German and American Zeitenwenden

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


Shared Challenges

When Chancellor Olaf Scholz declared in February that Germany was facing a Zeitenwende (a turning point) in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he stated that it would mean a major change in German foreign policy, an end to dependence on Russian fossil fuels, and the need to change German thinking about defense and security priorities. Putin’s war was indeed going to launch a series of shifts in both foreign and domestic politics with implications for all of Europe and for transatlantic relations. The stakes for both sides of the Atlantic are high. The challenges would be felt in military responses, economic relations (particularly with regard to sanctions imposed on Moscow), the energy sector, and European security. All these challenges required adjustment within Germany. The United States, too, was confronted with its own kind of Zeitenwende. But neither country is new to facing shocks and changes.

Germany has had to cope with previous Zeitenwenden. From the establishment of the Federal Republic in 1949 as a divided nation to unification in 1990, there have been several dramatic challenges requiring rethinking and remaking policies and perspectives along the way.

Early tensions across the east-west divide in early years shifted with the turn to Ostpolitik, which in turn evolved toward the Zeitenwende in the form of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Tough challenges for a united Germany have continued over the past three decades in dealing with immigration trends, the expansion of the European Union, and Germany’s increasingly leading role on the world stage. These issues—as well as the role of the military and defense of the Republic, the independence of energy resources, and the increasingly complicated balance of trade with Russia and China—have generated debate and created tough choices for German decision-makers. Today’s Zeitenwende is a continuation of these challenges.

The United States has also experienced its own Zeitenwenden in the recent past. From the days of hubris following the end of the Cold War to the shock of 9/11 to the longest war in its history in Afghanistan, along with serious domestic divisions generated by economic, environmental, and social challenges—Americans are furiously debating their future at home and on the world stage. It is not so much a new debate as it is marked today by more conflict than consensus.

In coming to grips with these challenges, both countries draw on their respective legacies and narratives about interests, priorities, needs, and indeed values. The domestic debates will be inextricably related to the interpretations of national history, shaping the determination of both cooperation and conflict. They may also change the parameters of how the two countries see and need each other. That is also part of a Zeitenwende.

A divided Germany was more an object of American foreign policy during the Cold War as the front line of conflict with the Soviet Union, seen more as a junior partner. After 1990, Americans saw Germany more as a subject needed in facing conflicts and competition elsewhere around the globe. As one former general described it, the Fulda Gap was now in many other places to defend.

That was not always a formula for shared interests or policies. The domestic environments shaping respective debates are not easy to decipher on either side of the Atlantic. The context in which Germans argue with each other over defense policies, the role of the Bundeswehr, or the meaning of leadership in Europe cannot be separated from the markers of history which are used as references and guides. The American stories about its successes and failures are equally influential in setting the perceptions of priorities and expectations. The lessons of wars, lost and won, are differently approached, as are the consequences.

Regardless of the changing ways in which we need each other, the value of cooperation has been exemplified many times in past decades in moments of friction as well as friendship, perhaps the latter no better underscored than on October 3, 1990.

The current crisis surrounding the war in Ukraine illustrates these complexities. The response to Putin’s war has been for the most part a clear case of solidarity in the transatlantic community focused on supporting the Ukrainians in their fight for survival. It has been based on a shared view that the war in Ukraine is about more than Ukraine. It is about the survival of a rules-based environment of nations settling differences without imperial ambitions, threats, and aggression. Chancellor Scholz has drawn on Germany’s history to highlight the responsibility to support Ukraine when he stated in his speech on February 27, “If we want the last thirty years to be more than a historical exception, then we must do everything we can to maintain the cohesion of the European Union, the strength of NATO, to forge even closer relations with our friends, our partners and all those who share our convictions worldwide.”

In similar fashion, President Biden draws on American history to underscore America’s responsibility to help support Ukraine, referencing the need to renew the same transatlantic solidarity with Europe which led to the demise of the Soviet Union with an emphasis on America’s understanding of partners in leadership.

Both Biden and Scholz face the challenge of keeping the domestic support they need to sustain the commitment to meeting the threats to Ukraine, understood as threats to the transatlantic alliance and indeed the stability of the global order for which Germany and the United States have been so instrumentally responsible during the past seven decades. It is vital that in the pursuit of that support, both Germans and Americans understand each other’s perceptions, policies, and politics as divergent as they may sometimes appear; that both sides do not take their respective views for granted, and that they may not be neutral toward each other. What each county decides affects the other, and both are too important to ignore each other’s interests. There has been and always will be a direct link between domestic conflicts and arguments over foreign policy choices. As noisy and messy as that will occasionally sound, it is urgently important that both sides listen to each other. And in fact, both sides can help each other identify options for complimenting and supplementing respective choices in confronting shared challenges.

The coming weeks and months, if not years, are going to require difficult adjustments for both Germany and the United States. Germany will be redefining relations with Russia in multiple dimensions while exerting its capacity to sustain a common European strategy in dealing with an unpredictable Russian president. There will be strains within the European Union as well as across the Atlantic and all of that will have ripple effects in the global framework. This current stage of Zeitenwende will be shared by many partners as well as by competitors. Collaboration and cooperation where possible will be needed to sustain stability amid confrontation and change.

German-American relations have weathered multiple Zeitenwenden in past years. They can best deal with the current chapter by remembering that there is a fundamental value to transatlantic cooperation. Even though policy responses often diverge, there is much in common between the two societies coping with multiple crises, challenges, choices, and expectations at home and in the global arena.

Regardless of the changing ways in which we need each other, the value of cooperation has been exemplified many times in past decades in moments of friction as well as friendship, perhaps the latter no better underscored than on October 3, 1990.

That value remains a fundamental foundation in this latest chapter of the Zeitenwende.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.