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06 February 2022

The two Germanys

One marker of political leadership is being able to confront your own side with uncomfortable questions. This is what Nato will need to do with Germany. They can't rein in Vladimir Putin’s territorial ambitions unless they sort out Germany first. These are three questions I feel that need asking:

1. If Russia violates Ukraine's borders, would Germany agree to halting Nord Stream 2, even if Russia initially limits its invasion to a small part of Ukraine?

2. If Russia invades a Nato country, would Germany vote to trigger Nato’s Art. 5 mutual self-defence clause?

3. Do the SPD, or SPD-led states, take Russian money?

It is important that these questions are answered in public. If not, Germany will continue to play a game of blinders with its partners, as it already did over Nord Stream 2. Angela Merkel assured Joe Biden that Nord Stream 2 would be stopped once Russia used energy as a strategic weapon. Putin already did this when he reduced gas flows last autumn. But Merkel and Olaf Scholz did not even consider sanctioning Nord Stream 2, because the commitment was a lie in the first place. Even if Germany accepted putting Nord Stream 2 on the table if Russia invades Ukraine, I bet it would fall back on its word if Russia actually invaded. Germany is not going to sacrifice its energy security for the sake of the Donbas. The Germans are masters at shifting goal posts.

What is not fully appreciated elsewhere is the sheer degree to which Germany has become a Russian ally. This is not just about Gerhard Schröder, though his influence in the SPD is still very strong. There are many Germans who feel culturally and politically closer to Russia. They may disagree with Putin, but the Russian leader is kind of the devil they know, whereas your average German struggles to figure out US leaders like George W. Bush or Donald Trump.

Remember the words of Frank Walter Steinmeier, the German president, who said that Germans would under no circumstances ever fight Russians. But where does this statement leave Nato’s Art. 5 mutual self-defence clause? This is why my second question above is so important. I actually believe that the Bundestag would not approve a German Nato Art. 5 engagement. Depending on who happens to be in government at the time, Germany may even veto an Art. 5 decision in the North Atlantic Council. Nato needs to sort this out beforehand.

When I say confront, I don’t mean confrontation in an angry or aggressive way. A blame game won’t help anybody. What I mean is seeking clarity on their position. There is very little debate in Germany about the externalities of its own policies, like the direct link between Germany’s economic model and its foreign policy ambivalence. If your economic model consists of running large and persistent current account surpluses against the rest of the world, you make yourself vulnerable to sanctions. This is how successive German leaders end up coddling dictators.

Many smaller EU countries follow the same logic, which is why the EU never confronts Germany on anything. The EU is full of mini-Germanys. The euro area’s sovereign debt crisis was as much about German current surpluses as it was about Greek deficits. Germany tried, successfully, to frame the entire debate in terms of fiscal rectitude. And the EU allowed Germany to get away with this.

I have given up on the EU. But why does Nato allow Germany to play the same duplicitous game? One reason is that German diplomacy is better than its reputation. They are playing the game of smokes and mirrors with skill. But the biggest factor, I think, are preconceptions that stem from a long time ago. Among US elites there is a great emotional attachment to Germany. US military leaders remember Helmut Schmidt's courage when he stationed medium-range missiles on German soil, despite huge protests from within his own party. They remember Helmut Kohl's role after the collapse of communism in Europe. And of course they love their BMWs and Mercedes. The French elites, and French presidents in particular, define themselves in terms of their bilateral relationship with Germany, which France always put above the EU.

This is not a sustainable position, for the EU nor for Nato. Germany is where the west is at its most vulnerable. The choice for Nato is between confronting Germany, or letting Putin win with the hidden help of his most loyal ally.

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