The idea of Germany having an independent national strategy runs counter to everything that Germany has wanted to be since World War II and everything the world has wanted from Germany. In a way, the entire structure of modern Europe was created to take advantage of Germany’s economic dynamism while avoiding the threat of German domination. In writing about German strategy, I am raising the possibility that the basic structure of Western Europe since World War II and of Europe as a whole since 1991 is coming to a close.
If so, then the question is whether historical patterns of German strategy will emerge or something new is coming. It is, of course, always possible that the old post-war model can be preserved. Whichever it is, the future of German strategy is certainly the most important question in Europe and quite possibly in the world.
Origins of Germany’s Strategy
Before 1871, when Germany was fragmented into a large number of small states, it did not pose a challenge to Europe. Rather, it served as a buffer between France on one side and Russia and Austria on the other. Napoleon and his campaign to dominate Europe first changed the status of Germany, both overcoming the barrier and provoking the rise of Prussia, a powerful German entity. Prussia became instrumental in creating a united Germany in 1871, and with that, the geopolitics of Europe changed.
What had been a morass of states became not only a unified country but also the most economically dynamic country in Europe — and the one with the most substantial ground forces. Germany was also inherently insecure. Lacking any real strategic depth, Germany could not survive a simultaneous attack by France and Russia. Therefore, Germany’s core strategy was to prevent the emergence of an alliance between France and Russia. However, in the event that there was no alliance between France and Russia, Germany was always tempted to solve the problem in a more controlled and secure way, by defeating France and ending the threat of an alliance. This is the strategy Germany has chosen for most of its existence.
The dynamism of Germany did not create the effect that Germany wanted. Rather than split France and Russia, the threat of a united Germany drew them together. It was clear to France and Russia that without an alliance, Germany would pick them off individually. In many ways, France and Russia benefited from an economically dynamic Germany. It not only stimulated their own economies but also provided an alternative to British goods and capital. Nevertheless, the economic benefits of relations with Germany did not eliminate the fear of Germany. The idea that economics rule the decisions of nations is insufficient for explaining their behavior.
Germany was confronted with a strategic problem. By the early 20th century the Triple Entente, signed in 1907, had allied Russia, France and the United Kingdom. If they attacked simultaneously at a time of their choosing, these countries could destroy Germany. Therefore, Germany’s only defense was to launch a war at a time of its choosing, defeat one of these countries and deal with the others at its leisure. During both World War I and World War II, Germany first struck at France and then turned to deal with Russia while keeping the United Kingdom at bay. In both wars, the strategy failed. In World War I, Germany failed to defeat France and found itself in an extended war on two fronts. In World War II, it defeated France but failed to defeat Russia, allowing time for an Anglo-American counterattack in the west.
Binding Germany to Europe
Germany was divided after World War II. Whatever the first inclinations of the victors, it became clear that a rearmed West Germany was essential if the Soviet Union was going to be contained. If Germany was to be rearmed, its economy had to be encouraged to grow, and what followed was the German economic miracle. Germany again became the most dynamic part of Europe.
The issue was to prevent Germany from returning to the pursuit of an autonomous national strategy, both because it could not resist the Soviet forces to the east by itself and, more important, because the West could not tolerate the re-emergence of divisive and dangerous power politics in Europe. The key was binding Germany to the rest of Europe militarily and economically. Put another way, the key was to make certain that German and French interests coincided, since tension between France and Germany had been one of the triggers of prior wars since 1871. Obviously, this also included other Western European countries, but it was Germany’s relationship with France that was most important.
Militarily, German and French interests were tied together under the NATO alliance even after France withdrew from the NATO Military Committee under Charles de Gaulle. Economically, Germany was bound with Europe through the emergence of more sophisticated multilateral economic organizations that ultimately evolved into the European Union.
After World War II, West Germany’s strategy was threefold. First, it had to defend itself against the Soviet Union in concert with an alliance that would effectively command its military through NATO. This would limit German sovereignty but eliminate the perception of Germany as a threat. Second, it would align its economy with that of the rest of Europe, pursuing prosperity without undermining the prosperity of other countries. Third, it would exercise internal political sovereignty, reclaiming its rights as a nation without posing a geopolitical threat to Western Europe. After the fall of the Soviet Union, this was extended to include Eastern European states.
The strategy worked well. There was no war with the Soviets. There was no fundamental conflict in Western Europe and certainly none that was military in nature. The European economy in general, and the German economy in particular, surged once East Germany had been reintegrated with West Germany. With reintegration, German internal sovereignty was insured. Most important, France remained linked to Germany via the European Union and NATO. Russia, or what was left after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was relatively secure so long as Germany remained part of European structures. The historical strategic problem Germany had faced appeared solved.
Europe’s Economic Crisis
The situation became more complex after 2008. Germany’s formal relationship with NATO remained intact, but without the common threat of the Soviet Union, the alliance was fracturing over the divergent national interests of its members. The European Union had become Germany’s focus, and the bloc had come under intense pressure that made the prior alignment of all European countries more dubious. Germany needed the European Union. It needed it for the reasons that have existed since World War II: as a foundation of its relationship with France and as a means to ensure that national interest would not generate the kinds of conflicts that had existed in the past.
It needed the European Union for another reason as well. Germany is the second-largest exporter in the world. It exports to many countries, but Europe is a critical customer. The free-trade zone that was the foundation of the European Union was also one of the foundations of the German economy. Protectionism in general, but certainly protectionism in Europe, threatened Germany, whose industrial plant substantially outstripped its domestic consumption. The pricing of the euro aided German exports, and regulations in Brussels gave Germany other advantages. The European Union, as it existed between 1991 and 2008, was critical to Germany.
