When the World Last Met at Genoa
Remember the last time before the 2001 G8 Summit when the world’s major powers met in Genoa, Italy? You need to go all the way back to the year 1922. Instead of anti-globalization protesters, the unpleasant surprise of that summit was a special deal concluded between the newly created Soviet Union and Weimar Germany. World diplomacy was rocked harder than even the disruptions by today’s protesters.
Back then, recently defeated Germany — the outcast after World War I — and the Soviet Union — a fellow outcast due to its newly established communist regime — were for the first time invited to send delegates to a major international conference in Genoa, Italy.
Eager to re-establish their countries’ role on the international stage, Germany and Russia still found themselves on the sidelines. Germany had effectively been sentenced to foot the bill for the damages caused by World War I under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.
And Russia was not exactly en vogue with the European countries either. The massacre of Czar Nicolas II, along with his whole family in 1919, did not go far in endearing Russia’s new rulers to Europe’s remaining royal house.
Largely to overcome their mutual sense of frustration and exclusion, the Germans and the Russians met in secret in a small neighboring town of Rapallo. There, they struck a bilateral financial deal to settle the war-time debt of both nations. And thus was born the Treaty of Rapallo — forged behind closed doors without the knowledge of other European powers.
Things haven’t been the same since. Germany and Russia were always suspected of concocting something behind the backs of the other European powers.
And yet, it is important to remember that German-Russian cooperation was not always as secretive as it was in the early 1920s.
In earlier periods, Russia’s czars and czarinas encouraged Germans to come to their country and assist them in the country’s modernization effort. That practice had been taking place since the days of Peter the Great (1672-1725) and Catherine the Great (1729-1796) — who, incidentally, was of German origin.
With German help, Russian development efforts certainly paid off, moving the country along nicely on the long road of economic modernization. In fact, Russian-German ties were so tightly bound together that a German Economic Minister of recent times, Otto Count Lambsdorf, even had an ancestor — Vladimir Count Lambsdorf — who served as the Russian Foreign Minister in the late 19th century. Count Otto himself negotiated major German trade treaties with the Soviet Union in the early 1980s.
Which brings us right to the present. The current Russian leader, Vladimir Putin, invited Mr. Schröder to celebrate Russian orthodox Christmas in Moscow. That cozy Russian-German Christmas celebration caused unease among Germany’s western allies — even though Germany is no longer the outcast. It is securely anchored in a united Europe. Mr. Schröder speaks not merely for himself, or Germany, but — as do other countries’ key leaders increasingly — for all of Western Europe. When he and Mr. Putin meet these days, their newly found cordiality only serves to draw Russia closer into the international community — rather than drawing Germany out of it.
And if there is any element of unease about their comfortable relations with each other, unlike about the times of Rapallo, it is no longer the fault of either Germans or Russians. If anything, it was a consequence of attempts during the early stages of the new Bush Administration to throw a cold shoulder not just to Moscow, but to much of Western Europe as well.
In that sense, but with a completely different role assignment, the echoes of Rapallo still linger today. As Washington has been increasingly parting ways on key issues with Western Europe, this has left the Bush Administration in danger of isolating itself — just as Russia and Germany had managed to do in the early part of the last century.