To understand how our current President sees the world, look to how the former German Chancellor practiced politics—and continues to comport himself in retirement.
In terms of temperament, former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and our current President Donald Trump could not be more different. Schröder doesn’t have an ounce of the brashness, braggadocio, or bling that define Trump. Trump was born into New York City wealth; Schröder comes from humble roots. His mother was a cleaner, his father, an unskilled worker whom Schröder never knew and who died in Romania in World War II.
But there are important similarities that shine through when you look a little closer. Though there was never any sign that the German shares Trump’s authoritarian instincts and contempt for democratic institutions, like Trump Schröder seems to admire qualities found in foreign autocrats. And Trump shares the ex-Chancellor’s reductive tendency to see all policy, and especially foreign policy, through the narrow lens of trade.
Think of Schröder as a toned down, European expression of Trumpist money lust and vanity. The ex-Chancellor, who once sued a news agency for accusing him of dying his hair, has always belonged to the Toskana-Faktion, or Tuscany faction of Germany’s Social Democrats. These are the pragmatic Lefties known for their appreciation of the finer things that go along with Brunello holidays in well-heeled spots in northern Italy. Schröder happens to be fond of finest cashmere, respectable Cuban cigars (Cohiba Espléndidos), and Brioni suits, arranged, to be sure, in private fittings by Brioni master tailor Angelo Petrucci who does house calls and who counts Jack Nicholson and Vladimir Putin among his exclusive clientele.
Lots of attention has been paid to Donald Trump’s connections and affinities with the autocrat in the Kremlin. That’s a critical line of inquiry, but perhaps not as enlightening and suggestive as closer comparison with Schröder can prove to be.
In interviews about his prospective membership on Rosneft’s board of directors, Schröder has been telling German interviewers he was right about Iraq, and that history will prove him right again about Russia. Schröder says Germany cannot afford to isolate Russia. And anyway, the former Chancellor maintains, Rosneft is an international company, “not the extended arm of the Russian government.”
Since he was voted out of office in 2005, Schröder has been chairman of the shareholders’ committee of Nord Stream, the company that runs natural gas under the Baltic Sea to Germany and is 51 percent owned by Gazprom, the Russian government-owned energy giant. The German government approved the pipeline while Schröder was still in office, agreeing also to cover €1 billion of the project’s costs in the event Russia defaulted on a loan. At present, the ex-German leader’s election to Rosneft’s board, scheduled to take place at a shareholders meeting at the end of this month, is stirring new controversy. Rosneft has been under Western sanctions since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Rosneft chairman Igor Sechin, a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, is himself under a travel ban and asset freeze.
On the Rosneft board Schröder will sit beside Andrey Belousov, an economic adviser to Putin, Alexander Novak, Russia’s Energy Minister, and Matthias Warnig, once a highly decorated spy with communist East Germany’s notorious secret police, the Stasi. Warnig claims he first met Putin a year after German unification, in 1991, although it’s not to be excluded that the two men knew each other when Putin was stationed in Dresden as a KGB agent in the 1980s. In any case, it’s clear that the two men have become chums. (In the well known photo of the warm embrace between Schröder and Putin in April 2014, taken weeks after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine when Schröder turned up in St. Petersburg for a lavish birthday party in the Russian President’s honour, the silver-haired, stocky man standing to the left in the picture is Warnig.)
In any case, when Schröder says Rosneft is just another international company with little to do with the Kremlin, he fibs. Russia’s government owns 50 percent-plus-one share.
It is not just Schröder’s apparent ease in operating in a post-factual universe that makes him and our own President kindred spirits.
Start where Schröder himself likes to start these days: with the Iraq war. In his memoirs, George W. Bush claims that the German Chancellor, during a meeting on January 31, 2002, in the Oval Office, pledged Berlin’s support if the U.S. invaded Iraq—an assertion Schröder now strenuously denies. Never mind the he-said-he-said for now. Berlin ended up opposing the Iraq invasion, which indeed turned out to be a debacle, and Schröder wants kudos for his vision and statesmanship. Entertain the possibility, though, that while Schröder was right about Iraq, it was for all the wrong reasons.
