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Commentary: In Ukraine Crisis, the Role of Germany is Key

‘To jaw-jaw is better than to war-war,’ said Winston Churchill in 1954, supporting the principle of nations negotiating. Those wise words from a great leader who understood war should be kept in mind regarding the Geneva accord on the crisis in Ukraine.

Churchill made the comment during the early years of the Cold War, after effective cooperation between the Western allies and the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany had collapsed. Escalating discord over aspects of occupation of the defeated nation evolved into the Cold War.

Moscow’s efforts to force Britain, France and the United States out of Berlin provided the immediate spark for this four-decades of conflict. The Korean War made the Cold War global. The Cuban Missile Crisis underscored the always proximate danger of nuclear Armageddon.

The Cold War can be traced through conflict, crisis and war, but was essentially rooted in different conceptions of society and relations between nations. Soviet leaders ‘are not like … us’ wrote American diplomat George Kennan in his book ‘Realities of American Foreign Policy,’ published in the same year Churchill made his declaration in favor of negotiation over war.

Kennan, expert on Germany and Russia, was among the most perceptive of the Cold War U.S. policy analysts, an always ardent student. The containment policy he defined guided United States policies toward the Soviet Union and other communist powers from the administrations of Harry Truman through George H.W. Bush.

He focused on traditional prudent realist diplomacy, including unavoidability of conflicting national interests. He emphasized Soviet and U.S. leaders vary markedly in experiences and outlook; particularly brutal total war informed Moscow’s worldview. Their fundamentally unproductive system - if restrained - would eventually collapse, and our relations with friendly nations were relatively more important.

Kennan headed the policy planning staff of the State Department during the Truman administration, when containment became formally established as the foundation of the U.S. approach to the Soviet Union. He became a target of conservatives, even as President Dwight Eisenhower used him to confirm containment.

President John F. Kennedy deserves credit for bringing Kennan back into public service as ambassador to Yugoslavia. Positioned at the crossroads of East-West Cold War conflict, representing our national interests in a major breakaway East European state, he acquitted himself commendably.

In 1979, Princeton University Press published one of Kennan’s most challenging books, ‘The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order.’ After unifying Germany, Otto von Bismarck provided effective diplomatic leadership to continental Europe through managing complex alliances. His departure from office, and the mediocre leadership that followed, set the stage for World War I.

Today the European Union provides a unifying economic structure, while Germany has reemerged as principal leading nation on the continent. Chancellor Angela Merkel has succeeded in securing greater financial discipline within the EU, especially on heavily indebted nations of southern Europe.

She also is adept at limiting strong domestic political pressures to abandon the leadership role, which includes underwriting the solvency of nations many Germans view as profligate. Nationalist sentiments are subdued but still potentially potent. The success of this balancing act, leading the diverse nations of the EU while reconciling often intense domestic political factions, is extremely impressive.

The EU and also NATO provide frameworks for German, U.S. and other leaders to coordinate counter-pressures to Russia in Ukraine and elsewhere. Within this structure, economic leverage remains key.

Despite Putin’s bluster and bullying, Russia today as in history remains economically dependent on others.

Art Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor of Political Economy at Carthage College in Kenosha, and a Lake Effect contributor.