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Could Europe Fear Germany Again?
President-elect Donald Trump hasn’t taken the oath of office or outlined his administration’s plans for the nation’s foreign policy, but his election has already forced the United States’ European allies to contemplate a future where the United States might no longer underwrite Europe’s security. Faced with an American president who has dismissed alliances such as NATO while denigrating liberal values, Germany will assume an increasingly consequential role as a leader in the turbulent transatlantic order while it takes gradual steps to shore up its lagging military capabilities. But the prospect of nationalist victories in important European elections next year raises an under-discussed question: as the European project comes under unprecedented strain and prepares to face a President who promises to turn the United States away from the world, could a fractured and increasingly nationalistic Europe come to fear a more powerful Germany again?
For students of European history, Germany’s contemporary profile as a bastion of liberal values and globalization is nothing short of a miracle. Its improbable reintegration into the international system after 1945 was made possible because American and European statesmen forged a transatlantic order that avoided the strictures Versailles imposed on Germany a generation earlier. But the West’s embrace of postwar Germany sought to do more than instill transatlantic liberal values in the vanquished Third Reich: it also aimed to resolve the perennial dilemma of Germany’s power. Following its unification under Otto von Bismarck, Germany’s military and industrial might destabilized Europe’s post-Napoleonic balance of power by causing other Great Powers to fear Berlin’s intentions, which led in part to the continent’s militarization and the eventual outbreak of World War I. With the United States as Europe’s new postwar balancer, Germany’s onetime foes could concentrate on rebuilding the continent while dealing with the more pressing threat of Soviet aggression.
Although the Third Reich was ruined, occupied, and divided by the victorious Allies by 1945, the fear of German power never disappeared. NATO sought to keep the Soviets out of Western Europe, but its concurrent aspiration to keep the Germans down was largely forgotten because the West came to take Germany’s liberal character for granted. Franco-German cooperation and America’s security presence in Europe allowed a common European identity to flourish, thanks to which Germany’s economic and political power reached unprecedented heights. Germany’s reunification in 1990, an outward sign of the Cold War’s end, forced policymakers to confront the return of the same powerhouse responsible for destabilizing the continent 50 years earlier. While the leaders of the dying Soviet Union voiced fears about Germany’s reunification, as did British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and French President Francois Mitterrand, the rapid emergence of new challenges such as the Gulf War and the Yugoslav Wars quickly buried those fears. Averse to foreign intervention, Germany reunited became a key pillar of the post-Cold War transatlantic order.
The impending presidency of Donald Trump is one of the most significant internal challenges NATO has ever faced. For the first time since its inception, an incoming American president has dismissed NATO’s relevance while expressing affinity for illiberal regimes abroad and illiberal policy ideas at home. Some illiberal states such as Poland and Hungary have greeted Trump’s election with hope that the United States will stop pressuring them to respect liberal values. Russia, perhaps as surprised as anyone at his election despite its intervention in the American electoral process, is guardedly optimistic that Trump will seek to cut a deal with Moscow on Ukraine and Syria. Germany, however, measured in its reaction, has signaled apprehension about the implications of Trump’s victory for the transatlantic order. In her congratulatory statement, Chancellor Angela Merkel conditioned Germany’s cooperation with Trump “on the basis of values” such as democracy, freedom, and respect for the law. In a profound twist of historical irony that is not yet appreciated widely, only 71 years after World War II, a sitting German chancellor has warned the next leader of the United States to respect the transatlantic order’s commitment to the rule of law and liberal values.
Some commentators have rushed to anoint Angela Merkel the proverbial leader of the free world. But as critical as Germany has been to Europe’s stability and unity – Merkel, for instance, is instrumental in preserving the transatlantic sanctions regime against Moscow – Berlin can’t replace Washington in the post-World War II order. The United States is the only transatlantic pillar capable of fulfilling a unique balancing role due to its ability to project stability onto Europe far away from its shores. Trump’s comments on NATO have nevertheless forced Europeans to rethink the continent’s security. Germany will take steps to shore up its neglected military capabilities and boost spending from its current 1.18 percent of GDP, down from 2.5 percent in 1988. A white paper published by the German defense minister in July 2016 calls on Germany to “assume responsibility” and play a greater role in the world. The paper signaled a significant turn for Germany, but embracing a more robust military with a more active international portfolio would be a departure from Germany’s traditional postwar foreign policy. The United States’ security umbrella was the key variable that allowed the continent to economically integrate, which raised the costs of war and helped forge a common European identity that dampened the nationalism underlying Europe’s experience with war. Germany’s success is a testament to that policy, which has in turn allowed it to project influence in Europe without having to maintain a military reflective of its economic might.
Could a remilitarized Germany surrounded by increasingly Eurosceptic and nationalist governments one day rekindle old fears about German power? Germany’s economic might has already unleashed resentment about Berlin’s influence in Europe. During the Euro crisis, Germany’s insistence that peripheral states embrace austerity led to anti-German protests. The United Kingdom’s impending departure from the EU will only further elevate Germany’s leading role in Europe. While this on its own won’t lead to the destabilization of the continent, any scenario in which the project of European integration unravels might. If nationalist parties make gains or take outright control in elections next year in Italy, the Netherlands, and France, it is possible that the EU as we know it today will not survive. In that scenario, Germany, having laid the groundwork to boost spending and investment in military capabilities, could inadvertently resurrect fear of its intentions. But what does Europe have to fear of a liberal Germany that just happens to have a strong military to defend itself?
Perhaps nothing, and certainly nothing in the short to medium term. The key development to watch in the years ahead is whether Germany’s domestic politics will be reshaped by the same nationalism, opposition to immigration, and inward-focused rejection of globalization that has swept the transatlantic order. Next September Angela Merkel will stand for a fourth term, but after the victory of Donald Trump and the UK’s vote to leave the EU, no one should make confident predictions about whether she will stay around or whether a resurgent right might one day take the reins of power in Berlin as it has in other European capitals. That isn’t a far-fetched scenario. The far-right party Alternative fur Deutschland has enjoyed rising popularity as anti-immigration sentiment among Germany intensifies. If Germany’s political landscape shifts in a rightward direction, together with growing misgivings about the United States’ retrenchment from the world and its commitment to Europe’s security, it is not inconceivable that Germany’s neighbors will begin to fear Berlin’s power and intentions in a way they haven’t for decades. There are already signs of a debate within Germany about the desirability of a nuclear deterrent in some form. While this does not mean that a European conflict driven by fear of Germany is inevitable as perhaps it was a century ago, American policymakers should not assume that the present post-World War II stability in Europe will last forever.
Those who diminish the enduring relevance of America’s security presence in Europe should remember that NATO sought to do more than keep Russia at bay. It has also been instrumental in keeping the continent’s largest states at peace with each other. That in turn has paid America significant dividends, which could be lost if the American people sanction Trump’s turn away from the transatlantic order.