Enia Bearzotti's Blog

Considerations on the role of the ‘Other’ in foreign policy – the cases of Germany, Poland and Lithuania vis-à-vis Russia

November 30, 2015

Recently I have bumped into a very interesting article by Marco Siddi dealing with the concept of identity building in international relations, an important branch of constructivist research theory. More specifically, the paper tried to give an explanation of why Germany, Lithuania and Poland have developed determinate national identities, and consequent policies, as a result of a process of confrontation with the image of an ‘other’, in this case Russia. The author debates that, even though all three countries had had traumatic experiences with Russia in the past, this fact has not prevented all of them from developing over the years good bilateral relations with Moscow. Although interesting lessons can be learnt from this research, I do not completely agree with the author’s premises. But let’s proceed with order.


According to Iver Neumann, “identification is much about what one is not as about one is”. Put it differently, “group identity is not conceivable without an ‘Other’ from which the self can be differentiated”[1]. This confrontation with the ‘Other’ “may play an essential role in the construction of a national myth, a dominant national historical narrative and other elements that constitute the nation as an imagined community”[2]. And since states depend heavily on their societies for political survival, at least in the democratic ones, the relationship with the ‘Other’ can be instrumentally used for boosting people’s approval and support for adopting certain foreign policy towards that “Other”.


The central idea in identity building is, however, that perceptions and constructions of the ‘Other’ are not immutable; on the contrary, they change as the ‘Other’ changes through time. I think this is the key for change in international relations, and this is why the whole discussion of identity building is applied to the cases of Germany, Lithuania and Poland. These three nations represent different ways of thinking and approaches adopted towards Russia. Whereas Germany has been able to build peace and economic ties with Russia, neither Lithuania nor Poland managed to wipe away their constant fear and suspicion with the ultimate result of building profitable economic ties on both sides.


In this regard, I do not see quite appropriate the author’s implied comparison between the three countries. He assumes that they went all through the same, or very similar historical pattern with Russia. This is not the case however. It is true that Germany was divided into two blocs, with East Germany and East Berlin under Soviet Union’s control, and that they fought against each other during WWI and WWII; however, this relationship cannot be compared to the kind of relations that Russia had with Poland and Lithuania. The latter two had indeed lived the last few centuries, already from the first partition of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in mid 18th century, under constant military threat of Russia. It should come as no surprise that, as criticised by Siddi, “Central-Eastern European countries had only managed to pass themselves off as a united entity vis-à-vis third parties by using the image of the Soviet Union as a common ‘Other’ [and by] emphasis[ing] cultural differences between their countries and Russia after the fall of socialism, with the objective of creating a ‘self’ compatible with Western Europe and strenuously opposed to Russia”.


Furthermore, the lack of change and adaptation in Lithuania and Poland does not only stem from historical reasons associated with centuries of reciprocal mistrust but also from the way Russia itself engaged with them. Germany, after the end of the Cold War, certainly represented a strong and independent commercial partner. Russia has never had any leverage on Germany that could exploit to force German decisions, nor Germany’s existence has ever been challenged. But could be said the same for Lithuania and Poland? I doubt, and the people’s perceptions provide the proof. Siddi states that political leadership may use the ‘Other’ to legitimise its power and its decided policy, which is true, but I am wondering whether, in cases when mutual distrust is long eradicated into a population, it is more correct to say that it is the population itself and its perception that provide the basis for the leadership’s direction. And if the population sees Russia as a threatening ‘Other’, it may well be that from Russia’s side nothing has been done to alleviate this perception; on the contrary, Russians might share the distrust, thus fostering Lithuanian and Polish suspicion. The “numerous incidents of Russian misinformation and destabilization campaigns against them”[3] reported by Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia are perfect examples in this case. Furthermore, several academic papers present the view that Russia used a “divide-and-rule” policy towards the EU, especially when it comes to trade opportunities, as it tried to drive a wedge among EU Member States by providing tangible incentives and awards to governments ready to engage in bilateral agreements with Russia, and a strategy of intimidation and discrediting against those less willing to do so[4].


To conclude, I think that it is not fair to compare Germany, Lithuania and Poland and their respective perception of Russia, nor to draw lessons from the German case suggesting they should be applied by the other two. Germany, even though its Eastern part was also beyond the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, is objectively too strong and important to be mistreated by Russia, and therefore completely independent and free to take whatever decision. German and Russian relations had improved over the years because it was in the Russian interest in the first place. On the contrary, Lithuania and Poland have continued to be hostile to Russia not just because of the past, but also because Russia itself was not as motivated to have good bilateral relations with them as it was with Germany, and this resulted in poor attempts at decreasing the level of mutual hostility.


[1] Neumann, Iver 1998: Uses of the Other: The East in European Identity Formation. Minneapolis.

[2] Anderson, Benedict 2006: Imagined Communities. London.

[3] Anke Schmidt-Felzmann. Is the EU’s failed relationship with Russia the member states’ fault? (From L'Europe en Formation), 2014/4 (n° 374) p. 50 <https://www.cairn.info/revue-l-europe-en-formation-2014-4-page-40.htm>

[4] idem.


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