The most comprehensive description of the core of the “political West” that arose after the Second World War belongs to the first Secretary-General of NATO, Lord Ismay. He outlined the task of the alliance as “to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” And it reflected the nature of transatlantic relations, the preservation of which consisted of the interest of both shores of the ocean. The opposition of the political West (“free world”) to the political East (Soviet camp) was the content of world politics.
But it was a long time ago. Since then, the Russians have ceased to pose the former existential threat. The Americans went about other things. And the future of the Germans is a larger question – what is the West at a new historical stage? And what can Russia expect from it.
The ghost of the German issue
Donald Trump announced his intention to withdraw almost a third of the US military contingent from Germany. In reporting this, he rebuked Germany for late payments to the NATO treasury and parasitism on the US security umbrella. And at the same time, the Americans spend a lot of money to protect the Germans from Russia, and they give Moscow a lot of money on gas. If the decision is implemented (while the military claims that they have not received an order), 25,000 out of 34,500 troops will remain on German ground.
This is more than enough, Richard Grenell believes, who has just left the post of US ambassador to Berlin. “American taxpayers are no longer disposed to pay too much to ensure the security of other countries,” Grenell said in a farewell interview to Bild. “I hope this will be an instructive moment for the Germans because Germany is an ally only in name. When it comes to the critical external challenges we face, it is either insignificant or harmful,” foreign policy analyst Christian Wheaton, who served on the Bush and Trump administrations, wrote on Foxnews website.
German politicians and a large part of the American establishment from the foreign sphere are sharply against the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters. “NATO is not a trade organization, and security is not a commodity,” said German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. Democratic congressmen Bob Menendez and Elliot Angel introduced a bill forbidding the president to withdraw troops: “The presence of American troops in Germany meets the interests of US national security. And that’s the point.” Naturally, Vladimir Putin was immediately called the main beneficiary of such a decision.
The skirmish came at a time when a polarization in the United States was approaching the atmosphere of the civil war by its intensity. It could be attributed to the features of the moment and the specifics of the current president. However, there is a deeper question behind the controversy, the answer to which will not appear, even if Trump leaves the White House in January 2021. What is the meaning of the existence of a transatlantic community, the core of which has always been the unshakable relationship between the United States and (Western) Germany?
Divided Germany was the center and quintessence of the Cold War. By its end, more than 200,000 Americans and about half a million Soviet military were stationed on German territory. The Russian contingent left the country in the late summer of 1994, the American gradually reduced to the current level. Despite declarations of the incredible success and effectiveness of NATO, the tasks of the alliance after the end of the confrontation with the USSR never found the precise clarity of Lord Ismay’s formula. For 25 years (until 2014), Russia has faded into the shadow as a military threat; US interest in Europe has fallen as they reoriented to Asia.
Meanwhile, since 1990, when Germany became united again, the specter of the “German issue,” which caused war after the unification of the country in the 19th century, returned to European politics. Germany was too powerful to fit into any European system, but not strong enough to subjugate the rest. As Robert Kagan wrote last year in Foreign Affairs, even before the liberal world order began to burst at the seams, the question arose: how long can Germany remain a strange country refusing normal geopolitical aspirations, normal self-serving interests and normal nationalistic pride?
And we should add that there is a link between the cataclysms of a pan-European scale and the German case. On the eve of the reunification of Germany in 1990, a classic of the school of realism in international relations, John Mearsheimer, wondered: “Is it possible to imagine, for example, that the attitude of the Germans towards the idea of control over Eastern Europe will noticeably change as soon as American troops leave Central Europe and the Germans have to ensure their own security?”
Who to protect?
Today’s discussion, which trumped down to pure commercialism through Trump’s efforts, is actually an essential debate about what are the priorities and goals of Western policy in the world after globalization of the late 20th – early 21st century. The argumentation of those in the United States who reject Trump's idea of reducing the contingent appeals to a model of American hegemony (leadership) that developed first in the West and then spread to the whole world. And in this logic (no matter how it is stated - in value-ideological or geopolitical categories), a noticeable military presence in Europe is fundamental.
However, this model is in crisis, it does not find the same response among the population of the United States. The emergence of an isolationist-minded Trump in the White House is the product of these changed sentiments. And during his presidency, so much has already happened in the world that even convinced globalists recognize the need to retreat to previously prepared positions.
