Why We Need A New Transatlantic Ostpolitik

By Ronald Asmus

Russia is back, not as the democratic partner we had hoped for, but as an increasingly authoritarian actor eager to advance its own values and interests abroad. AP panelist Ronald D. Asmus calls for a new transatlantic Eastern Policy in Die Zeit on February 1, 2007.

It is time for a debate across the Atlantic about a new Eastern policy. The Russia we face today is a different one than what we hoped for. EU and NATO policy toward an enlarged Europe’s new neighborhood needs to be rethought. And the United States and Europe need to get their act together on energy policy. With leadership changes coming up in Paris, London and Washington, the time is ripe to get out our laptops and debate the framework for a new policy.

Historically, there is no area where the United States and Europe have worked more closely and accomplished more historically – both during the Cold War as well as in the 1990s. Americans and Germans do often have different policy impulses. Americans have traditionally been more committed to democratic transformation — in part because we are more powerful, more distant and have a different foreign policy ethos. Germany – weaker, closer, more dependent on Russian energy and burdened by history – errs on the side of stability. But if we can’t bridge differences like these, what can we do together?

To be sure, Berlin is less dependent on Washington today. And one legacy of the Schroeder era was the re-legitimation of an old and discredited foreign policy tradition of pursuing unilateral special relations in the East to give it more room for maneuver in the West. But a Germany that seeks its own bilateral relationship with Moscow will drive its neighbors to form a counter-coalition to block it. This it is why many diplomats today – and not just from Central and Eastern Europe – are quietly seeking American counsel. If on the other hand, Washington and Berlin find common ground, it is likely to be acceptable across the EU as well.

So what should a new Ostpolitik consist of? We must start by acknowledging that Russia is back — but not as the confident, democratic and pro-Western partner we had hoped for. Instead it has become as an illiberal, increasingly authoritarian state driven by a form of Eurasian petro-nationalism that is using its growing power to assert its own values and interests abroad.

It is of course not impossible in principle to have good relations with an illiberal Russia. We cooperate with plenty of dictators around the world. And there is a long list of issues and crisis where the West could use Russian help. The potential areas and issues where we need Russian cooperation is probably greater today than at any time in the recent past, especially with regard to the increasingly unstable Middle East stretching across Europe’s and Russia’s southern border.

The issue is behavior. This is where we see the worrying link between illiberalism at home and its geopolitical goals abroad. As Moscow has turned away form democracy at home, it has also defined democratic experiments on its borders as a threat – and today is pursuing a de facto policy of democratic rollback vis-à-vis countries like Georgia and Ukraine. Even when it comes to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, stabilizing the Balkans and solving the Kosovo question, preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons or America’s increasingly desperate effort to stabilize Iraq – Moscow is ambivalent as to whether it wants to see the West succeed or fail.

The reality – and the dilemma – is that we are moving into a phase where relations with Moscow are a mix of cooperation and competition. That is already the reality today if we look beyond the flowery rhetoric of strategic partnership. We need a new framework that recognizes this and allows us to pursue both and manage the tensions between the two by pursuing a dual track policy.

Cooperation in key areas should be continued and indeed expanded if possible. One priority is counter-terrorism, another is non-proliferation as the danger of the nuclearization of the Middle East grows. With Russia’s WTO accession, trade and investment should grow. Last and certainly not least, Russia will remain a major energy supplier for the rest of our lives. No one is talking about abandoning cooperation in these areas.

But we will also have to compete with Moscow in other areas. Nowhere is this more true than east of the borders of an enlarged EU and NATO. Enlargement fatigue notwithstanding, the United States and Europe must support democratic development and consolidation on Europe’s periphery. We must continue to keep our doors open and remain true to the principles of European security which we worked so hard to develop in the OSCE and which Russia once accepted. Democratic consolidation in countries like Ukraine and Georgia may be our best hope of eventually influencing political trends in Russia in a positive direction. If the West wants to help the long-term cause of democracy in Russia today, working for democracy on Europe’s periphery is critical.

Energy is of course a double edged sword. It generates cooperation and competition. The growing doubts about Russia’s reliability as an energy supplier are partially linked to doubts about Moscow’s ability to develop its energy reserves. But they also reflect the realization that an illiberal regime in Moscow is more likely to use energy as a foreign policy tool. Thus, while relying on Russia as major supplier of energy, we need a strategy to conserve, to diversify suppliers and to acquire alternative sources of energy and the transit thereof. Russia of course wants to prevent us from doing so.

Both the United States and Europe have for different reasons thus far shied away from opening a debate on recrafting our Eastern policies. But it is also clear that our current policies are not working. A new framework that allows us to manage this new mix of cooperation and competition is overdue. Berlin has made a new Ostpolitik a priority for its EU Presidency. Chancellor Merkel seems determined to steer German policy back toward the political center and to seek closer coordination with Washington. It is time to debate over what such a new Ostpolitik could and should look