The Dangers of German Strategic Haplessness

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Like most extraordinary circumstances, the Ukraine crisis is a big clarifier. Just as on an X-ray, the still-unfolding developments in Europe’s Eastern backyard have made visible some often overlooked truths about the political situation in Europe.

Among those truths are two strategic questions that are key to the old world’s stability and security. First, predictably, will the United States remain a European power? Second, perhaps less obviously, can Germany be kept inside the Western family of nations? The battle for a Europe whole and free is a battle over German Westbindung.

Why is the fate of the continent still dependent on a strategic issue that sounds like it belongs in the 1950s, not the early twenty-first century?

Because Germany, Europe’s largest, strongest, and most centrally located nation, is not instinctively Western in its political traditions and leanings. The geographic and political key to the old world is still tormented by its own past, obsessively fearful of conflict with Russia, and doubt-ridden over the modern Western capitalist society that has given the country two generations of unprecedented stability and well-being.

Germans do not particularly like Russia—they never really have. Distrust vis-à-vis the Kremlin is high, and there are no illusions about the nature of the regime in Moscow, as a recent poll by Germany’s leading news outlet has confirmed. Eighty-one percent of those asked believed that Russia is not a trustworthy partner.

But 58 percent thought the same about the United States. It comes as no surprise, then, that in another poll by the same outlet, 49 percent of Germans stated that their desired political position is equidistance between the West and Russia. Only 45 percent believed that Germany should be firmly embedded in the West.

None of this would matter much if it were the mindset of a smallish country on the fringes of Europe. But when it’s the big fat thing in the middle of the continent that harbors these leanings, it becomes a geopolitical issue of some consequence.

Equidistance is precisely the position into which Soviet and then Russian leaders have tried to lure Germany since the 1950s. Attempts have ranged from Stalin’s repeated offer to grant Germany neutrality in return for unification in 1952, to Leonid Brezhnev’s long-term strategy to use energy dependence to bind Germany to Russian interests, to President Vladimir Putin’s masterful psychological exploitation of German fears on issues such as missile defense or Ukraine. In all these instances, Moscow’s aim was to de facto neutralize Germany despite its integration into the West.

These efforts have never been fully successful. But they have been successful enough to make Germany an often wobbly ally and to spread uncertainty and fear, especially among Central European countries, most notably Poland. The Kremlin knows full well that uncertainty and fear are the very ingredients that, if nurtured for long enough, will poison every relationship and even the strongest alliance.

Driving a wedge into Westbindung remains a preeminent goal of the Russian leadership. Moscow’s spokespeople and pundits in the West are in high rotation to increase the spread of propaganda aimed at loosening Germany’s ties with the West. Russia’s representatives are smart, they are in it for the long haul, and they often do their job with considerable skill.

This is dangerous, because Westbindung was and is the only way for Germany to make peace with itself and to reassure its neighbors that it will not go astray again. Historically, it was the precondition of Franco-German reconciliation and EU integration. Many believed that after German reunification, Westbindung would become less important, as the Manichaean world of the Cold War was coming to an end, and the world was anyway becoming more Western.

But in reality, Germany has needed Westbindung more since reunification than before. A politically and economically dominant Germany needs to reassure its neighbors about its benign intentions even more than a partitioned one. And the end of the Cold War did not bring about a widespread Westernization of Russia and Eastern Europe.

German Westbindung traditionally comes through four channels: the special relationship with the United States; friendship with France; membership in the EU; and membership in NATO. All four sources are in trouble. The United States is distrusted, France is no longer taken seriously, the EU is seen as an economic liability, and NATO is often forgotten about. NATO is also the irritating reminder that there are such things out there as armies and wars.

Germany has been extraordinarily lucky that all its postwar governments have firmly endorsed the country’s general Western orientation. But it has become increasingly clear since the late 1990s that Germany is willing to go it alone on occasion, and even undermine shared Western positions. Examples range from trade with China to military intervention in Libya to energy policy vis-à-vis Russia. That temptation is visible even in the current Ukraine crisis, although Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood firm against the stated skepticism of the German public.

Crass statements that Germany hates the United States, believes in nothing, and appeases Russia are hysterical exaggerations. The truth is a lot more subtle, especially in a complex—and complex-ridden—place such as Germany.

Germany’s strategic folly is not that it wants to go East. It doesn’t. Nor does it want to destroy NATO or transatlantic solidarity. Its strategic folly is that by following some of its lingering anti-Western sentiments, and by giving in to its desire for neutrality, it might do all of this unintentionally.

Yet Germans must understand that for the largest country in the center of Europe, neutrality is not an option. By wanting to be unaffiliated, Germany would tragically destroy the very world it needs to prosper and enjoy the fruits of its enormous achievements. German strategic haplessness is just as dangerous as German aggressiveness. The latter is history. The former, unfortunately, is not.



Comments (10)

  • Christian Schulz
    Unconvincing piece, Herr Techau. It also has the distinct whiff of somebody who's desperate because he's watching his "arguments" bounce off the public perception. Phrases like "Westbindung was and is the only way for Germany to make peace with itself" reek of constructed arguments (trying to infer facts from historical developments is always going to be a very wobbly argumentative basis).

