Regime glimpflich.
    ZEIT: Wenigstens sagen Sie nicht, dass Putin ein lupenreiner Demokrat ist.
    Schmidt: Das wäre auch Unfug. Putin ist kein Demokrat, aber er ist ein aufgeklärter Potentat. Leider fühlt er sich von der amerikanischen Regierung in keiner Weise ernst genommen.
    ZEIT: Ist das gefährlich für den Weltfrieden?
    SChmidt: Nein, für den Frieden der Welt geht von Russland heute viel weniger Gefahr aus als etwa von Amerika. Das können Sie ruhig so drucken.

    See also Helmut Schmidt: “Gibt keinen Anlass, Russland und China zu misstrauen” for his position.


  7. Putin does have his good sides. He has a sense of humor, for one. And whether you agree with his policies or not, he has the majority support of the Russian people.

    Yet I find it grotesque to see SPD politicians like Schroeder, after selling out to Gazprom, call Putin a “flawless democrat.”

    That’s a crass example not generally applicable to the SPD. But here we have Mr. Schmidt, a far more discerning politician than Schroeder, passing lightly over Putin’s abuses of power: Putin, the “enlightened potentate”? While slipping the knife, as has become de rigueur in SPD circles, into the side of the U.S. government?

    This from a man claiming to be a friend and admirer of Karl Popper and the Open Society?


  8. The funny thing is that the same US right-wingers who would gladly tout the slogan “Give War a Chance” scoff with utmost indignation when they hear someone called the United States a “threat to world peace.”

    But one must face this fact: There is a great acceptance in the US to use military power to enforce American strategic interests world-wide, even if international consensus cannot be reached. This coincides with an extraordinarily strong military that is trained to be deployable world-wide on short notice. Why would anybody in the world think “Oh, who cares – it’s the Americans, so they’ll only use it for good”?

    And who cares about this elusive thing called world peace? To no small part it’s pacifists, i.e. people who will have a far greater tendency to choose peace over democracy and freedom if these had to be enforced by war than the political mainstream in the US. Why would anybody not expect such people to view the US as a threat to world peace?

    Whether it’s a greater threat than Russia – well, the idea here, I think, is that the Russian military ability is severely limited at the moment.


  9. It is funny that we should mostly comment on the
    interview quoted in the interview quoted in this blog.
    I will do the same anyway, though Stern’s
    book seems interesting.

    I have to admit that I am startled by Schmidt’s statements. At least, I think I understand his main point: Russia is not necessarily the
    enemy-by-default as the Soviet Union used to be.
    Many people associate the same thoughts with
    today’s Russia as they did with the SU;
    and this must be wrong at least half of the time.
    Russia needs the West to trade with,
    or even to con.
    This is an egoistic, but of course much less aggressive relation than in Cold War days.

    Personally to me, it feels quite, um, uncomfortable
    to have a powerful country reigned by an artful
    autocrat around so close.
    However, in all likelihood we can’t help it.

    We could allege that the Russians are overestimating themselves, and ignore their
    new-gained power. But illusion seldom does any good.
    I certainly was simple for European politicians
    in the 90s that they had to take only the American and their own positions into accout.
    But these times have gone past,
    and neither will be as simple again as in the
    Cold War with its clear-cut dichotomy of the
    developped countries.


  10. Sebastian, World peace, yes, but even at the cost of freedom and democracy? Would you really want to live in a totalitarian society, ruled over by an “enlightened despot”? Hasn’t history shown that such societies, like the Third Reich, carry within themselves the seeds not only of their own destruction but, unfortunately, of neighboring nations as well? Can peace exist long without freedom and democracy?

    That said, the nationalist and militarist trends in the U.S. do worry me, an American, as they do very many other Americans. Among others, I find these televised Leni-Riefenstahl choreographed displays of G.W. Bush standing in front of rows of soldiers deeply troubling, not to mention the inherent hypocrisy of a man who evaded duty in Vietnam and is now exalting military ideals for reasons of political expediency.

    Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial establishment has never been more relevant. And McCarthy must be laughing from his grave.

    So, Sebastian, you’re right to criticize the aggressive, militarist impulses, the readiness to use armed force, even at risk to civilian populations, of the U.S. government.

    Yet to say that the U.S. is a threat to world peace seems more than a little exaggerated. I see it differently. On balance, the world would be in a much worse predicament today without the U.S. I would even say that many of its interventions, including military, have upheld the peace, not endangered it. Passivity invites aggression; this is a fact of human nature that even a pacifist cannot afford to ignore. If the Americans had not stationed troops in Germany, Soviet tanks would have poured through the Fulda Gap. If Hussein had not been opposed, he would have moved on to Saudi Arabia and eliminated Israel. And so on….

