For seventy years, since 1948, rebuilding Germany and ensuring that its industrial power was oriented toward Western Europe was a principal objective of America's foreign policy. The Marshall Plan, NATO, and the introduction of U.S. combat troops in 1951 were designed to help West Germany integrate into a trans-Atlantic coalition of states that could resist Soviet pressure to extend its postwar control of eastern Germany and promote communism in Western Europe. The Cold War, begun in 1948, was pursued in Europe with Germany as the big prize.
With the Cold War's end in 1990, the West German government moved quickly to absorb the Soviet controlled eastern provinces into a united Germany. This presented Washington and the NATO allies with the challenge of ensuring that united Germany would remain part of NATO and become an integral part of a new Western European Union (EU).
The country's position today is even more important, for Europe and the U.S., than it was in 1948. Germany has the largest population in Europe (83 million), its economy far outpaces that of its EU neighbors, and its exports to the E.U. and the world are immense. But Berlin's financial contributions to NATO's defense lags behind that of its neighbors, especially the United States, and there's little appetite among German political leaders to increase defense spending.
The Nordstream 2 gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, from Russia to Germany, is a festering problem for the E.U. but a major issue for the Trump Administration. Earlier, George W. Bush and Barack Obama expressed concern about the prospect of Germany becoming energy dependent on Russia, because Nordstream 2 could make it vulnerable to Moscow's political pressure on Europe to accept Russia's moves in Ukraine and potentially the three Baltic States.
Donald Trump made this an issue in the recent G-7 meeting in Canada and raised it again with German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the recent NATO summit. He also criticized European leaders for expecting the U.S. to provide its defense while taking advantage of World Trade Organization rules to export far more goods, including cars, to the United States than it buys. The president appears determined to force E.U. leaders to make a hard choice: Negotiate a "fair trade" deal with Washington, or be prepared for tariffs on a range of its exports, including automobiles. He also suggests that unless Europeans "pull their weight" on continental defense, he will consider scaling back U.S. military commitments. Trump's deep skepticism about NATO's value is well known.
Politicians and pundits are divided over whether the president is serious about distancing America from Atlantic alliance commitments, or whether his threats on economic and defense issues are primarily bargaining ploys. Pessimists argue that Trump is serious about disengaging the U.S. from commitments made by previous presidents over seventy years. They fear the U.S. will forsake free trade, which provided huge benefits for America and the world, and push the country into the dangerous territory of tariffs that brought major economic harm to the world in the 1930s.
Those with a more optimistic view of Trump's moves believe his tactics on trade and defense, especially with Europe, will bear fruit in coming months. They think Europe has taken advantage of U.S. generosity far too long and will reluctantly acquiesce on both defense and economic issues, although less than Trump might wish. They are confident the Atlantic relationship will continue.
The question of Germany's role is the key, however. What Trump's national security team should soon decide is whether the risks of alienating Berlin's political leaders are too large, and moderate their demands If their policy is a negotiating tactic to get concessions from Germany, they can reduce their demands and reach a working relationship. But if Trump is determined to reduce America's involvement in Europe, that's a more dangerous path, for both Europe and the United States.
In my view, Trump should moderate his pressure on Berlin's weak coalition government, because the risk is that Germany's next parliamentary elections may turn on whether the country should become a neutralist-leaning country and lessen its ties to NATO. It would be a tragedy for the United States and Europe if seventy years of progress toward European unity withered because America no longer cared.
File last modified on Sunday, 29-JUL-2018 01:30 PM EST