Idealists and Realists in Germany and America: Different Debates on the Ukraine War

Idealists and Realists in Germany and America: Different Debates on the Ukraine War

Author: Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenroeder/Singapore

 Chancellor Scholz’s decision to make Leopard 2 tanks available to Ukraine after consultation with the United States does not appear to have changed public opinion about the war there. Politicians, leading and social media, and letter-to-the-editors are largely in agreement that Russia must lose and Ukraine must win. The extent to which a country that has already been largely destroyed should then define a victory is not even discussed in the slightest. The mantra constantly repeated by NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg remains untouched. Anyone who questions it is denounced  as a Putin understander or conspiracy theorist, left-wing Russia fan or right-wing Putin troll.

Since February 2022, this mantra has been: Sovereign Ukraine was attacked by Russia unprovoked and in violation of international law. She has the right to defend herself and the West has the right to help her. With the delivery of heavy weapons, the supporters do not become a party to the war, including Germany with its Leopard 2 tanks. In the report of the scientific service of the Bundestag on military aid from March 2022 (WD-2-019-22-pdf-data.pdf (, the delivery of tanks as such was not yet assessed as participation in the war, the corresponding training Ukrainian soldiers in Germany, however, as a gray area with consequences under international law. This is also commented on in Russia, but it hardly seems to irritate anyone here. Chancellor Scholz declared in the Bundestag that we are not and will not be a party to the war and that we stand together with the USA and NATO like never before. Such unison between the government, large parts of the opposition, the media and popular opinion is quite unusual in Germany. Little is discussed about the future after the end of the war and the future relationship between Germany and Europe and Russia. We were completely taken by surprise by this war, the defense policy and the Bundeswehr were almost geared towards permanent peace, at least in Europe.

The debate between idealists and realists in the USA

The United States has been accused by internal critics of having been at war continuously since 1945 and having by far the most powerful and expensive military power in the world. There, the debate between politicians, the military and intellectuals from academia and think tanks about the long-term perspectives of the Ukraine conflict is more intense and controversial. It is about the two schools of thought in the field of international affairs, the „liberals“ and the „realists“, whereby the liberals should rather be called idealists here, in order to avoid confusion with a political party. Historically influenced by Kant’s moral approach in his 1795 treatise On Perpetual Peace, the US liberal position assumes that world politics is an arena in which moral values, legal norms, and institutions are crucial to shaping behavior between states and to improve prospects for cooperation and peace, the basis of the United Nations and the rules-based world order in modern formulation. The tradition of classical realism or „Realpolitik“, on the other hand, remains skeptical about peace. She believes that states are essentially driven by the quest for power and national interests, relying on military might. She regards the international arena as largely anarchic.

Against the background of these differences, the discussion about the Russia-Ukraine war in Washington is increasingly and more clearly than here dominated by the question of how it might end. The influential think tank Rand Corporation published a study on this in January, which can be downloaded using the following link: Avoiding a Long War: U.S. Policy and the Trajectory of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict | EDGE This study presents variants on how the war could unfold and how alternative trajectories would affect US interests. The authors argue that it would serve US interests best not only to minimize the risks of escalation to the nuclear threshold, but also to avoid a protracted conflict. The costs, around $29 billion for the past year alone, and the military risks of a long war in Ukraine would clearly outweigh the potential benefits. A victory for Ukraine is classified as extremely unlikely. Although Washington cannot determine the duration of the war itself, it can take measures that make a negotiated settlement to the conflict more likely. Drawing on the literature on ending wars, the authors identify the main obstacles to talks between Russia and Ukraine, such as mutual optimism about the outcome of the war and mutual pessimism about the prospects for an ensuing peace.

The Perspective highlights four policy tools to mitigate these obstacles: clarifying plans for future assistance to Ukraine, making pledges on Ukraine’s security, assuring the country’s neutrality, and setting conditions for lifting sanctions against Russia. Of course, the US also has its hawks and the very influential armaments lobby, especially since Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, former general and director of the second-largest arms manufacturer Raytheon, months ago declared Russia’s military castration as the goal of US aid. General Mark Milley, the highest-ranking spokesman for the army as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has been warning since 2021 of a direct conflict between NATO and Russia due to an escalation. The Ukraine Debate in Germany Our spontaneous sympathy is more with David defending himself than with Goliath attacking. President Selensky has masterfully rephrased this interpretation of the war again and again in a way that was effective in the media. Anyone who asks in the debate whether Ukraine’s policies since independence in 1991 might have affected relations with Russia is immediately accused of perpetrator-victim reversal. This also applies if doubts are expressed about the thesis that our freedom and democracy are also being defended in Ukraine’s struggle for freedom. A clear majority of Germans are obviously convinced of this, as is a majority of their European neighbors.

There is no discernible deterrence towards Russia from the Bundeswehr. If the Ukraine war should escalate, Germany would be completely dependent on the USA and NATO, the turning point and the special fund need considerably more time to become effective. For the previous federal governments and the traffic light coalition, defense and security policy were not an issue or at least not a priority until February 24, 2022. The „value-based foreign policy“ postulated above all by the Greens and the responsible Minister Baerbock had the effect that, in addition to the necessary condemnation of the aggressor Russia, the almost unconditional support of Ukraine had to become a practical reason of state. While the RAND study openly discusses the possibility of a compromise on Ukraine’s borders in the event of partial cession of territory, it supports President Zelensky’s maximum war aim of restoring the 2014 borders, including Crimea. As a result of the additional restrictions on Germany’s diplomatic options, approaches to a peace policy like those in the USA or even an intermediary role are practically ruled out. In view of the economic ties with Russia that have grown in many ways after reunification, not only in the energy sector, such an intermediary role would actually not have been unthinkable.

