Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

How to Negotiate with Someone "Living in Another World" -- Merkel's East European Diplomacy
ITO Takayuki  /  Professor Emeritus, Waseda University

March 31, 2015
"It was like talking with someone living in another world." That was how German Chancellor Angela Merkel described her impression of a phone conversation she had with Russian President Vladimir Putin in March last year. And in November, when the G20 Summit meeting was held in Australia, she condemned Putin saying he "tramples with his feet on international law" and that his thinking on spheres of influence seemed atavistic, according to the Economist.

A physicist by training, Merkel was the introverted daughter of a Protestant pastor who had been involved in neither politics nor diplomacy. Her interest in politics was aroused as the liberalization of East Germany unfolded. It so happened that the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) was looking for a female activist from the East German bloc at the time, and she caught the eye of then Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Rising quickly, Merkel was elected to the Bundestag in the year of German reunification, and appointed Minister for Women and Youth the following year.

After filling various important posts, she became Chancellor in 2005, though her role in foreign policy was limited. According to German political tradition, the coalition government was to offer the post of Foreign Minister to the junior coalition partner. Thus, the post went to the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD) in Merkel's first government, to the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in her second, and again to the SPD in her third government.

It was only since the crisis in Ukraine that Merkel began to demonstrate significant diplomatic initiative. She was exceptional among Western leaders for having an intimate understanding of East European affairs. She had won numerous Russian language speech contests held in East Germany and had gained firsthand experience in Russia and Ukraine, long before entering politics. She could also converse with Putin in Russian. When trouble reared its head over the Ukraine crisis, Merkel became the focus of expectation among Western countries, including the United States.

Merkel's East European diplomacy is characterized by a pursuit for a diplomatic solution and a hardline policy of sanctions. Observers in Japan have tended to read pacifism into her former approach, but that is slightly off the mark. While a member of the opposition party, she supported the U.S. intervention in Iraq, which suggests that she is not against military intervention per se.

Generally speaking, in German politics the President handles the moral aspects of diplomacy, while the Chancellor takes charge of the practical aspects. During her recent visit to Japan, Merkel stressed the importance of historical perception and cordial relations with neighboring countries, which was interpreted as being implicitly critical of Prime Minister Abe's diplomatic policies. In all likelihood, she was simply making an obvious statement in her capacity as Chancellor of Germany, with no further intentions. In the same vein, she sought to persuade Ukrainian leaders to accept the simple fact that there can be no military victory against Russia, meaning there was no military solution.

Merkel is also well aware of the limits of international law, which is only effective when enforced by power. And in the absence of such binding power, the theory of influence championed by Russia would be a closer reflection of reality. "We waited forty years for the Berlin Wall to fall, and the Baltic states sixty years for their independence," Merkel told a German newspaper. Perhaps she meant to tell the Ukrainians that they too, must be patient.

It is a fine line that separates such cold logic from cynicism. While they wait, Ukraine will remain a divided state, much like Germany was in the past. Pro-Russian right-wing nationalists in the European Parliament have recently proposed dividing Ukraine between Europe and Russia in the name of "peace and unity of Europe."

Merkel suddenly embarked on her negotiation campaign in early February, rushing between the capital cities of East and West Europe without sleep or rest for eight days to wrap up the Minsk II agreement. Sandra Kalniete, the previous Foreign Minister of Latvia, spoke critically of Minsk II during her recent visit to Japan, describing the agreement as a product of panic. Polish newspapers have also reported recently that the ceasefire was hastily drawn up after Putin threatened war.

Before Minsk II, Merkel had repeatedly declined to play the role of mediator. She has habitually referred to her aversion to doing what in hindsight would prove undoable. So there must have been some prospect of a resolution that prompted her to action.

The policy of sanctions is unpopular both in Germany and within the European Union. In Germany, opposition has been voiced by the business community, the SPD and former citizens of East Germany. Countries far from Russia are also unenthusiastic about incurring losses from the sanctions. Fully aware of such opposition, Merkel nevertheless chose to remain a strong proponent of sanctions.

Just before the Minsk negotiations, Merkel met President Barack Obama in Washington and declared that while she was opposed to the idea of arming Ukraine, it would cause no harm to the alliance should the United States decide to go ahead. In effect, she had warned Putin that after her would come the United States.

Never one to be taken lightly, Merkel has clearly sought to make use of both sanctions and U.S. military might. And should neither of them succeed, her stance is that she can live with the idea of Ukraine as a divided state. This was Merkel’s negotiating style with an opponent who seemed to be "living in another world."

Minsk is probably the very first case in which Germany took the leading role among Western countries in negotiations with Russia. And it is perhaps commensurate with the weight carried by Germany in today's international politics. Some have suggested giving Merkel the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts. Yet, the Minsk accord is still fraught with the dangers of a collapse. How is a country to survive without recourse to its military power in a world where the idea of a sphere of influence continues to gain ground? Each country is pressed to come up with an answer.

Takayuki Ito is Professor Emeritus at Waseda University.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

「別世界の住人」との交渉術 メルケルの東方外交
伊東 孝之 / 早稲田大学名誉教授

2015年 3月 31日














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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > How to Negotiate with Someone "Living in Another World" -- Merkel's East European Diplomacy