By Constanze Stelzenmüller
North Korea, China, Iran, Cuba, Venezuela: America currently has disputes with a lot of countries. Europeans, meanwhile, have done quite well at keeping their heads down. A U.S.-EU trade truce is still holding. And NATO’s 70th anniversary festivities in Washington came and went in early April without tweet fireworks from the president threatening U.S. withdrawal.
There was one notable exception to this queasy peace, however: Germany.
At a think-tank event during the NATO celebrations, vice-president Mike Pence castigated Germany for its inadequate defense spending and for being a “captive of Russia.” A few weeks later, presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump opined on Fox Business that Angela Merkel’s welcome of refugees in 2015 had been Germany’s “downfall” and “one of the worst things to ever happen” to the country.
Germany is, in fact, having a bit of a moment in the roiling imagination of the Trumpian nationalist right. It has been denounced as “selfish” and “America’s worst ally” by Ted Bromund, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation. Jakub Grygiel, until last year a member of the State Department’s policy planning staff, called it “a source of fear and resentment.” And Michael Anton, a former senior White House adviser for strategic communications, just published an essay on the “Trump Doctrine” which contends that the EU is “a fraud” and Germany “treats the EU as a front organization.”
Then of course there is President Trump himself, who has a famously bad chemistry with Chancellor Merkel and, in the words of the New Yorker magazine, an “obsession” with her country. It certainly features regularly in his tweets.
But even Brookings scholar Robert Kagan—who is a colleague and a friend, and, more importantly, neither a nationalist nor a Trumpian—recently chimed in on the topic with an essay in the magazine Foreign Affairs. He notes that today’s Germany is a product of specific characteristics of the postwar order: the U.S. security commitment to Europe, free trade, democracy promotion, and multilateralism—all of which are being questioned by the Trump administration. And Kagan worries that a failure of the European project might see the return of the “German question.”
Where to start? It’s a wild guess, but I suspect Ms. Trump probably hasn’t visited Germany lately. If she had, she would have found that its efforts to come to grips with the influx of more than a million refugees nearly four years ago have had mixed results. Deporting those who can’t claim asylum has been a struggle, and so has integrating those who can stay. But a remarkable 400,000 now have jobs or are in training. “Downfall” is a term most Germans associate with 1945, not 2015.
As for the new prophets of nationalism, their grasp of European history and politics is sketchy and riddled with errors. There also seems to be some confusion about what version of Germany they would prefer to the current one. Presumably, it should be less liberal, and less powerful. But they seem to dislike it both when it’s being liberal (by taking in refugees) and when it’s acting out of national self-interest (as with the Nord Stream 2 Russian gas pipeline, for example). And if its power is the bigger problem, wouldn’t a diminished or isolated Germany negatively affect Europe’s economic health? Wouldn’t that make it more difficult for it to take on a greater defense burden?
Kagan, in contrast, genuinely admires Germany’s democratic transformation and hopes that it lasts “forever.” But remember all that ordnance dropped by the Allies during the second world war now dormant in German soil? “Think of Europe today,” he writes, “as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live.” It’s a troubling choice of metaphor, because it questions the reality of homegrown change and agency in postwar Europe. If America leaves, the jungle returns. And, with it, the undead ghosts of European and German history.
But a weak or problematic critique can point to a stark truth. No nation has profited more handsomely from the postwar European order than Germany. None has a greater interest in preserving it. The Berlin Republic shows little sign of understanding the responsibility it bears, and the urgency of the challenge.
The real risk to Europe’s prosperity and safety is not an aggressively selfish Germany, but one that is in denial, or else seeks to hedge against a bullying and erratic America with the help of authoritarian powers like Russia and China.
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