I’ll be 66 next month. I chose the time of my birth (1951) very shrewdly. I missed the Depression and World War II. Nothing as bad as that has happened to America or the world since. (Apologies here for whatever worse event you think I overlooked.)
My lifespan (so far) covers a lot of years during which the Western world, led by the United States, organized via NATO, has called most of the shots. Germany, which, during my parents’ lives, had borne much of the responsibility for two world wars, seemed to have figured out how to not do that anymore. (A German, born at the same time as I was, has also lived through many years of peace and prosperity, also featuring the miraculously peaceful reunification of East and West Germany.)
The Soviet Union (and its Eastern European empire organized under the Warsaw Pact), which for most of my life had played the role of chief boogeyman, actually ceased to exist, leaving behind a, by comparison, small, weak Russia that is freer and more democratic, at least relative to what it was in Soviet days. (That’s grading on the curve.)
I’m no fan nor apologist for U.S. imperialism. And the summary above, of course, overlooks many ups and downs. I worry about nuclear proliferation and potential environmental apocalypses. Acknowledging my good fortune reminds me to worry about those born in more dangerous, less prosperous places. But, after the two biggest wars in history, and the invention of (and first use of) atomic weapons, which occurred shortly before my birth, I feel lucky. (My generation was trained to “duck and cover” in case of nuclear attack. Luckily, we never had to do it.)
Now I have kids, so I worry about the future. And I don’t think I’ve ever been as worried as I am right now. It’s Donald Trump, of course, whose presidency seems to threaten many things I value (including the fate of the earth), and Vladimir Putin and his Russian revanchism, and the enigma of their relationship.
Merkel’s reaction to Trump
And now German Chancellor Angela Merkel has just announced that NATO must think about its future security without the same level of confidence in the longstanding explicit-but-now-ambiguous U.S. guarantee of mutual defense in case of an attack on any of the member states (and NATO members are now much more numerous and cover much more of Europe than in my youth).
After the NATO meeting at which Trump declined to make an explicit pledge, Merkel said Germany could no longer “fully rely” on the U.S. to help in case of attack.
Merkel rephrased her statement later to make it less insulting to Trump.
“The trans-Atlantic partnership is of outstanding importance, and what I said was merely meant to note that in view of the current situation there are more reasons … for us in Europe to take our fate into our own hands,” Merkel said.
Her rephrasing of her original comment didn’t change its actual meaning much, but attempted to make it less offensive to the U.S. I wish our president could see the benefit of rephrasing some of the things he says to make them less insulting to the world, including to our best allies.
A rational line of thinking
It’s a perfectly rational thing that Merkel said. If the U.S. guarantee is less ironclad, Europe may have to up its game, militarily. And, although Trump reacted with Twitterly annoyance, and although other members of his administration have tried to make a more explicit pledge to stand by the NATO allies if they are attacked, Trump should nonetheless be pleased since he has been complaining bitterly that too many NATO members have failed to reach the goal of spending 2 percent of GDP annually on their military.
Personally, I think Trump is on perfectly defensible ground in complaining about NATO members who don’t reach the spending target. (He’s on less solid ground when he implies that the underspenders owe years of make-up spending. But we can just chalk that up to his adorable great-deal-maker negotiating style.)
It was also really, really not cool to create any doubt about U.S. willingness to keep its commitment to the NATO allies. It’s not just insulting. Weakening the guarantee also could create doubt in the mind of any adversary, most likely Russia, who was thinking of violating the borders of any NATO members, including the three – Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania – that border Russia and are former Soviet republics.
But – and here’s what I started out to say – it actually makes me a little nervous for Germany to head down this path of greater militarization. I’m not worried that Merkel will turn into the next Hitler. Not even slightly. I rate her solid and sane. But in the now seven-plus decades since World War II, the demilitarized version of Germany has mostly been a model citizen of the world. It’s hard to know what more Germany could have done to assure the world that it was over its military aggressiveness.
Great powers may eventually express power
And I’d like to tone down any implication that there is some flaw in the collective DNA of Germany. But I do think that, in the big scheme of history, great powers eventually find a way to express their great power, very often in acts of military imperialism. (It’s true of the United States.)
When I was young and we were taught that World War I was caused by a Serb nationalist in Sarajevo assassinating the heir to the Hapsburg throne. But why on earth would the world go to war over that? It’s a complicated house of cards to explain how that happened, and ultimately, one realizes, what happened was not the cause but the excuse for a war that Germany sort of wanted.
When I was older I learned a more sophisticated cause. The phrase was “unexpressed German power.” The theory went like this: Because Germany was formed in the late 19th century out of Prussia and several smaller Germanic states, after smaller, weaker powers colonized the Third World, Germany needed to express its power by dominating Europe.
It would be a silly oversimplification to imply that if the recently reunified, rich and powerful Germany, built up its military power it would start invading its neighbors. But I do believe that when countries become more powerful, that power may eventually get “expressed.” Something in there explains why the notion of Germany increasing its military power makes me nervous.