Steinmeier Writes an Open Letter to Obama

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 12

German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter Steinmeier has addressed a lengthy open letter to U.S. President Barack Obama on the eve of his inauguration. Published in Germany’s mass-circulation weekly Der Spiegel (January 12-18), Steinmeier’s letter is an unconventional diplomatic step and unprecedented in its pathos-filled style. Echoing the globalist and pacifist yearnings of German Leftist circles, the letter offers to cooperate with the United States within that frame of reference.

The primary addressee of this manifesto-type letter is not Obama but rather the German electorate on the Left. The letter is timed not so much to the U.S. presidential inauguration as to Germany’s electoral campaign, which has started in several German states and is headed for general elections this year. The document appeals to an otherwise dispersed Leftist electorate on behalf of Steinmeier’s Social-Democratic Party (SPD).

Former Minister of Foreign Affairs Joschka Fischer of the Greens published an article in a similar spirit on January 11 in several German and other European newspapers. Fischer served alongside Steinmeier in the SPD-Green government under Gerhard Schroeder from 1998 to 2005. That coalition’s formula is potentially repeatable under Steinmeier in the forthcoming electoral cycle. Fischer’s article also kicks off the electoral campaign’s debate on German foreign policy.

Steinmeier’s lengthy letter abounds in vague appeals for worldwide peace and disarmament, a new confidence between East and West, economic assistance to lift poor countries out of their poverty, and other code-words for SPD-targeted constituencies on the Left. It makes, however, no mention of Russia’s challenges to Europe’s security or the means to implement those global social-work programs.

At its most specific, the letter urges the United States to enter into discussions on Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s recent proposals about a “new security architecture in Europe.” Steinmeier equates readiness to discuss Moscow’s proposals with overcoming “Cold-War thinking, [those] shadows of the past.” “We will need NATO in the future, too,” but on a new basis of “common security of East and West,” “from Vancouver to Vladivostok.”

In the European security debate, the “common security” of NATO and Russia implies Russian blocking rights on, and participation in, Allied decisions. Russia additionally proposes a common structure with Russian participation, ranking above NATO. The German Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA), in contrast to Chancellor Merkel, is urging NATO allies to discuss those proposals with Russia. Most European governments as well as the United States have reacted coolly to ideas that seek to sideline NATO. During the OSCE’s December 2008 ministerial conference, Steinmeier was almost alone among Western ministers when he called for starting negotiations on Russia’s proposals for a new European security architecture.

The German MFA’s position on that issue, as reaffirmed in Steinmeier’s letter to Obama, is “Let us take Medvedev at his word.” These same officials, however, do not seem to “take Medvedev at his word,” or draw the consequences, when he explicitly claims a Russian sphere of influence in Europe and Eurasia, a right of intervention to protect “Russian-speaking populations” outside Russia’s borders, or a free hand to change borders by force. Steinmeier pleads with Obama to trust Medvedev’s intentions by portraying the Russian President as a young man unmarked by the “cold war.” This narrative seemingly ignores Russia’s recent invasion of Georgia and threats to other countries.

While dwelling on Medvedev, the letter omits mentioning Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s role, although Putin is arguably the most powerful Russian leader and certainly pivotal to the Russo-German special relationship. Airbrushing Putin from the letter to Obama seems explicable. Putin does not fit the bill as a “peace” figure (except in some German circles), while Medvedev remains an accepted interlocutor to the West almost by default as president.

For all its length, Steinmeier’s letter gives energy security the short shrift. This gap seems surprising in a document prepared and issued during Russia’s halt of gas supplies to Europe, an event that reverberated strongly in the United States. Without even alluding to this situation, the letter calls for common policies to reduce reliance on crude oil and switch to renewable sources, but it is silent on nuclear energy and on the imperative of diversifying gas supplies. Thus, the letter bows to the German Left’s anti-nuclear ideology on the one hand and to business groups with vested interests in Russia on the other. Meanwhile, SPD and Green policy of abandoning nuclear energy (decommissioning nuclear power plants and banning construction of new ones) is the single most important factor behind the growth in German demand for natural gas and overdependence on Russian gas.

Steinmeier offers full support to the Obama administration on Middle East diplomacy, a dialogue with Iran (asking the latter to abandon the pursuit of nuclear weapons and terrorism), post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq (through public health and education programs), and anti-terrorism generally. On Afghanistan, however, the letter advises a “surge”-prone United States that military force alone will not defeat terrorism; that goal also requires building roads, schools, and irrigation systems in Afghanistan. With this, Steinmeier obliquely cautions Washington against requesting additional German troop deployments for combat in Afghanistan.

Such a U.S. request would by all indications be unpopular in Germany and unwelcome in the coalition government, particularly in this election year. Most German troops in Afghanistan are, in any case, heavily ridden with “national caveats” (operational restrictions to minimize risks) in deference to German public opinion. Both parties in government are prepared to increase Germany’s contributions to civil development programs in Afghanistan when Obama visits Germany for the NATO summit in April. The financial crisis, however, constrains Germany’s capacity to increase its already substantial assistance for Afghan development.

Steinmeier expresses fervent admiration for Obama’s July 2008 Berlin speech and the worldview it projected. The Berlin event, with elements of a pop spectacle, had presented candidate Obama as a citizen of the world and exponent of a globalist agenda. Obama, however, soon adjusted his campaign message in the United States to reflect, and embrace, U.S. national priorities. Steinmeier’s open letter either confuses personality with policy or simply trails behind the curve in its assessment of the new U.S. president.