The Munich Security Conference, an annual gathering of the trans-Atlantic security community, was held this weekend in Germany. Two things stood out. First, Germany is trying to redefine NATO’s primary functions in important ways. Second, the tensions between the United States and Europe are being redefined as tensions between a U.S.-led bloc and a German-led bloc. While Germany claims to speak for all of Europe, it’s actually leading a faction within the Continent against the United States and a group of European nations whose interests are more aligned with those of Washington.
At the conference, the most important disagreement between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence was over Russia. The American view is that Russia is an adversary whose strategic interests are at odds with those of the Western alliance. Its behavior in former Soviet buffer states, in the Middle East and in intelligence operations represents a threat that must be contained and countered. The Russian decision to support Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro is a minor example of Russian hostility to Western governments, many of which have thrown their support behind the Venezuelan opposition.
The German position is that the dispute with Russia should be seen not as a security or military issue but as a political one. According to the Germans, the problem should be solved through the integration of Russia into the European system. But this view isn’t shared among all European states. The United Kingdom, which criticized Russia for allegedly poisoning a former Russian spy in the U.K., does not see Moscow as a benign actor. Poland and Romania, both on the frontier of the former Soviet Union, view the Russians as a major military threat. Warsaw fears an accommodation between Germany and Russia because historically such accommodations have been disastrous for Poland, a country that didn’t emerge from Russian, German and Austrian domination until after World War I. The Baltic and Scandinavian states also see Russia as a threat. Of course, this perspective is most pronounced in Ukraine.
Some of these countries are part of NATO and some are simply part of the Western bloc, but all share the American view that Russia is a security threat and military measures must be taken to block Russian aggression. On this topic, therefore, Germany doesn’t speak for Europe. There are other European nations that share Germany’s perspective on Russia, but Berlin can’t claim a European consensus on the matter. Thus, the perception that the main divide in NATO is between the U.S. and all of Europe is false. Both in North America and in Europe, the split is far more complex.
The U.S. and Germany have different approaches to Russia because their national strategies are also different. For roughly 100 years, the primary focus of U.S. strategy was to resist the domination of Europe by a single power. The United States intervened in the two world wars to block the German drive for hegemony. It engaged in the Cold War to prevent Soviet domination of Western Europe. This was the core U.S. strategy for a century, and Germany was at the center of it, both in the world wars and, as the primary zone of confrontation, in the Cold War. As Russia became more assertive in 2008 in Georgia, the strategic reflex was to begin the process of containing Russia. It is important to see that, apart from peripheral actions in the world that are far less predictable, this central strategy of blocking domination of a hegemon is both predictable and institutionalized.
Germany’s national strategy, on the other hand, has evolved from its own experience. It was fragmented before 1871, then united in 1871, divided again after World War II, then reunited after the Cold War. Since then, Germany’s strategy to achieve its primary imperative of maintaining maximum unification has been to maintain prosperity, solidify a European system that supports this prosperity, and avoid all military conflicts that would threaten German territorial integrity.
Germany and the U.S., therefore, have different interests. The U.S. and Poland are now reaching military cooperation agreements, which frightens Germany because it believes they might trigger its worst nightmare – another European war. Germany doesn’t want a buildup of U.S. forces in Poland or Romania; it wants a political settlement with Russia. But that process is too uncertain and lengthy for some Eastern European states. Thus the two blocks within the Western alliance are deeply at odds. The Germans see the Americans as reckless; the Americans see the Germans as getting a free ride. They can’t agree on what the next steps should be, much less what the real risks are.
A Deeper Problem
Behind all this, however, is a deeper problem. Germany needs the European Union as a market for its goods. But the EU is fragmenting for both economic and political reasons. The second-largest economy in Europe, the United Kingdom, is leaving in the midst of threats and recriminations from the EU. Italy, the fourth-largest economy, is in conflict with Brussels. Meanwhile, the EU is attacking Poland and Hungary for political deviation. A core component of German strategy is splintering, and Germany may not be able to hold it together.
In Munich, Merkel emphasized that NATO is not just a military alliance but a political one. But that’s true of every military alliance, so why did she need to state that now? NATO’s primary significance is not its political functions but its military component; it can draw members into combat in the defense of another member. This is what Germany fears. It doesn’t want to be pulled into military action or trapped between combatants. One way Germany has defended itself is by maintaining an extremely limited military capability. It has been able to do so because it isn’t facing any direct military threats, since Poland and Romania act as buffers and since the U.S. has provided both countries with military support. So even though the U.S. and German strategies diverge, Germany benefits substantially from the U.S. strategy because it gives Berlin room to maneuver.
The American strategy is simple, as good strategies should be. The U.S. doesn’t want a single country to dominate Europe or Asia. It’s trying to achieve this through fairly simple actions like deploying troops to Poland, raising tariffs on China and maintaining a presence in the South China Sea. Germany’s strategy is more complicated. It’s searching for a political solution to the resistance it’s facing from coalition partners. And it’s trying to hold together a fragmented Europe. Meanwhile, it can’t afford a split with the global power, the United States. As always, there’s no elegant solution to the German strategic problem.