The current administration sees as a priority not in the domination as such, but in the realization of US national interests in confrontation with major rivals, the main of which is China. From this perspective, all arguments in favor of close cooperation with Europe, if they do not lose their meaning, then become conditional, which Trump and the like-minded people all the time insist on. In other words, Europe (primarily Germany) must prove that the security services that the United States provides are bringing in return - financially or otherwise.
Another way is to assist in the implementation of Washington’s policy in areas important to the US, primarily Chinese and Iranian. But just here Europe and especially Germany have their own opinions and their own interests. As, for example, in the issue of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the launch of which the American leadership (the administration and Congress are united here) is determined to prevent. Motivation varies from the desire to promote its own LNG to the European market to the desire to punish Russia for interfering in elections and other anti-American art. But the goal of different groups is the same.
Contradictions with the United States over the supply of Siberian gas to Europe for half a century. In the early 1980s, they reached a climax when the Reagan administration imposed sanctions against European suppliers of equipment for the Urengoy-Pomary-Uzhgorod gas pipeline. However, the European Economic Community countries, and first of all the FRG (Helmut Schmidt was chancellor), rested and achieved their goal, although relations between the USSR and the West after the invasion of Afghanistan were in an extremely acute phase. This was possible then and unlikely now because at that time the United States and Western Europe were united by a common understanding of security threats, ideology and development goals. In these rigidly fixed frameworks, it was possible to coordinate not necessarily coinciding with private interests, since there were no doubts about the unity of common interests. Now they arise more often. And if there are no common fundamental interests, then the United States and Germany are simply competitors in many areas. And Trump keeps repeating it.
The discussion becomes almost anecdotal. The American president criticizes Germany for protecting the United States from Russia but not getting anything in return, and German diplomats say that the troops do not protect Germany from Russia at all, but protect transatlantic security (I wonder from whom) and project US forces into Asia and Africa.
Officials in Berlin (Special Representative for Transatlantic Relations and the Minister of Foreign Affairs) warn of the dire consequences of the decision to withdraw part of the contingent for bilateral relations. Although it is not entirely clear what is going to happen because of the departure of nine and a half thousand military men if their stay is not connected with specific security challenges in Germany.
Trap of the past
The turmoil in Berlin is explained precisely by what Mearsheimer wrote about 30 years ago, and recently Kagan, by the fear of awakening natural instincts. Relations with Washington were the pillar of the entire post-war policy of Germany, primarily as a guarantee of a common European balance, immersion in which guaranteed the return of the fatal "German issue."
Germany now faces a triple challenge: the crisis of the European integration model, the decline in relations with the United States, and domestic political shifts associated with the deterioration of the party system. That is, the entire political framework has floated, in which the country has developed since the middle of the last century. But she has nowhere to return - before this system there was a national catastrophe.
German society and the political establishment are still afraid that if external circumstances change, the country will be trapped in its own past. Therefore, the emancipation towards a kind of European "strategic autonomy", which is readily talked about, for example, in Paris, plunges Berlin into extremely contradictory feelings. The presence of the American military, who once came as occupying forces, is seen as a guarantee of political calm and predictability.
The chances of the latter, however, are not high. Europe, of course, counts on Trump's loss, expecting a more familiar Atlantic line from the democratic administration. And the form is likely to really change, but the content of international politics will not come back. Moreover, this will not happen if the republican administration remains in power.
The fact that it is American-German relations that are now in the center of intense attention is symbolic and logical. They were the core of the Western community, which after the Second World War for the first time in history was politically and institutionally formalized. And their transformation will be the main sign of the onset of a new era.
Christian Wheaton’s commentary, quoted above, sharply critical of Germany, contains a curious passage: “The vanguard of the free world in the 21st century is different from what it was in the last century. Its heart is still located in America, but the rest of the key assets are front-line countries, such as Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Like during the Cold War, not all of them are democracies, but they are reliable allies who confront the main enemies of freedom in the world.” The list of front-line countries makes it possible to clearly identify the hierarchy of fronts: Chinese, Iranian, Russian. So no matter how the transatlantic relations take shape further, on our front, without changes. But in intra-European to predict the disposition is now risky.