US-German ties: Time to face facts
A new era such as ours calls for new thinking. Going perhaps even further, continuing with old, outdated ways of analysis makes understanding our new world practically impossible. When all this is said theoretically, almost no one would disagree. However, let me be frighteningly specific (and rather controversial) as to how I intend to apply these general new rules to US-German relations, long a bedrock of “the West’s” dominance of the old world.
An alliance between the two simply no longer exists in the brave new era we are entering. The sooner American statesmen wake up to this cold reality that one of their favorite intellectual sacred cows is no more, the better.
Let me explain in some detail. The old 1945 to 1991 world was characterized at the highest political risk structural level as a geopolitical contest between the US and the Soviet Union. Further, it was a time of “tight bipolarity,” wherein the allies of each superpower had to generally march in lockstep with one or other of them. In the case of the allies of the Soviet Union, failure to do so could lead to outright invasion, as happened to the Hungarians in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968. While more tolerant of its allies than this, the US too only brooked limited dissent. In such a system, while West Germany became a phenomenal economic success story, in terms of geopolitics — particularly given its Nazi past — Bonn was generally content to follow the American geopolitical lead in almost every case, even as it transformed itself into an economic superpower. It is this specific historical case that today’s leaders and analysts think of when they somewhat lazily use the term “allies.”
But this is not the world we live in any longer. While our new era can still be characterized at the highest level as a bipolar competition — this time between the US and China — neither are as relatively dominant regarding the great powers beneath them as were either the Soviets or the Americans of the bygone age. Instead, we live in a world of “loose bipolarity,” where great powers such as India, Japan, the Anglosphere countries, Russia, and Germany/the EU have a lot more room to make geopolitical decisions and set strategic policy on their own. No longer tied to either superpower’s apron strings, the great powers of today cannot and must not complacently be counted on by American policymakers to just robotically fall in line.
Germany is the most glaring case in point. For, despite all the cocktail parties, endless transatlantic conferences and repeating of the mantra that all the two countries’ disagreements can be put down to the general disdain of Donald Trump, the political risk reality is radically different.
Germany, far from acceding to decades of US pleas, shows not the slightest interest in meeting even the most meager of defense spending commitments.
Dr. John C. Hulsman
Presently, over vast swaths of contemporary foreign policy, Washington and Berlin simply do not agree. Germany, far from acceding to decades of US pleas, shows not the slightest interest in meeting even the most meager of defense spending commitments. Defense, evidently, is for other people, preferably the hard-pressed American taxpayer. Likewise, Berlin, despite the anguished howls from Southern European EU member states, as well as America, shows not the least desire to decrease its record-setting current account surpluses.
Given its huge exposure to trade, Berlin also disdains any serious effort to decouple its economy from that of booming China, even as Washington is urging its “allies” to begin to construct parallel supply chains to hedge against Beijing.
The Anglosphere countries — particularly Australia, the US and latterly the UK — have hewed to an increasingly hawkish line over China, ruling out long-term dependence on Huawei over the installation of important 5G telecommunications networks. Berlin, instead leading the vanguard of European neutralism, has quietly but consistently failed to rule out Huawei as its 5G carrier.
Finally, despite the many examples of Vladimir Putin’s general perfidy — most recently over the Kremlin’s alleged poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny — German Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to halt construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which will double Russia’s gas exports to Europe. Leaving its supposed concerns about human rights to one side, Merkel finds herself susceptible to the US charge that, while America defends Germany from the Russian threat, at the exact same time Berlin is doing big business with it.
A thought experiment makes it clear that Germany and the US are no longer allies in the old sense of the term: Simply take away their names and note the practical discrepancies. Country A and Country B have been considered long-time allies until someone notices that they fundamentally disagree about trade, defense spending, China, Russia, the role of international law, and the use of force in the international system. It is palpably obvious that such disagreements between “allies” mean they are no longer really allies at all.
Without doubt, Trump has exacerbated the US-German drift, but he did not cause it. Rather, given the loose bipolar world we live in, drift was to be expected. Ironically, the first step in lessening (though not doing away with) the breach between the two is an American recognition that it exists. Keeping Germany broadly onside is possible, but only if the US sees the new reality right in front of it.
• Dr. John C. Hulsman is the president and managing partner of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a prominent global political risk consulting firm. He is also senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the City of London. He can be contacted via www.chartwellspeakers.com.