 Former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder may have believed in a personal mission to his friend Putin, but his trips to Moscow and his warnings against arms deliveries were dismissed as absurd by the media and the majority, if only because of his involvement with Gazprom. Top politicians in the new federal states, who are particularly affected by the end of gas and oil supplies, are attacked as having understood Putin and being sympathizers with Russia. Foreign Minister Baerbock says at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, whether he thinks it over or not, that we are at war with Russia, and the head of the Munich Security Conference, the experienced diplomat Christoph Heusgen, even advocates the delivery of combat aircraft to Ukraine. The Chancellor and the Foreign Office are rowing back, but overall the mood in Germany is amazingly unison and the relatively few warning voices from intellectuals are met with indignation and rejection, such as the initiative led by Alice Schwarzer. The German debate is clearly and overwhelmingly idealistic in the sense outlined above. We dismiss realists like the American political scientist John Mearsheimer, who also analyzes the role of NATO in the Ukraine question, or the aged Henry Kissinger, as if they had no idea and were completely wrong. How dangerous this can be for our country must definitely be discussed more intensively and openly. The fact that Chancellor Scholz is trying to curb individual hawks in government and parliament, like his party leader Saskia Esken or his foreign minister Annalena Baerbock a few days ago, gives hope that Germany will not only continue to contribute more to the escalation of the war.

 Singapore, February 1, 2023 Dr. Wolfgang Sachsenroeder

Comment from Global Review:

The terminology bothers me a bit. Realists versus idealists sounds like the so-called realists always embody reality and are the good guys and the idealists are the daydreamers and unrealistic and therefore bad guys. As a former member of the FDP, Dr. Sachsenröder did a good job of replacing liberals, neoliberals and libertarians with the word idealist. But wasn’t liberalism and neoliberalism with its „change through trade“ ideology, its neoliberal „Greed is cool“ and homo economicus and its economism too utopian and unrealistic. Was the UN Security Council seat demanded by Kinkel and Schröder not idealistic for Germany in exchange for the admission of China and Russia to the G7, as was the entire outsourcing of industries to China or the energy dependency on Russia? Was that realpolitik and realstic and the often quoted “national interest”?  Was that realism? Wasn’t that highly idealistic and utopian? World policy for a place at the sun for Germany in the permanent UN Security Council, where the world should get the German spirit and Hegel´s Weltgeist? German world politics of alleged realists and real politicians who only had interests and not values? Then continued under Merkel with handbrake with Northstream 2 after the Crimean annexation of Russia.

 Was Kissinger a realist? Niall Ferguson claims he was an idealist, just as the US right-wing politician criticizes him, sees him as a liberal Republican like his then promoter Rockefeller, if anyone can still remember Barry Goldwater. Furthermore, all Reagan supporters who rejected his detente with the Soviet Union, enforced the Taiwan Relation Act against his will, democratized Taiwan and South Korea along with all of Latin America in the 80s, followed his Madman theory, but found the inveterate anti-communist Nixon too soft, also in military aspects. Only when Reagan emerged as the real „madman“, a policy of strength including „idealistic“ „Evil Empire versus The Free World“ rhetoric that a Baerbock would never voice in this intensity and nuclear war threats including Ample Archer maneuvers in 1983 on the brink of nuclear war , which Kissinger rejected as idealism, brought  the collapse of communism and also the road to German reunification. Was Reagan not a Realpolitiker/realist or was he an idealist? In any case, he was the person that Kissinger had theoretically demanded in his writing “Foreign Policy and Nuclear Weapons”, the nuclear brinkmanship and his “madman theory” and after the Moscow answered  the deployment of Thor and Jupiter medium-range nuclear missiles in Turkey with Sovjet medium- range nuclear missiles  in Cuba and almost led to nuclear war Kissinger´s brinkman ship and idea of limited nuclear wars was buried, and then practically with Nixon as the alleged anticommunist and ideal of a madman had not prevailed. Kissinger´s madman was Reagan.  So if Putin threatens nuclear war, is he then an idealist or a realist or is he just simply copying it the madman theory of Kissinger and as person in Reagan and whatever was called realpolitik or just idealistic Reagan Republicans?. On the other hand, wasn’t the politics of strength more realistic and not just idealistic green bellicism? Perhaps this is realism and balance of power and not the liberal/idealistic „realism“ that Kennan, Kissinger, et al are now quoted for. Now it is often said that the balance of power had changed to the disadvantage of the USA and The West, but that was also said in 1929 after the Great Depression and Black Friday or during Nixon’s time with the Vietnam trauma, oil price shock, dissolution of the gold standard and Bretton Woods and then the USA experienced it again a meteoric rise when they regained that “idealistic” or “realistic” confidence in their own strengths, pooled their strengths and brought their allies together. It may also be true that the constellation has changed today, the balance of power is shifting, but those who are said dead can still rise again, insofar as they want it themselves and look for suitable allies than just spreading selffulfilling Western cultural pessimism and songs of doomsday.

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