Like Trump today, Schröder’s foreign policy was, in the main, trade policy in the pursuit of commercial aims and advantage. There have been instances in our own President’s thinking— spasms really—where one might have thought other matters figure prominently. There were the Tomahawk missiles fired at an airstrip in Syria last spring. There were the “fire and fury” comments augmented by the “locked and loaded” warning toward North Korea. But that the President is today contemplating withdrawing from a free trade agreement with our ally South Korea, even as North Korea has apparently now carried out its sixth nuclear test, is telling. For Trump, America First has always meant commerce first in foreign policy. When the real estate mogul purchased ad space in the New York Times and other papers in 1987 to call for America to renegotiate its relationship with the world—two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, no less—he berated our closest strategic partners for having bamboozled the United States into paying for their protection. “The world is laughing at us,” said Trump. Three years later and in the same vein, Trump told Playboy magazine that if we were to “throw a tax on every Mercedes-Benz rolling into this country and on all Japanese products…we’d have wonderful allies again.”
As for Schröder, under his administration Germany did participate in NATO’s intervention in Kosovo (flying sorties in the 1999 NATO bombing of Yugoslavia), and joined early coalition efforts in Afghanistan after 2001 (in peace keeping and reconstruction). And to be fair, none of this was politically easy in a country that had lived for more than a half century in the shadow of its Nazi past and which, as a result, had become exceptionally reluctant to think about global security or to send forces abroad. Yet through it all, Schröder’s loud insistence that German foreign policy be made only in Berlin, and that the Germans cease being a “cash cow” for the European Union also made clear that the SPD Chancellor, during his seven years in office starting in 1998, would pursue essentially Trumpian, “show-me-the-money” foreign policy. Schröder foreign policy was business-driven realism that defined the German national interest in especially narrow terms.
Which brings us back to Iraq. Schröder’s Middle East policy was little about security and a good deal about furthering commercial ties. Nor is there any evidence, much as in the case of Donald Trump, that Gerhard Schröder has ever possessed the human rights gene. As a result, German embassies in the region were essentially trade missions; as one frustrated German diplomat put it to me over coffee in a Gulf capital during the Schröder years, “We are basically here as door openers for German industry.” Open doors showed promise of opening wider in those days. Under Saddam Hussein, Germany and Iraq were doing roughly $350 million in business annually, with another estimated $1 billion through third parties. By 2002, Saddam Hussein had reportedly ordered Iraqi businesses to favor German companies as reward for Berlin’s opposition to Washington’s war plans. The year before Saddam was removed from power, more than a hundred German companies were present at the Baghdad Annual exposition.
So indeed, Schröder was against war. It was the counsel of German industry at the time (Siemens and Daimler Chrysler would later find themselves enmeshed in bribery scandals from their time doing business in Saddam’s Iraq). Opposition to conflict with Iraq was the strong preference of pacifistically inclined German voters in an election year, too. Yet Schröder went further. I recall at the time—I was living in Berlin as the director of Germany’s Aspen Institute—a close ally of Schröder’s Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, telling me how surprised, and actually concerned Fischer was that populist tactics, including raw anti-Americanism, were proving so effective in the red-green government’s re-election campaign.
Which brings us to the Russia question.
Like Trump, if there’s anything other than business that Gerhard Schröder has a soft spot for, it would seem to be strongman rule in Mother Russia. For his part, President Trump approved of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s until the Soviet reformer got carried away with liberalization. Trump accused the Kremlin leader of “destroying the Soviet Union” (“Not a firm enough hand,” chided Trump in 1990). Then, long before Donald Trump was fawning over Putin (publicly anyway), Schröder had established himself as Europe’s leading Putin apologist. The Chancellor told an interviewer in 2004 that he was convinced that Russia’s leader was a “flawless democrat,” when almost certainly he already knew that exactly the opposite was true.
