It’s comforting to believe that frequently rocky US-German relations over the last three years have been due largely to President Trump’s personal approach — and will therefore be solved the moment he exits the White House. That belief is mistaken. America’s broader “German problem” is very much grounded in German choices and German conditions predating the current US administration, and will likely outlast it.
The Berlin republic’s overall foreign policy since the end of the Cold War has centered on an admirably skillful promotion of specifically German economic interests, cocooned within a smothering verbal commitment to multilateral conflict resolution. There’s no doubt this verbal commitment is heartfelt. Still, for Berlin’s Western allies, that’s exactly the challenge. A pressing problem for NATO today isn’t German militarism; it’s German anti-militarism. This is particularly true among Social Democrats, on whose coalitional support Chancellor Angela Merkel depends.
To Berlin’s credit, there have been some encouraging signs. Bundeswehr troops have been deployed on important missions with Western allies in Lithuania, Afghanistan, and the Sahel. While the process is slow, and combat-readiness outside of elite forces is often substandard, Berlin’s defense spending has increased. Public opinion polls reveal – perhaps surprisingly – that German citizens are roughly divided between those who favor increased military spending and those who favor existing levels. Very few support defense cuts. The underlying politics of the issue may be more fluid and open to serious leadership than in recent memory. And on that exact point, German defense minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer — also known as “AKK” — has been refreshingly honest and straightforward. In an underappreciated November address before the Munich Bundeswehr University, AKK agreed that the United States has contributed “more than its fair share” to European defense “for the longest time,” noting that “we Germans are often better at declaring our good, even morally motivated intentions, placing high demands on ourselves and others, than at actually proposing measures and implementing them.” She called on her fellow citizens to significantly increase defense spending in the coming years, thus meeting obligations dating back to 2014. Still, given Germany’s complex coalitional politics these days, it’s unclear whether AKK will succeed Angela Merkel as originally planned.
The reaction to all of this from Paris, especially, has been interesting to observe. The French rightly pride themselves on maintaining some serious, independent expeditionary capabilities. President Emmanuel Macron took a great deal of heat for saying that NATO is experiencing “brain-death.” Partly, he was reacting to Trump’s unpredictability. But there’s no doubt that a big part of Macron’s frustration is the sheer difficulty of getting Germany’s Merkel to step up on military matters in a bold, substantial way. The immediate response of the German foreign ministry to Macron’s salvo was that most Teutonic of proposals: namely, the creation of another expert working group. Was Macron wrong to be frustrated?
In truth, Germany has always had multiple foreign policy options, other than a strictly Western one focused on Paris, London, and Washington. Berlin also looks to the East. Established opinion has become used to the idea that Konrad Adenauer’s great achievement of the 1950s — locking the Federal Republic of Germany into a set of Western diplomatic, economic, and military institutions and alliances — must necessarily be irreversible. And of course Merkel has no desire to exit NATO. Quite the contrary. She wants continued American security assurances, and, ideally, good relations with the United States. But good relations on her own terms. And those terms include, for all practical purposes, the maintenance of robust German economic relationships with the two great authoritarian powers of Eurasia.
With regard to Russia, the existence of Polish and Baltic free states provides a buffer that the Federal Republic did not possess during the Cold War. This lessens the sense of immediate danger, since Germany is no longer on the frontline. Merkel takes the position that Berlin must pursue better relations with Moscow, in spite of the long-running standoff over Ukraine. Indeed, leading Germans such as former Chancellor Gerhard Schroder believe they have a special understanding of Russia, for cultural, historic and geographic reasons unavailable to those further West. In Schroder’s case, this deep understanding is accompanied by a paid position on the board of Russian natural gas conglomerates. According to public opinion polls, most Germans have no objection to improved relations with Putin’s Russia. They mainly oppose improved US-Russian relations over their own heads.
Chancellor Merkel has further insisted on the approval of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, supplying natural gas to Germany. This pipeline only increases Central European economic dependence on the Russians, which is why so many NATO allies have opposed it. Yet here, as on defense spending, Merkel acts unilaterally while speaking of multilateralism. The dogmatic opposition of Germany’s politically influential environmentalists to nuclear power only reinforces the country’s dependence on Russian natural gas as an alternative energy source. In effect, a “green” Germany depends on Putin’s Russia for power.
