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Time to Make Germany Great Again?
That's likely the only long-term way to balance Russia
My colleague at The Week, Sam Goldman, has a really good piece about the dilemma facing Germany with respect to Russia. I won’t summarize the piece, which provides some useful historical context going back to the 18th century. Today, Germany—not just the government but the people—badly wants a productive relationship with Russia, and has been reluctant to acknowledge that Russia is not interested in making such a relationship easy. Germany is in no position to threaten or deter Russia militarily; a more forthrightly confrontational policy toward Russia arguably hurts Germany’s bottom line more than it hurts Putin’s regime, while also revealing Germany’s manifest dependence on the United States. But a non-confrontational policy only encourages the Russia problem to grow, and weakens Germany’s influence within Europe and with the United States. Hence the dilemma.
Goldman ends by suggesting Olaf Scholz, Germany’s new chancellor, ask himself what Otto von Bismarck would do, but the answer to that question is obvious: Bismarck would start rebuilding German power. The question is whether Germany—or its allies, including the United States—are ready for that ominous development.
Of course, Germany is already a very powerful country. But that power is overwhelmingly manifested as economic dominance within the European Union. It’s largely thanks to Germany’s preferences that the ECB practiced a regime of too-tight money in the aftermath of the financial crisis, and the resolution of the various Southern European debt crises that grew out of it were similarly resolved to suit Germany’s economic interests first and foremost. So long as Germany had no material foreign policy challenges that required other kinds of power, that was arguably a reasonable approach from the perspective of someone who cared primarily about German national interests.
That approach is getting less and less reasonable as time goes on. Without Britain, Germany is more dominant in the European Union, but also no longer has a pro-business ally who opposed an ever-deepening union. The burden of making the E.U. work—and work for everyone—falls now more heavily on German shoulders than ever. If Germany wants the E.U. to survive, and thrive, it will need to lead the process of its transformation into a more functional entity, economically and diplomatically. If it fails, meanwhile, it will need to quickly transform itself into an independent foreign policy actor on the world stage capable of defending its interests outside of an E.U. context.
NATO is similarly more of a double-edged sword for Germany than it has ever been. Germany was able to agitate within NATO for war against Serbia, just as France and Britain were able to agitate within NATO for war against Libya. But America is going to be less and less interested in heeding such calls, and not only because it is rightly far more concerned with the balance of power in Asia. The Biden Administration has wisely already made it clear that it will not intervene militarily in a conflict in Ukraine; it has drawn a line where it belongs, at the edge of the NATO alliance. Germans should worry, though, about the stability of that line as well. The Trump administration, after all, repeatedly disparaged NATO—but also expanded its borders, and even floated the idea of further expansion into the Middle East. For the United States, NATO has long since transformed from a defensive alliance to an instrument of American power projection—one that Europeans can definitely influence, but not control.
To have a more constructive relationship with Russia, then, Germany needs not only to demonstrate but to substantiate its independence from them, but also from America. Germany’s dependence on Russia is largely about energy, so that means taking both decarbonization and energy independence much more seriously, investing heavily in wind and other renewable energy sources that work in a German context, but also reversing the Merkel government’s decision to denuclearize. The Nordstream pipeline is the main focus of these concerns, but it’s a symptom of a deeper problem, which is a lack of concern with the national security implications of dependence on one dominant energy supplier. Germany’s dependence on America, meanwhile, is primarily military. A greater financial investment in defense is vital if Germany is going to be taken seriously, but so is practicing foreign policy as if Germany had to make good on the commitments that it makes or advocates for. To that end, it would probably be helpful if Germany firmly stated its opposition to further NATO expansion, and if it began seriously exploring the prospects of coordination with major NATO allies like France and Poland, as well as with non-NATO powers like Sweden, outside of NATO.
Why, though, would an American pundit be writing such a piece? It’s not just a pure exercise. I’ve been arguing for years that the United States no longer serves its own interests by keeping major allies in a state of dependency. With respect to Russia specifically, the United States really does have an interest in checking its ambitions. But Germany has both a greater interest in the same end, and has much more to lose if efforts to achieve it backfire and lead to war. Given that, it’s crazy that the United States is expected to take the leading role in providing deterrence for Russian adventurism. But it’s equally crazy to expect Germany to offer stronger backing for the American line than its own people would support, or than it can actually help to fulfill.
There’s no way to get European states to share more of the burden of collective self-defense without them also getting a greater share of authority and independence. A more capable and independent Germany—or a more capable and independent Europe, if Germany pursues its aims through the E.U.—will make more trouble for the United States than Germany does now. But it will also be much more useful. As our own burdens multiply, that’s something we should care about more than about maintaining control.