In June 2011, President Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates, addressing the Security and Defense Agenda, a Brussels policy center, bluntly criticized NATO nations, for what he insisted was their failure to fulfill their commitments to increase defense spending and participate in the military alliance’s activities. He warned of “a dim if not dismal future” unless more member nations reverse course and ASAP.
And Secretary Gates, one of the few remaining Wise Men in Washington and a proud member of its bipartisan foreign policy establishment, sounded ominous as he issued a warning: Endless wars and rising budget deficits could force the United States, the political leader and the financial backer of the alliance, to question its support for NATO.
“The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress, and in the American body politic writ large, to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense,” Gates said. “Looking ahead, to avoid the very real possibility of collective military irrelevance, member nations must examine new approaches to boosting combat capabilities — in procurement, in training, in logistics, in sustainment,” he added.
Reporting on the address by the Obama administration’s top national security official, the New York Times didn’t accuse Gates of promoting nationalism, isolationism, and xenophobia or of trying to destroy the post-World War II liberal international order. Instead, it conveyed what was a… how should we describe it?… Bannonist message to its readers.
“With little indication of any change in policy among the more reluctant member nations, notably Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Turkey, Mr. Gates’s harsh words seemed likely to increase pressure on an alliance already deeply strained by differences over sharing the burden in Libya and Afghanistan,” predicted the Times.
Both Gates and the Times got it right, and neither should have been surprised when a leading presidential candidate running in 2016 suggested that NATO was becoming “obsolete” and warned that his administration would reassess its commitment to the military alliance unless other members paid their fair share to its budget. It was not a secret that that New York real-estate magnate was an avid reader of the Times and probably had a lot of respect for the no-nonsense Gates.
Hence Donald Trump, who insisted that the notion that the United States would continue bankrolling the NATO alliance by paying close to 75 percent of its spending was untenable, did win the presidential election, which meant that many of his voters agreed with the idea of bidding Auf Wiedersehen to those free-loaders in Brussels, aka among policymakers, as “free riders,” which was the way President Obama, still recovering from disastrous NATO military misadventure/regime change/nation building in Libya, described them in his famous interview with the Atlantic magazine.
But in his address to the leaders of the NATO nations in Brussels last week, he may have betrayed the members of his nationalist political base. He didn’t even sound like Gates or Obama. Instead, he characterized the alliance as “no longer obsolete” and went on to hail “our NATO allies” who “responded swiftly and decisively” after 9/11 by “invoking for the first time in its history the Article 5 collective defense commitments.”
President Trump did urge NATO members to “finally contribute their fair share and meet their financial obligations,” noting that 23 of the 28 member nations were “still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense.”
But Trump clearly sounded much less blunt than Gates did six years ago, when Gates suggested that the NATO partners were “apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” Ouch! The respectful President Trump only pointed out that the alliance partners’ behavior was “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.”
There were no threats to withdraw from NATO in President Trump’s address. Just a friendly appeal to the allies to increase their defense spending so that together with the United States they would be able to face the common global security threats, including those horrific terrorist acts in Europe. After all, “two percent is the bare minimum for confronting today’s very real and very vicious threats.” So at least, please, pay your dues. Please. Please.
In short, the American president resisted political pressure from his Bannonist supporters to go isolationist and seemed to be committed to remaining in NATO and to taking steps to strengthen it in face of the rising threat of radical Islamist terrorism. Sounded like at least two cheers for internationalism.
But not to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who, addressing her supporters on a campaign stop in a Bavarian beer hall a day after the NATO meeting, stated that the “era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent,” adding: “That’s what I experienced over the past several days,” several days with that American chauvinist who wants to get rid of NATO. It was time for Germany and the rest of Europe to “take our fate into our own hands.”
“As Obama Exits World Stage, Angela Merkel May Be the Liberal West’s Last Defender,” was the way that the New York Times portrayed the German chancellor last year. She was supposedly standing up to right-wing nationalist movements in Europe, while being assaulted by proponents of illiberal democracy, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and, yes, President Donald Trump. She was protecting the foundations of the liberal international order, saving globalism, and the entire Enlightenment Project. Springtime for Merkel and Germany?