In relation to China, Germany maintains a massive two-way trading relationship, and is very reluctant to disrupt it. The PRC is, for example, a leading market for German luxury automobiles. There has certainly been increased awareness and concern in Berlin over the political and strategic implications of this growing economic dependence on China’s one-party dictatorship. And you will find individual government officials in Berlin keenly aware of the challenge. Yet at the very highest level, that concern is more often expressed in ways declaratory rather than materially substantial, and Merkel for her part has tended to water down or block meaningful action against predatory Chinese practices. Huawei’s plan to build part of Germany’s 5G infrastructure with Telefonica, announced last month, is only the latest example.
German industry now views China as a serious economic competitor, but does not seem ready for the kind of assertive countermeasures that the United States is already undertaking. There is clearly no consensus in Berlin over the way forward on this issue, which tends to produce drift and passivity in the face of ever-expanding movements from Beijing. Rules-based promises of “no-spying” agreements cherished by law-abiding Germans, and then happily signed by leading Chinese authorities, are a risible substitute for serious counteraction. The Chinese will obviously break these agreements, as they have before, viewing it as their obligation to do so in the service of larger national objectives.
Leading Germans regularly describe themselves as economically and politically caught between the three great powers of China, Russia, and the United States – as if all three were equivalent. Of those three, only the United States is an allied democracy pledged to defend the Berlin republic at the risk of its own soldiers’ lives. But the fact that so many Germans see themselves as torn between Moscow, Beijing, and Washington really does speak volumes. That Germanic feeling of ambivalence or equidistance between East and West is unfortunately very real. It has its roots in certain geographic, political, and economic realities. And of course these predate the Trump administration.
In the short term then, our German problem is essentially the one described by US officials. It is a Merkel chancellorship reluctant to fully increase military spending to the promised levels and determined to buy natural gas from Russia — all the while delivering endless lectures on the importance of a rules-based liberal order to the very Americans who have defended German democracy for seventy years now.
In the long term however, our German problem may be even more challenging than that. As the Angela Merkel era fizzles to its conclusion, still shaped by her disastrous mishandling of the 2015 migrant crisis, German political debate is marked by a striking sense of malaise over the country’s identity. Should someone like AKK succeed her as chancellor, then from the perspective of Berlin’s Western allies, the direction of German national security policy might improve. But such a reorientation is hardly guaranteed, even within the CDU/CSU. And certainly not if the Social Democrats have anything to say about it.
In order to defend the West, we need the Germans. They are a great nation, even though they don’t like to talk that way these days – a nation of over eighty million people of astonishing productive capacity combined with unsurpassed cultural, scientific, and intellectual achievements. The answer is not to dredge up misleading analogies from the 1930s. This is downright counterproductive. No doubt Berlin and Washington can and should reach some reasonable compromise over pressing commercial differences, rather than fight what would be a mutually disastrous trade war over auto tariffs. But Americans shouldn’t think the gaps in orientation here are strictly commercial. Somehow we must try to help persuade the Germans that stepping up vigorously on defense issues is no betrayal of their own moral understanding. This is crucial. As a collective, until they are convinced that a broader strategic rearmament is morally acceptable, they simply will not do it. You know the type.
Unfortunately however, the following scenario is possible. In the coming years, the focus of German foreign relations may very well shift toward the East. This wouldn’t be due to the cold, deliberate, geopolitical savvy of any new Otto von Bismarck. Rather, it would be due to increased economic dependence on the People’s Republic of China, and continuing energy dependence on Russia, with unsettling domestic political effects inside the Berlin republic along with inevitable strategic implications. Under this disturbing scenario, Germany would not formally exit NATO. It would still want that reassurance. But in practice, it would drift into a kind of ambiguous, ambivalent posture between Russia, China, and leading Western powers, wringing its hands at being the one large herbivore in an increasingly carnivorous world. It would not rearm or pursue a robust security policy alongside NATO allies in a serious manner. Rather, it would act in some ways as a kind of gigantic Switzerland. And it would justify this overall posture — in all sincerity — as the morally required expression of a deep historical reflection on the evils of international power politics. That is our long-term German problem. And in the end, only the Germans can solve it.