Rethinking Europe

Heiko Maas: Standing Up to the Old Guard

The new German foreign minister charts a refreshingly principled stance toward Russia.

Credit: SPD Schleswig-Holstein www.flickr.com

Takeaways


  • When Heiko Maas was appointed as Germany’s new foreign minister, many observers felt that this was not a strong choice. But he has had a strong start.
  • The new German foreign minister Heiko Maas is charting a refreshingly principled stance toward Russia.
  • In their desperation to keep Russia “onboard,” older Germans like to recall the importance of détente. But they should know that the current times are very different from the détente times of the 1970s.
  • There was a legitimate hope that a Russia freed from the shackles of Communism and the straight jacket of the Soviet Union would act as a more cooperative power. But that hope has been crushed.
  • It is up to the West to react to Russia’s actions with proper counteractions. Given the West’s softness, until now Russia has had no reason to change its behavior.

When Heiko Maas was appointed as Germany’s new foreign minister, many observers felt that this was not a strong choice. He had no background in foreign policy. To some, his selection seemed further proof of his ability to “fall steps upward,” in reference to mediocre people unexpectedly proceeding to the top.

In complete contrast to those perceptions, Heiko Maas, the 51-year old SPD man from the small state of Saarland, has put up a strong start. Most amazingly, in breaking with a longstanding German foreign policy tradition, he has opted for taking a principled stance on Russia.

His opening move, in his remarks upon taking office, was to declare that “if Russia defines itself ever more in direct contrast to the West and even as an outright opponent, we may regret that development. But it is changing the realities of our foreign policy.”

That was a courageous, well-calculated move. Still, in calling out Russia, Maas not only showed guts. He also directly challenged the foreign policy grandees of his own party. The approach of Messrs. Steinmeier and Gabriel, his immediate predecessors, was always to cut Putin and his ilk extra slack – even (and especially) when the latter engaged in very shady actions.

A new generation

Maas’s position foreshadows the arrival of a new generation in office. It believes that Germany, at a time when authoritarianism is ever stronger, can no longer be so accommodating toward a Russia that readily engages in a plethora of nefarious actions.

Maas and his supporters will surely be met with strong resistance from those who, at every possible and impossible moment, reflexively call on Germany to go soft. Their constant rallying cry is to prevent an “escalation spiral” vis-à-vis Russia.

As if Russia — in a clever interplay between the Russian government and its private sector assets — weren’t so often in the driver’s seat of loads of the rule-breaking.

Those German accommodationist voices are entirely blind to the fact that human experience teaches about the need for clear rules for dealing with mischiefs. When the latter find out that they got away yet again with their lawlessness, if not criminality, they tend to act out in an even worse manner the next time around.

Older Germans, in their desperation to keep Russia “onboard,” like to recall the importance of détente. But they should know that the current times are very different from détente times in the 1970s.

Back then, there were two key drivers to détente. The first one was to reduce the risk of a nuclear exchange through rapprochement in the short to medium term. The second was a legitimate hope that a Russia, eventually freed from the shackles of Communism and the straight jacket of the Soviet Union, would act as a more cooperative power.

Hopes crushed

But that important hope in the West has been brutally crushed – by none other than Putin and his cabal of kleptocrats. It is they who have proven conclusively that there is something about a Mother Russia, then as now under KGB management, that always plays loose with the rules, to put it very mildly. Less charitably put, Putin and his men are a criminal gang.

It is up to the West to react to this crew’s actions with proper counteractions. Given the West’s softness, until now they had no reason to change their patterns of behavior. As lawless and as corrupt as they have been acting, so far have we just let them continue with whatever they desired.

However, when dealing with a mafia-like gang, one has to hit where it matters most to its members. That means hitting their pocketbook. And it means no longer allowing them to maintain outward appearances to preserve their eternal status-seeking and lofty self-perception.

Whatever the Russian oligarchs may think about the West, we know one thing for sure. They desperately want to live as much as they can outside of the confines of their country.

Given these lifestyle preferences, the West’s answer is preordained: Limit their freedom to travel to the grand cities and elite vacation spots of the West, i.e., the very places where they like to own apartments and amuse themselves with their girlfriends and other ladies. Items like Trump Tower condos, in addition to private jets (which always need landing rights) and yachts are the trophies they rely on to feel like a big man.

Those are the items to which we need to restrict their access. Otherwise, the Russian elites will never have an incentive to play by the rules of civilized nations. They will simply ridicule the West – and buy the next round of expensive champagne.

“Russia understanders”

Of course, this clear-cut stimulus-response scheme doesn’t cut any muster with Germany’s brigade of eternal “Russia understanders.” In their desperation, they eagerly throw nuclear arms into the debate – and argue that Russia’s arsenal means that we can never stand up to it on principle. In resorting to that argument, they even misunderstand the nature of détente in the 1970s. That process was notably accompanied by mutual deterrence.

A related, equally desperate move is to argue that, by getting tough on Russia, Germany is allowing itself to become a pawn in the power machinations of the big, bad Americans.

But being critical of the United States shouldn’t keep anyone from walking and chewing gum at the same time.

My advice to those desperate German Russia lovers: Why not at least reserve the same amount of suspicion and criticism for Russia that these folks so readily and exclusively pour over the United States? Call it mutual abhorrence.

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About Stephan Richter

Stephan Richter is the publisher and editor-in-chief of The Globalist. [Berlin/Germany]

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