President Trump offered serious criticism of Germany at a North Atlantic Treaty Organization breakfast in Brussels last Wednesday. Sitting across from Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary general, Trump raised three serious issues, which everyone knows are true but previously considered impolite to mention.
— Gavin Lee (@GavinLeeBBC) July 11, 2018
This corruption in high-level German politics has national security implications. Former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, a Social Democrat, is now a director of the board of Rosneft, the Russian state company that’s the biggest oil and gas producer in Russia. Since losing power in 2005, he has been head of the board of Nord Stream then manager of Nord Stream 2, the corporations managing the constructing the Russia-Germany gas pipeline.
Both corporations are owned by Gazprom, the Russian state company that controls most of the gas in Eastern and now Central Europe. Schroeder is also the man who, as chancellor, made the Nord Stream deal with Russia in the first place, finalizing it right before the elections he lost to the current chancellor, the Christian Democrat Angela Merkel (who governs with the Social Democrats).
Germany Is Playing Footsie With Putin
Secondly, the increasing dependence of Germany on Russian gas has become Vladimir Putin’s favorite weapon to wage economic warfare in Eastern Europe for almost two decades now. After losing legislative elections in Germany in 2005, Schroeder simply shifted sides from being a German politician to effectively a Russian politician, since he is employed by Russian state-owned companies.
Merkel, who defeated and replaced him in 2005, has repeatedly criticized his actions, but has never backed out of the Nord Stream pipeline deal and, indeed, has weakened Germany vis-a-vis Russia on the energy issue even more than he. Merkel is responsible for dismantling Germany’s nuclear power industry, which accounted for as much as fifth of total energy production in a country that’s a net energy importer. Neighboring France has no qualms about nuclear energy, but Merkel has decided that independence from Putin is not worth the political price of pursuing nuclear energy.
Merkel is a former environment minister, and German politics is unique in Europe for indulging anti-nuclear fantasies. It’s of course ironic that Germany should decide to destroy nuclear power and replaced it by far more polluting fossil fuels. What’s worse, this way Germany effectively subsidizes Putin’s warmongering in Eastern Europe. To top it all off, Germany is sitting on considerable shale resources that could make it energy independent and strengthen its national security, if only Merkel would take this issue seriously.
Thirdly, Germany is not living up to its NATO commitments to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense—it’s contributing barely 1.2 percent. This is the most powerful country in Europe because it is the wealthiest, and has recently offered stirring rhetoric about defending Europe from Russian threats. There is no reason to doubt Merkel’s seriousness about opposing Putin, but in light of Trump’s criticism, Germany needs to make some changes.
What People Already Knew But Were Too Cowardly to Say
It’s impossible to say yet whether Trump is wise to tell the ugly truth in Brussels and push Germany into a position where hypocrisy becomes untenable, but while we’re at it, let’s tell a few more ugly truths: The German army is in terrible shape, failing again and again whenever war games or exercises are conducted, with results to morale that you can easily imagine.
This, again, is public knowledge people have long ignored because they don’t think Germans will choose to cut other government spending to equip, train, and supply troops. Trump should hold Merkel to her rhetoric about opposing Putin by asking Germany to prepare militarily for deterrence in accordance with NATO requirements.
This goes far beyond the nominal defense spending target of 2 percent of GDP, which is itself deceptive. Not all that money goes to pay for an actual army that a country could use in case it is necessary. Depending on the country, important sums of money are used for any number of other things, usually to suit local politics. To give one example, it’s used to pay soldiers’ pensions in some countries. This, of course, contributes nothing to defense today.
Recently, the press and various politicians have been criticizing Trump for his attitude to NATO, saying that he is weakening the core commitment of Article 5, which promises mutual help for any country in danger. But isn’t Germany far more deficient in doing right by NATO? What is the ultimate point of blaming Trump except to suggest that America should do most of the work and other NATO members do as little as the various countries care to do?
If Trump wants to get NATO Europe to be serious about defense, he should continue uttering the ugly truths that polite, sophisticated foreign affairs experts on both sides of the Atlantic find unutterable, not to say intolerable. It is a requirement of NATO as well as of civilization that sovereign nations should be able to defend themselves. America leads NATO and is the true protector of Europe, but it’s high time the European nations began to take the principal responsibility for their own defense.
Trump, the Anti-Imperialist President
In this sense, Trump is an anti-imperialist American president. He may be dedicated to a NATO alliance, but not to a world where America really is an empire that pays for the defense of distant provinces that behave with the inevitable ingratitude of people humiliated by their own weakness. Hence his asking the Pentagon to review the consequences of pulling U.S. troops from Germany.
Whether you like Trump or not, whether you like NATO or not, it’s time to face all the ugly truths we have long avoided facing, because foreign policy is about to change in a very serious way. The post-Cold War consensus is broken. The NATO alliance is not as strong as we have assumed so far and the main problem is not Trump, but lack of Western leadership and purpose. American politicians need to rethink the uses of NATO and by what means it can serve its purpose in American grand strategy.
In recent decades, it has proven impossible for America to run NATO effectively, although it pays vast amounts of money to sustain NATO. It may be possible, with changed leadership, to get something for that money. Or it may be time to stop paying between two-thirds and three-quarters of NATO budgets. American greatness requires hardheaded thinking, which doesn’t mean being cheap, but making serious decisions about the purposes of institutions like NATO.
What Point Is NATO If It’s Not Serving All Members?
NATO Europe has proven weak and faltering time and time again since the end of the Cold War, from the wars in Yugoslavia to the war in Libya. How can it face Putin’s Russia, a rather more serious challenge? Trump is right to raise questions about these matters. Keeping quiet, as previous presidents have done publicly, has clearly not solved anything. We need new ideas and it is time that the peoples of the NATO countries be told the truth. After all, these are all free countries, so policy is not the private privilege of a small governing class of bureaucrats.
Whether America keeps paying for NATO should depend on whether European nations can be shocked into taking their defense seriously. Not in the sense of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense—this is not a matter of accounting gimmicks with budgets. This is a matter of establishing a mission for NATO and the means to achieve it.
One sign of NATO getting serious would be getting rid of the social-democratic Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister of no obvious competence or preparation to deal with NATO. Replacing this bureaucrat would raise the crucial leadership question: Can European politicians even imagine who might be capable of leading their military forces against Russian aggression, the immediate threat they face?