    "The United States is distrusted, France is no longer taken seriously, the EU is seen as an economic liability, and NATO is often forgotten about."
    Given german experiences with secret police forces and their snooping is it really so surprising that germans are allergic to such ventures? Given France's deadlock in politics vs the very real reform needs it's not a miracle that grandiose rhetorics from Paris are seen as unsubstantiated grandstanding, isn't it? Given the amount of lies and broken promises about the EU (beginning with the no bailout clause in Maastrict Treaty) and the amount of money Germany's asked to cough up is it a miracle that germans are fed up? Given the fact that NATO has been turned from a sensible defensive alliance into a wannabe-Neo-Imperial enforcement club for US interests, demanding participation and development towards the very things that the founding fathers (and mothers) of post-war Germany have vowed never to allow again, is it a miracle that NATO isn't seen as it used to be?
    Lamenting about perceived failures of "Germany" is one thing but ignoring all the ugly little things that contributed to them speaks of a mindset in which adherence to ideology is more important than clear thinking. And we had that in Germany, too ... with results nobody liked. Thanks, I'll pass.
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  • tonyalfidi
    Perhaps German dualism never ended when Germany became the continent's preeminent power. Memories of Austria-Hungary rivalries and Prussian/Polish glories pull its interests naturally eastward.
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  • Leander Beck
    Do you really wonder about the vanishing sympathy for the "Westbindung", especially the United States? In view of all we have known since Snowden about the activities of the NSA? Since 9/11 the U.S. is mutated into a police state, civil rights have been abandoned, the not any more "secret" services are listening and spying the whole world, Guantanamo is still not closed - all together seems worse than Orwells fantasies written down in "1984".

    The idea to expand NATO directly to the borders of russia ist really a great mistake and far from beeing a peaceful action! What would the U.S.Politicians think about russion troups to go to Mexiko?
    Germany, Ukraine and the European Countries are not the next 21 States of the US - sometimes it seems as if this is forgotten beyond the atlantic sea!

    BTW: Most Germans would really welcome it if the U.S. would already withdraw its nuclear weapons from Germany and guide their drone wars from home!
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    • markus uebel replies...
      that´s not so true. there are libaral views as well. if you are not a idiot, us is free. but of course, germany is far more free. but not to have nuclear weapons is just wrong. not to have a a least capable military is just wrong.
  • K Bledowski
    As someone who's kept one eye on Germany from U.S. shores over three decades, I couldn't agree more with Jan Techau.

    Germany's "romantic" search for the goldilocks neutrality was only possible because the U.S. underwrote the country's security and Poland now offers a buffer. But make no mistake, times are changing. The average American taxpayer is already beginning to ask why so many Germans condone Russian behavior or why Germany fails to spend on self-defense. The U.S. public opinion matters in congressional elections and it's Congress that appropriates funds.

    Germany's defense is NATO and NATO is the United States.
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    • Christian Schulz replies...
      "Germany's "romantic" search for the goldilocks neutrality was only possible because the U.S. underwrote the country's security and Poland now offers a buffer."
      True on both parts, but the idea of "disarmed neutrality" was very popular after the war. I guess this basic kind of "leave me alone" is still part of german political menthality today. I certainly feel its lure, so to speak.

      "The average American taxpayer is already beginning to ask why so many Germans condone Russian behavior or why Germany fails to spend on self-defense."

      The US taxpayer has every right to ask that. It does ignore, however, the fact that the concepts of values and ideas that the West (and the US in the forefront) is supposedly standing for and which are now being touted at every corner have been turned into a mockery by politicians from the West over the course of the last decade. The Iraq War, Guantanamo, Abu Ghuraib, the paranoia that led to the way overblown NSA snooping everywhere, targeted killings and the drone war ... all this essentially devalued the concepts the USA used to stand for to the point when this country is no longer taken seriously if these values are invoked again. I don't understand Putin apologists who hold him blameless while seeing the West as pitch-black evil, but I certainly understand the "Look who's talking!" responses when Obama or one of his secretaries are droning on about values, freedom etc ... It just has a bitter taste after the last ten years.
      Now, on to defense. Defense against what? Germans do not perceive a military threat to them and given the loss of credibility the US has suffered due to what I said above people do not wish to be drawn into a confrontation with Russia. Combined with the historical malus of the military in the social order and public perception there is simply no impetus for anyone to promote defense spending. Most people would simply ask "What for?" There is, as I said, no perceptible military threat to Germany and the "humanitarian interventionism" of the past decade has left a very sour taste in everyone's mouth (not that germans were ever enthusiastic about it to begin with).
      Bottom line is: Germans do not perceive a military threat that could justify higher defense outlays, military force as political tool is a nonstarter and therefor there is no politician to lobby for it, either, and the "West" has suffered a serious downgrading in credibility due to many large and small missteps over the past decade.
  • Col. Martin Hessler
    For Germany, nothing changes. Germany believed she didn't need the old traditions before. But now she knows that she does! We'll be as mighty again as we ever were! It'll take time, but the ideals will be the same. When the drums beat and the bands play, and our flags wave again, and Grossdeutschland is united once more, then we'll march together to the ends of the earth! One people. One Germany. One leader!

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  • Jordo
    Nato & US war criminals must be stopped.
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  • MC
    "France is no longer taken seriously,"


    Schaeuble didn't notice that lately

    because, without France, no EU, no more euro that helped so much the german economy of surpluses , all that would be doomed

    I know, France can't be serious with a Hollande at its commands, but a Marine Le Pen will make you get a different approach, we'll leave the errating ship made for german needs only
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  • Prof. Dr. Peter W. Schulze
    The battle for the control of Europe is on, as it was 1949- the start of the Cold War. Now were are in a new, structural different Cold War which hopefully ends without military confrontations as the first one, but is located again in Germany. The power which controls German politics is controlling Europe-sine the Russian Federation. Therefore the witch-hunt against the intellectuals who try to assess Russian political objectives according to realist terms.
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