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Germany's self-centred war debate

Mar 01,2023 - Last updated at Mar 01,2023

BERLIN — Two months after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last year, Jürgen Habermas, perhaps Germany’s leading public intellectual, published a commentary that triggered one of the country’s most ferocious political debates in decades. Habermas asked how Germany should position itself in the widening Russian-Ukrainian war. Germans still haven’t reached any agreement on an answer.

At the start of the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was subject to a barrage of open letters, each signed by hundreds of leading public figures. Some took a hawkish position, advocating more forceful and active engagement on Ukraine’s behalf. Others were dovish, pushing for a settlement that would permit Russia to claim some kind of victory and spare Europe from a widening and prolonged conflict. Habermas rejected both the bellicosity of the former and the naive pacifism of the latter. Instead, he supported Scholz’s cautious approach, which seemed, at the time, to hold the most promise for a just peace settlement.

Since then, Russia’s war on Ukraine’s civilian population has intensified, and Germany has expanded its military and financial support for Ukraine to a level that would have been unthinkable last spring. But one year after the invasion, divisions are appearing within Scholz’s coalition government, and open letters are pouring in again.

One such letter, penned by the grande dame of German feminism, Alice Schwarzer, and Die Linke (Left) Party maverick Sarah Wagenknecht, leaves readers with only a vague sense of who bears responsibility for the war. In their “Manifesto for Peace”, Schwarzer and Wagenknecht shy away from blaming Russia for its atrocities and call for negotiations, even if that means Ukraine must agree to some of Russia’s territorial demands in exchange for a ceasefire or peace treaty.

They also call for massive demonstrations to pressure the government into reducing its military engagement and reneging on its pledges of arms deliveries. Having been co-signed by hundreds of German intellectuals, artists and leftist politicians, their letter is causing an uproar within the political establishment, especially now that right-wing and pro-Russian groups are known to be infiltrating the peace demonstrations. In my view, the manifesto is thinly veiled NIMBYism (not in my backyard), and a misguided effort to tie Germany’s usual neutrality to explicit support for a negotiated settlement.

A couple days after the Schwarzer-Wagenknecht manifesto appeared, Habermas published another commentary lamenting the government’s increasingly hawkish stance since Boris Pistorius’s appointment as minister of defence last month. But he still views the pacifist position as politically dangerous and deeply naive, given Russian President Vladimir Putin’s ruthless pursuit of revanchist goals.

Habermas addresses what he sees as the fundamental dilemma facing the West. At the core of his argument is a crucial distinction: Should the West commit to ensuring that Ukraine wins the war or should it merely prevent Russia from winning? Judging by Pistorius’s recent pronouncements at the Munich Security Conference, the German government seems to be leaning toward ensuring a full Ukrainian victory.

But if that is Germany’s goal, Habermas argues, it will be sleepwalking toward the abyss, threatening an ever-widening and intensifying conflict in which Germany itself could become a combatant. Merely preventing Russia from winning would be less risky, according to Habermas, because it would allow for more opportunities for negotiations and face-saving compromises along the way.

Habermas’ position comes as no surprise, given his longstanding conviction that dialogue is the core feature of democracy, and thus of the international liberal order. But can the West really expect Putin to engage in good-faith dialogue following his increasingly bellicose language, nuclear threats, and lies?

Habermas sidesteps this problem by simply referring to the UN Charter, which obliges all member states to contribute to ensuring a peaceful world. And as many within the German press were quick to point out, he offers no concrete proposal for what to do. Like the Schwarzer-Wagenknecht manifesto, Habermas’s argument for pursuing whatever dialogue is possible ends up being far too German-centered and blind to geopolitical change.

But there is still a case to be made for preventing a Russian victory, as opposed to ensuring a Ukrainian one. The question is how to do it.

In my view, Habermas did not go far enough. He should have pointed to the “Kindleberger Trap”. The disasters of the 1930s, argued the economic historian Charles Kindleberger, stemmed from the failure of the United States to fill Britain’s shoes after having replaced it as the preeminent global power. When Britain held that position, Kindleberger noted, it coordinated with its partners and allies to provide global public goods such as security and financial stability. But with the decline of the British Empire, these goods disappeared, creating the conditions for depression, genocide and another world war.

Habermas should take Kindleberger’s lesson to heart and expand his strategic outlook beyond the war in Ukraine. To restore peace and stability, NATO needs to work with China, India, and mid-size powers like Brazil, South Africa, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Japan and South Korea to create a new international security framework and open up channels of communication and dialogue.

These other powers must be made to see that the war in Ukraine could easily get out of control unless a broad international coalition seeks to rein in the Kremlin. But that can happen only through more meaningful (though likely arduous) dialogue. This is no time for fence-sitting and free-riding. Everyone will lose out from a broader conflict. If Germans want the fighting to end, they should demand that their government do its part to bring other governments to the table.


Helmut K. Anheier, professor of Sociology at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin, is adjunct professor of Social Welfare at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2023.

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