I’m currently working on an academic paper on the concept of “normality” in debates about German foreign policy since reunification. In that context, I’ve been reading a lot about Egon Bahr, who I argue played a crucial role in the late 1990s and early 2000s in redefining “normality” in terms of a foreign policy based on sovereignty and the pursuit of national interests. As Chancellor Willy Brandt’s foreign-policy adviser in the early 1970s, Bahr was the architect of West Germany’s Ostpolitik, a policy that dovetailed with the Nixon’s administration policy of detente towards the Soviet Union. Now in his eighties, he is a kind of éminence grise of German strategy and in particular the guru of German foreign-policy realism. In that sense, it seems to me that Bahr can be thought of Germany’s Henry Kissinger.
In the last few months, the revolutions in the Middle East and North Africa seem to have transformed President Obama from a realist into an idealist. What is remarkable about this trajectory is how similar it is to that of his predecessor. When George W. Bush took office in 2001, he disdained Bill Clinton’s idealist “nation building” tendencies and in particular the idea of humanitarian intervention. But after September 11, Bush pursued his own hyper-idealist “freedom agenda”, the centrepiece of which was the Iraq war. When Obama took over in January 2009, he also repudiated the hubris of his predecessor and promised more humility in American foreign policy. During the first two years of his presidency, the United States seemed to have tilted towards realism. But just as Bush reinvented himself after 9/11, so Obama seems to have remade himself since the Arab Spring.