    But to return to the subject of this thread… Schmidt’s characterization of Putin as an “enlightened despot” (the more idiomatic translation, by the way), to my ears, sounds more like praise than condemnation. “Despot” I would agree with, but not “enlightened.”

    Perhaps it’s the case with Schmidt, as with many others, that he subscribes to the theory that Russians, owing to their “inherently servile character,” require the strong hand of a despot to keep them in line. Is democracy, the Open Society, too good for Russians? I think not–I think this is at best an elitist, at worst a racist, line of thinking.

    When I hear some of Germany’s leading politicians fall over themselves in their haste to praise Putin, I wonder if discussions, like this one, about the politico-ethical aspect miss the mark entirely. The Russians have the natural resources that Germany so desperately needs…. In the end, this may all just be about natural gas and Euros. Not about world peace or any other political or moral ideal.

    In the end we may all be left with disillusionment… not necessarily a bad thing.


  11. @anonymous:
    I don’t hink Sebastian was refering to himself when stating that pacifists are “people who will have a far greater tendency to choose peace over democracy and freedom if these had to be enforced by war”, or am I wrong?


  12. @ Martin Sommerfeld

    After re-reading Sebastian’s e-mail, it’s now not clear to me, either, whether he was referring to himself or not as a pacifist, so I’ll leave it up to him to clarify.


  13. I wouldn’t call myself a pacifist, but aside from radical pacifists who will denounce all forms of violence or force, no matter what the cost, it’s mostly not a black-or-white thing. Surely I wouldn’t want to live in a “totalitarian society,” but I don’t want to die either. So I value peace as a good thing for its own sake, which also means that it is sometimes better to endure infractions of civil rights for the sake of peace. How exactly to strike this balance is a question where people will have different opinions; pacifists will usually lean towards the side where peace preponderates, while militant freedom lovers will cry “liberté ou mort!” The United States, viewed as a whole, is not very close to what one would call a pacifist stance.

    But that there’s a balance to be struck somewhere is only common sense, I think. However, in the current political climate in the US even this is not so simple – because of the Iraq war. Even if the US will somehow manage to establish a peace between the various factions there and install a somewhat liberal and democratic regime, it won’t be a perfect free and open society. It will without doubt be a meagre result. But it will have been bought at a price in human lives and property that is so extremely high that it will be very hard to justify it.

    By the way, it should be noted that war is not always the only alternative to despotism. People often point to the example of Nazism in Germany, but why does nobody ever point to the Regime of the Colonels in Greece, for example, or to Falangist Spain? Both were more or less suppressive regimes that went away without much bloodshed, and certainly without military intervention (and indeed in both cases the regime had a friend in Washington). That they lasted as long as they did was certainly sad for those who were tortured or murdered or otherwise had to suffer under them; but all that even the most violent war could have achieved would have been to cut the deplorable conditions short a few years or months.


  14. “How exactly to strike this balance….”

    Precisely. How? So many gray areas in this life of imperfection and approximation. The paradox of pacifism is that it sometimes invites violence. A balance must be struck. But where is not so easy.

    After a revelatory reading of Gandhi, I became a pacifist in my adolescence. As I grew older, my initial pacifism became tied increasingly to conditions and qualifications. It has faded considerably, but still exists, like the markings on a worn coin.

    Either I have betrayed my better beliefs or become a more mature realist.

    The point Gandhi made about means and ends still convinces me. Peace cannot be gained by war alone. You cannot spread peace and democracy at the point of the gun. That’s the insanity of Iraq. The price in human lives doesn’t justify this war. (Even from the point of view of the coldest military analyst it doesn’t make strategic sense).

    The American mainstream is most certainly not pacifist. There are many Americans who oppose the war and their numbers are growing, though.

    At the moment, a popular car bumper sticker in the U.S. reads simply: “01/20/09”–meaning, hang on, Bush’s days are numbered.


  15. The same judgement about Russia they have repeated over and over about South Korea too. That it never had democracy, that there was no tradition. The journalists and analysts visiting the country could not see the change behind the violent demonstrations until 1987.
    The difference is that Russia has no democratical uprising now, but that does not mean that it will/could not happen.
    And for the Germans who made a deal with Stalin in 1939 they are responsible for Eastern Europe and the statehood there too, Don.


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