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There is no description of the essence of the “political West” that emerged after 1945 punchier than that offered by NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay. The alliance’s task, he memorably observed, was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Decades later, the Russians no longer pose an existential threat to the political West, while other affairs preoccupy the Americans, raising questions about the future of the Germans, what the West represents today, and what Russia should expect from it.
Criticizing Berlin for “free riding” on the U.S. security umbrella and falling behind with its contributions to NATO, U.S. President Donald Trump recently announced his intention to reduce the United States’ 34,500-strong military contingent in Germany by nearly a third. He added that while the Americans have been spending exorbitant sums to protect the Germans from the Russians, Berlin has been busy paying Moscow generously for gas. If Trump follows through on his threat, the number of troops there will be reduced to 25,000.
The announcement was met with sharp opposition from German politicians as well as much of the U.S. foreign policy establishment. The disagreement has come at a time of deep polarization in the United States, but behind the polemics is a question that a change of leadership alone will not put to rest. What is the raison d’être of the transatlantic community, the linchpin of which was always the unshakeable relationship between the United States and (West) Germany?
Divided Germany was the center and the quintessence of the Cold War. At its end, more than 200,000 American and about 500,000 Soviet troops were deployed on German soil. The latter withdrew at the end of the summer of 1994, while the U.S. contingent was incrementally reduced over the years. All the while, NATO struggled to sum up its new mission as succinctly as Lord Ismay once had, as Russia receded as a military threat, not to reemerge until 2014, and Asia displaced Europe as the United States’ main preoccupation.
At the same time, Germany’s reunification meant that from 1990 on, the so-called German question reared its head again in European politics. Germany was too powerful to integrate into a European system, but not strong enough to subjugate the rest of the continent. As the analyst Robert Kagan wrote last year, “it was always a question how long Germany would be willing to remain an abnormal nation, denying itself normal geopolitical ambitions, normal selfish interests, and normal nationalist pride.”
In Germany’s case, these things have unleashed pan-European cataclysms repeatedly since the country’s unification in the nineteenth century. John Mearsheimer, the well-known realist, asked in August 1990: “Is it not possible, for example, that German thinking about the benefits of controlling Eastern Europe will change markedly once American forces are withdrawn from Central Europe and the Germans are left to provide for their own security?”
Trump may have reduced it to pure mercantilism, but today’s discussion really concerns the aims and priorities of the West’s foreign policy after the globalization of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Those in the United States who reject Trump’s proposed drawdown appeal to the model of American hegemony (or leadership), one to which a visible military presence in Europe is critical. Yet it is precisely that model that is today in crisis and which no longer resonates with ordinary Americans, whose isolationist sentiments brought Trump to power.
The present administration prioritizes not world domination as such but the realization of the United States’ national interests in competition with its major rivals, chief among them China. From such a standpoint, close cooperation with Europe at worst loses all meaning and at best becomes conditional on Europe’s ability to prove that the security guarantees provided by the United States are paying off, financially or otherwise.
It is almost comical: The American president charges that the United States protects Germany from Russia but gets nothing in return, and German diplomats reply that U.S. troops are in Germany not to protect it from Russia but “to defend transatlantic security” (which begs the question from whom) and “to project U.S. power in Africa [and] Asia.” In Berlin, officials warn of the severe consequences that a drawdown will have for bilateral relations, even as they deny that the U.S. military presence is related to specific challenges to Germany’s security.
The consternation in Berlin reflects wariness of the “normal” instincts alluded to by Mearsheimer and described by Kagan. The three things that guided Germany’s post-reunification foreign policy and West Germany’s post-war foreign policy before it are now in question: Germany’s relations with the United States, the model of European integration, and the country’s party system. What came before, of course, was a national catastrophe.
In German society, as well as the country’s political establishment, fears linger that changing external circumstances may leave Germany caught in the trap of its own past. Little surprise, then, that the emancipation promised by the “strategic autonomy” of which Paris so eagerly speaks these days is met with ambivalence in Berlin, where the U.S. military presence is seen as a guarantee of political calm and predictability.
Unfortunately for Germany, things are unlikely to stay that way. Although Europe is betting on Trump’s defeat in the fall and expecting Joe Biden, if elected, to take a more traditional line in his foreign policy, the substance of international politics will not change, regardless of who occupies the White House come January 2021.
That U.S.-German relations have ended up at the center of these global changes is symbolic and natural. Once the linchpin of the West, which from 1945 until now had been both politically and institutionally formalized, U.S.-German relations are undergoing a transformation, heralding a new epoch.
This material is part of the “Russia-EU: Promoting Informed Dialogue” project supported by the EU Delegation to Russia.
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