US President Donald J. Trump has proved truly disruptive to the transatlantic relationship. His questioning of America’s mutual-defence commitments presents NATO with an ominous and potentially existential crisis. The US security guarantee, after all, is one of the two pillars upon which European peace and prosperity have rested since the end of World War II. And nor has Trump spared the second pillar: the rules-based global trade system and economic order.
Just two years after Trump’s election, Europeans find themselves shivering alone in the icy winds of international politics, rightly wondering what is to be done. It stands to reason that Europe must deepen its internal bonds, close ranks, and strengthen its military capacity. Some might question whether this is what Europeans truly want, given that we are living in the age of Brexit, which will deprive the European Union of its second-strongest military and economic power.
But just because the British don’t seem to know what they want doesn’t mean the rest of Europe is in the same boat. In fact, most Europeans favour a stronger, more powerful EU with a joint security policy.
The big exception is Germany. As the EU’s economic engine and most populous member state, there can be no joint security policy without the country that sits at the very heart of Europe. But it is an open question of whether achieving joint European security with Germany’s participation is even possible.
Europeans must not allow wishful thinking to obscure important facts, as happened when the European Monetary Union was being formed in the 1990s. From the start, there were pronounced differences between individual member states not only with respect to economic and fiscal policy but also in terms of political culture and mentality. Nonetheless, willful ignorance prevailed, and the monetary union was launched without the integrated political institutions that such a project requires.
The EU must not make this mistake again. Today, the main fact that cannot be ignored is that a joint security policy will require a compromise between Germany and France, the two largest and most powerful member states. Such a compromise will not come easily. The two countries’ political mentalities, historical narratives, and geopolitical interests are simply too far apart, and in many cases diametrically opposed. Still, owing to its particular history, Germany poses the bigger obstacle, even if its official rhetoric suggests otherwise.
For its part, France’s traditional self-image reflects its long history as a great European power, even if that era – and Europe’s global dominance generally – has passed. As a nuclear power and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, France views its military actions and arms exports not as moral failures but as the prerogatives of a world power conducting foreign policy.
The genius of Charles de Gaulle was to claim the status of a victorious power for his country after World War II. Doing so invited French citizens to forget the Vichy regime, the defeat by the Nazis in 1940, and the internal political rifts of the 1930s. It was thanks to de Gaulle that France maintained its historical course.
The same cannot be said for Germany. During the twentieth century, Germany made two bids for European hegemony and world domination, and the price it paid was its own destruction, to say nothing of Europe’s. Its sense of historical continuity was demolished in 1945, at which point its culture and traditions were devalued and its territorial integrity destroyed. Germany became synonymous with aggression, terror, and genocide.
Postwar Germany abandoned military-based power politics and foreign adventurism and concerned itself primarily with economic development. Germans simply saw no other way to gain reentry to the democratic West, let alone reclaim political sovereignty. This strategy culminated in the reunification of East and West Germany in 1990.
With the shift away from power politics in 1945, Germans on both the left and the right became pacifists. And to this day, many Germans remain deeply and emotionally committed to neutrality, despite many decades of European integration and NATO membership. This has been particularly true in the post-reunification period, owing in no small measure to America’s security guarantee and willingness to manage the dirty business of power politics on Germany’s behalf. But this cosy division of labour, like the American-led postwar order, came to an end with the election of Trump.
A German return to traditional power politics certainly has its risks. But the alternative is to maintain the status quo and forego a joint EU security policy. A policy consisting of more than lofty words necessarily implies a deepening of political integration in the name of European sovereignty. Without common export rules, for example, there can be no meaningful cooperation on European armaments development, let alone more far-reaching and ambitious projects.
Germans are currently engaged in an intense debate over defence spending, which must rise to 2% of GDP by 2024 to meet the country’s NATO commitments. Given the foreseeable geopolitical risks on the horizon, in the absence of a joint EU security policy, German defence spending would have to rise even higher to make up for the US’s withdrawal from Europe.
Needless to say, Germany’s rearmament on its own would raise many questions and historical concerns. Rearmament with and for Europe and NATO, however, would be a completely different matter. One way or another, Europe must grow stronger. It is in everyone’s interest that Germany is productively engaged in that process.