But then, a German leader addressing an enthusiastic crowd in a beer hall in Munich who was calling on a Germany-led Europe to resist the United States and Britain while comparing the two to Russia sounded more like you-know-who. Making Germany Great Again so that it would bring much of Europe under its domination and confront the same foreign powers it had fought during the last two world wars was probably not a great idea.
For the last day or two, pundits in Washington and elsewhere have been trying to deconstruct Merkel’s recent comments in Munich. And not surprisingly, many of the same people who rush to demonize Trump as a nationalist, isolationist, and xenophobic, not to mention the “like-Hitler” analogy, have been reluctant to contemplate the obvious: that Merkel’s policies reflect a commitment to protect and advance her nation’s interests.
No, Merkel isn’t “like Hitler.” But then recognizing that the existence of the European Union helps safeguard Germany’s leadership role in it has less to do with fulfilling globalist dreams and more with strengthening the power of a German regional economic colossus and allow it to dictate economic policies to weaker EU members.
That Merkel and her fans complain that Germany and other Europeans are being unfairly pressured by a stingy and hostile American president who demands that they pay their debts to NATO is kind of ironic, considering that the German Chancellor has used her country’s economic power to force Greece and Spain to simultaneously cut down on spending and borrowing, policies that were opposed by the majority of their citizens. That eventually led to economic and political turmoil as well as to the eventual rise of far-right and far-left political movements across Europe.
Add to that Merkel’s decision to allow a flood of Muslim immigrants to enter into Germany and into the rest of the EU area, which was driven mainly by Germany’s need to reverse Germany’s approaching demographic decline, and you can thank Merkel for Brexit and Le Pen.
But those who are worried that Merkel would succeed in achieving Germany’s goal in two world wars of controlling Europe and transforming itself into a global superpower should rest assured that that wouldn’t happen because Germany and by extension Europe will not have the military capacity to do that anytime soon. It’s doubtful that Merkel and the German people are even interested in anything more than being a Canada or a Japan, an economic power that free-rides on another military power’s protection. It just lacks the hard military power necessary to protect the liberal international order.
Indeed, much of Germany’s strategy in the aftermath of the Cold War has been based on relying on a U.S.-led NATO for its protection and on drawing the United States and the alliance into defending it from what Germany considers to be the main threat to its security, Russia, and contain its expansionism into the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
Hence, Germany led the efforts to get the then-European Community and the United States to recognize Croatian and Slovenian independence in December 1991, following the collapse of Yugoslavia. Serbian response to those moves sparked a civil war, drawing in the United States and NATO and threatening a military confrontation between the West and Russia.
Similarly, the German government under Merkel helped ignite the Ukraine crisis, after its bureaucrats in the EU invited Ukraine to sign a new cooperation agreement, a move that antagonized Moscow, destabilized Eastern Europe, and led to the current tensions between the West and Russia.
In a way, Merkel is now being praised by liberal internationalists and neoconservatives for continuing to stand up to Russia, as opposed to Trump who seeks to launch a détente with Moscow and cooperate with it in resolving the crises in Syria and Ukraine. He resists being drawn into a confrontation with the Russians, which Merkel sees as the most effective way to ensure that NATO will continue to serve its strategic interests.
Now that both the United States and Great Britain are showing signs of resisting Merkel’s astute diplomacy, the German Chancellor seems to be hoping that France under President Emmanuel Macron will form with Germany an Entente Cordiale to deal with current and future security challenges from Russia as well as the two Anglo-American powers, including by creating an independent European military power.
But Merkel is bound to discover sooner or later that German and French interests aren’t necessarily compatible and that the notion of a European entity unified under German leadership is a mere fantasy.
Moreover, she needs to recall that Germany lost the last two wars against Russia and that only the United States helped it resist the pressure from its neighbor to the east during the Cold War. But here is the punch-line: Free riders like Germany cannot dictate the terms of its relationship with its military protector.