- A special relationship built on nostalgia
During the Cold War the interests of the United States and Germany aligned. But after the fall of the iron curtain things changed. Now Germany’s problem lies in maintaining the European Union, while the U.S. is struggling to define its new identity. By George Friedman
Diese Kolumne erscheint regelmäßig auf Cicero Online in Kooperation mit der Publikation Geopolitical Futures.
Germany may be Europe’s de facto leader, but its power is asymmetric. It is based on economic, not military, influence. And this is suitable to the Continent’s current dynamics. The European peninsula regained its autonomy only in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, and in the intervening years it has prioritized economic activity rather than military competition. That’s not to say there wasn’t any military activity, of course. Conflicts in the Balkans, the Caucasus and Ukraine are bloody reminders of old geopolitical realities. But none of them fundamentally altered the European asymmetry on which German power is built.
The United States, on the other hand, is the leading power in the world. Its economy and military dwarf all others. This makes it a symmetrical power, one that has the added weapon of cultural influence. Like Germany’s power, U.S. power is a product of its environment. During the 20th century, the United States was engaged in multidimensional conflicts with peer powers (or their client states), and it is in these conflicts that its power was forged. The U.S. economy was shaped by World War II. U.S. foreign policy institutions were shaped by the Cold War and the constant threat of nuclear war. Beneficial though it may be, power by itself cannot create a coherent national strategy for its use.
During the Cold War, the interests of the United States and Germany aligned, considering they had a shared perspective of the world: They saw the Soviet Union as a threat that must be confronted. Since then, the United States and Germany have developed radically different perspectives. Germany sees Europe as the fulcrum of its existence. The United States sees Europe as just one of many places in which it has interests. The end of the Cold War gave Germany the opportunity to rebuild its (and Europe’s) economic institutions. It gave the United States a similar opportunity, but Washington has struggled to divorce its powerful institutions and political culture from the Cold War climate in which they were formed. From the German point of view, the U.S. imperative to change its institutions is a risk to Germany. From the American point of view, Germany’s focus on economic Europe is not relevant to the much broader problems faced by the United States.
The United States’ problem, then, lies not so much in maintaining its role as a world leader but in avoiding a boundless definition of what a global power’s interests are. Indeed, there is a crisis in Washington about this very issue. There are those who argue that whatever American power might be, the United States’ role must be limited to matters of direct interest to the United States. Another faction, taking its plays from the 20th-century playbook, sees the United States actively engaged in all manner of global responsibilities. The former wants to curb the kind of engagement that typified the second half of the 1900s. The latter wants to continue it.
The military threat
Germany’s problem lies in maintaining the European Union, something it must do if it is to maintain unlimited German access to a market that can absorb so much of its exports – and if it is to assert its political influence in the region. This gives Berlin a complex view of the United States. On the one hand, the German government wants the United States to maintain its role in global affairs. On the other hand, it does not want to be drawn into anything peripheral to its economic interests.
The United States therefore sees Germany as a historical ally that has become irrelevant to the broader interests of the United States. Germany sees the United States as an inevitable and necessary global force that nonetheless threatens its national interests. Germany wants the U.S. to reshape its global presence, but when the U.S. does this, Germany feels threatened.
The United States and Germany’s bilateral relationship is incoherent because the Cold War is over. The Americans believe that NATO is a military alliance, that all members need a robust military, and that that military should be united in dealing with the world, rather than only with Russia. The Germans believe that possessing a large military is not necessary at this time, but that the military alliance of NATO should continue unmodified regardless. Neither view is sustainable.
Nostalgia for a conflict
In struggling to define its post-Cold War identity, the United States has raised the question of whether it is interested in protecting Europe, whether Europe should protect itself, and what it should be protected against. The Germans, struggling to maintain a coherent European Union, have no interest in engaging in such a far-reaching and potentially destabilizing discussion.
The current U.S.-German relationship is built on nostalgia for a conflict that led to victory. The world has changed, and so has their relationship. When Angela Merkel replied to Donald Trump in frustration over a discussion on NATO that Europe will have to take care of itself, she seemed to think this would upset the United States and Trump. In point of fact, she simply stated what America wanted. Ultimately, the U.S. fear is that Germany’s asymmetric power will draw symmetric American power into conflict, driven by what has become a century-long tradition of European failure to anticipate coming conflicts.
Liebe Leserinnen und Leser,
wir freuen uns, mit George Friedman einen der bekanntesten geopolitischen Analysten für uns gewonnen zu haben. Ab sofort wird der US-Politologe und Leiter der Publikation Geopolitical Futures regelmäßig seine gleichnamige Kolumne „Geopolitical Futures“ hier auf Cicero Online veröffentlichen. Seine englischsprachigen Texte sollen nicht nur Ihnen einen Blick über den hiesigen medialen Tellerrand hinaus ermöglichen, sondern auch Leser und Leserinnen aus dem Ausland erreichen. Wir wünschen Ihnen viel Spaß beim Lesen und kluge Erkenntnisse.
Ihr Alexander Marguier, Chefredakteur des Cicero