The fact that two people are talking to each other, particularly about highly contested subjects, does not automatically mean they are engaged in dialogue. It is, at least, a first step.
The December 1 conference at the newly found Research Institute Dialogue of Civilizations (DOC) in Berlin was also a first step. Obviously, all the relevant local players, from the German foreign office to established peer institutions, turned out. After the biased media coverage of the opening ceremony, everybody was curious what DOC is all about. Is it just a hoax dreamed up in the interests of Russian propaganda? A 21st century Potemkin village? Some sort of 5th column or a Trojan horse? For that is how it was depicted in a recent report by the US-based Atlantic Council.
The first full-day event, held under the impressive cupola on the 5th floor of the Friedrichstraße Lafayette building, was entitled “Core Europe and/or Greater Eurasia: Options for the Future”. Although it was divided into three sessions, one issue dominated the conference: the frictions, or indeed impossibility, of accommodating two largely contradictory security systems, one Western, one Russian, on the European continent.
All the other topics such as the future of the EU, German-Russian relations, and even European energy security, faded away in comparison. The well-known phrase that there will be no European security against and none without Russia hung in the air. And indeed, more than one of the dozen speakers gloomily referred to the potential for military conflict if the present course of unmitigated confrontation is not altered in the near future.
The speaker selection was well balanced, representing all the major opinion camps. Retired German brigadier general Klaus Wittmann spoke for the Atlanticists. Despite his conciliatory tone and recognition of the numerous mistakes made by the west before, during and after the Ukraine crisis, he left no doubt that Russia bears the blame for irresponsible breaches of European security and international law. Other speakers objected, referring to the Russian narrative and the fact that they were equally convinced of the legitimacy of their respective positions.
Although there were moments when the debate may have seemed little more than an unrewarding exchange of opposing narratives, there was a very real attempt at soul-searching self-criticism. Three years after the outbreak of the Ukraine crisis, both sides are conflict-weary and longing for reconciliation, if clueless about how to achieve it. Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations at LUISS university (Italy), was one of a number of speakers to identify the potential that the Trump presidency might break the stalemate. He was the most outspoken as he outlined the likely shifts ahead, warning the audience to prepare for tidal changes on a global scale.
One speaker who persistently sought to put the Western-Russian conflict in a wider perspective was Adrian Pabst of the Kent and Lille universities. He had no doubt that the neoconservative and neoliberal Western policies had overdone globalization, military intervention, and free trade. Referring to a 1957 statement by U.S. historian George F. Kennan, he argued that hypertrophic moralising is a symptom of embattled, egotistic democracies. Richards Nixon’s question “Who lost Russia?” is just as legitimate today as it ever was, and we should not be surprised to see a majority in the US, or in Europe for that matter, reject politicians who insult their opponent’s voters by calling them “deplorables”.
Vasily Fedortsev, who heads the Baltic Regional Information and Analytical Center at the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in Kaliningrad (once Königsberg) stressed that Russia has, over the years, returned to global politics just as Germany has to normality. Analyzing the situation from outside he suggested that the double-whammy of Brexit and Trump could have a strengthening, unifying effect on the EU, albeit perhaps only a core EU. Another speaker suggested that Vladimir Putin should be awarded the Charlemagne prize for accelerating French-German rapprochement.
The prospects of a core Europe built around those two countries, integrating and unifying at a much tighter pace, was another topic of the day. Its main proponent was the Freiburg Professor Winfried Veit, who also dampened any thought that such a shift in EU policies might take place anytime soon.
Göttingen Professor Peter Schulze, DOC co-founder, and leading light at the conference, predicted that, after a confusing and conflicting multi-polar intermezzo, another bipolar world will emerge around China and the United States. Since neither Europe nor Russia will be able to challenge them economically, politically, or militarily, they will have to choose a side. The Russians, Peter Schulze predicted, would rather side with Europe, eventually even the US, rather than with their Eastern neighbours.