However, the European Union no longer functions as it once did. The economic dynamics of Europe have placed many countries at a substantial disadvantage, and the economic crisis of 2008 triggered a sovereign debt crisis and banking crisis in Europe.
There were two possible solutions in the broadest sense. One was that the countries in crisis impose austerity in order to find the resources to solve their problem. The other was that the prosperous part of Europe underwrites the debts, sparing these countries the burden of austerity. The solution that has been chosen is obviously a combination of the two, but the precise makeup of that combination was and remains a complex matter for negotiation.
Germany needs the European Union to survive for both political and economic reasons. The problem is that it is not clear that a stable economic solution can emerge that will be supported by the political systems in Europe.
Germany is prepared to bail out other European countries if they impose austerity and then take steps to make sure that the austerity is actually implemented to the degree necessary and that the crisis is not repeated. From Germany’s point of view, the roots of the crisis lie in the fiscal policies of the troubled countries. Therefore, the German price for underwriting part of the debt is that European bureaucrats, heavily oriented toward German policies, be effectively put in charge of the finances of countries receiving aid against default.
This would mean that these countries would not control either taxes or budgets through their political system. It would be an assault on democracy and national sovereignty. Obviously, there has been a great deal of opposition from potential recipients of aid, but it is also opposed by some countries that see it as something that would vastly increase the power of Germany. If you accept the German view, which is that the debt crisis was the result of reckless spending, then Germany’s proposal is reasonable. If you accept the view of southern Europe, which is that the crisis was the result of the European Union’s design, then what Germany is proposing is the imposition of German power via economics.
It is difficult to imagine a vast surrender of sovereignty to a German-dominated EU bureaucracy, whatever the economic cost. It is also difficult to imagine Germany underwriting the debt without some controls beyond promises; even if the European Union is vitally important to the Germans, German public opinion will not permit it. Finally, it is difficult to see how, in the long term, the Europeans can reconcile their differences on this issue. The issue must come to a head, if not in this financial crisis then in the next — and there is always a next crisis.
An Alternative Strategy
In the meantime, the basic framework of Europe has changed since 1991. Russia remains a shadow of the Soviet Union, but it has become a major exporter of natural gas. Germany depends on that natural gas even as it searches for alternatives. Russia is badly in need of technology, which Germany has in abundance. Germany does not want to invite in any more immigrants out of fear of instability. However, with a declining population, Germany must do something.
Russia also has a declining population, but even so, it has a surplus of workers, both unemployed and underemployed. If the workers cannot be brought to the factories, the factories can be brought to the workers. In short, there is substantial synergy between the Russian and German economies. Add to this that the Germans feel under heavy pressure from the United States to engage in actions the Germans want to be left out of, while the Russians see the Americans as a threat to their interests, and there are politico-military interests that Germany and Russia have in common.
NATO is badly frayed. The European Union is under tremendous pressure and national interests are now dominating European interests. Germany’s ability to use the European Union for economic ends has not dissipated but can no longer be relied on over the long term. Therefore, it follows that Germany must be considering an alternative strategy. Its relationship with Russia is such a strategy.
Germany is not an aggressive power. The foundation of its current strategy is its relationship with France in the context of the European Union. The current French government under President Nicolas Sarkozy is certainly committed to this relationship, but the French political system, like those of other European countries, is under intense pressure. The coming elections in France are uncertain, and the ones after that are even less predictable. The willingness of France to engage with Germany, which has a massive trade imbalance with France, is an unknown.
However, Germany’s strategic interest is not necessarily a relationship with France but a relationship with either France or Russia to avoid being surrounded by hostile powers. For Germany, a relationship with Russia does as well as one with France. An ideal situation for Germany would be a Franco-German-Russian entente. Such an alliance has been tried in the past, but its weakness is that it would provide too much security to Germany, allowing it to be more assertive. Normally, France and Russia have opposed Germany, but in this case, it is certainly possible to have a continuation of the Franco-German alliance or a Russo-French alliance. Indeed, a three-way alliance might be possible as well.
Germany’s current strategy is to preserve the European Union and its relationship with France while drawing Russia closer into Europe. The difficulty of this strategy is that Germany’s trade policies are difficult for other European countries to manage, including France. If Germany faces an impossible situation with the European Union, the second strategic option would be a three-way alliance, with a modified European Union or perhaps outside of the EU structure. If France decides it has other interests, such as its idea of a Mediterranean Union, then a German-Russian relationship becomes a real possibility.
A German-Russian relationship would have the potential to tilt the balance of power in the world. The United States is currently the dominant power, but the combination of German technology and Russian resources — an idea dreamt of by many in the past — would become a challenge on a global basis. Of course, there are bad memories on both sides, and trust in the deepest sense would be hard to come by. But although alliances rely on trust, it does not necessarily have to be deep-seated trust.
Germany’s strategy, therefore, is still locked in the EU paradigm. However, if the EU paradigm becomes unsupportable, then other strategies will have to be found. The Russo-German relationship already exists and is deepening. Germany thinks of it in the context of the European Union, but if the European Union weakens, Russia becomes Germany’s natural alternative.
George Friedman is chief executive officer of Stratfor, the world’s leading online publisher of geopolitical intelligence. This article has been republished from the Stratfor website.