In the case of Gerhard Schröder, who knows what is exactly behind his devotion to Putin? Is Schröder influenced by notions of civilizational connection dating back centuries? In an address to the Bundestag in September 2001, Putin spoke about the “unity of European culture,” and lauded in fluent German, the “language of Goethe, of Schiller, and of Kant.” But bracketing Putin’s manipulations, on this point we might give Schröder some benefit of doubt. Respect for Russian culture runs deep in Germany. Thomas Mann was inspired by Russian literature, particularly having admired Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Gustav Mahler, a fervent admirer of Tchaikovsky and the Russian romanticists, chose Russia for his honeymoon in 1902. Rainer Maria Rilke thanked Russia for “making me who I am.” Forms of cultural affinity do indeed exist, and I take it as sincere when Schröder cites fondly how Putin sang Christmas carols in German to the two children he and his wife Doris adopted from Russia. For some, history matters. Unlike Trump, Schröder reads. He once read on holiday historian Fritz Stern’s double biography of Bismarck and Bleichröder, replete with rich accounts of 19th-century Prussian relations to the east, apparently passing the book along to others as the best introduction to recent German history.
One might say, too, that Schröder is a man of Ostpolitik. The ideology of detente and the idea of Wandel durch Annáherung—of changing the behavior of one’s adversary through rapprochement—runs deep in SPD poltics and lore. The only problem with this being that for Schröder, Putin was already a friend, not a foe to be transformed—how can one improve a “flawless democrat”?—and that Willy Brandt, the original Cold War Ostpolitiker, would surely have been horrified to see how in Schröder’s detente, East Europeans get thrown under the bus. Nord Stream’s expansion project, Nord Stream 2—puzzlingly still supported by Ukraine’s friend and Putin critic Angela Merkel—is adamantly opposed by Kyiv, Warsaw, and the three Baltic nations, who fear strategic vulnerability and even greater energy dependence on Moscow.
So was Schröder playing the role of devious grand strategist, trying to reinvigorate cold, calculating power politics in the aftermath of the Cold War? Unlikely—no more than tweety Trump is wittingly aligning himself with Putin to carve up Europe and undermine the West.
The SPD politician Hans-Joachim Vogel once remarked of Schröder: “The appetite for power is impressive…but power for what purpose?” Does Schröder have a bit of Felix Krull (the protagonist in Thomas Mann’s last novel) in him? Is he an intensively ambitious, morally flexible operator determined to show the world something? As a kid, Schröder once promised his mother he would drive up to the front door one day in a Mercedes. Perhaps Schröder is a blander adaptation of Mann’s character Adrian Leverkühn in Doktor Faustus, a composer who sells himself to Mephistopheles in exchange for limitless creative genius?
There’s a 1,038-page Schröder biography published two years ago by a German academic named Gregor Schöllgen which, I confess, I’ve not made my way through. There may be important clues in the Schôllgen opus as to what really makes Schröder tick.
My guess? That at the end of it all Schröder—at 73 years old, two years ahead of Trump in age and, through his fourth wife, one out in front in marriage—is simply a restrained German version of our pathologically self-absorbed, compulsively self-dealing 45th President. As such, that would make the ex-Chancellor just another vain, greedy sucker who Putin knows how to play like a cheap balalaika. One can imagine late night pow-wows during which Schröder and Putin exchange quips, in German, about those uncivilized, ignorant, and naive Americans; followed by even later evening night caps over which a KGB man and Stasi comrade make jokes, in Russian, about foolish and corruptible West Germans. Himself married to a Russian named Elena, Matthias Warnig—who in a sense today outranks Schröder, sitting as Warnig does on multiple Putin boards—maintains a home in Moscow and reportedly flies in from Germany to see Putin every third week. Who said the Cold War really ended?
Bottom line, for now: Schröder says of joining Rosneft—blithely dismissing any question of propriety and ethics—that this is “about me and my life.” Fair enough. And sure enough. A box of good Cuban cigars says this is exactly what a narcissistic ex-President of the United States will say one day when, in pursuit of the giga-deal of all time, he colludes, openly—puckered chin, thumbs up—with America’s worst adversaries.