The purpose of NATO, as its first secretary general famously said, was to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down. That is worth contemplating, after a NATO summit that will be judged historic.
The American president spent much of it insulting the German chancellor, estranging his other allies, and apparently even threatening to withdraw from the alliance (“go it alone”). All this was a ploy to browbeat the allies into increasing their defense budgets much faster than many had planned. At the end, Donald Trump posed like a victor over the vanquished. And now he’s looking forward to being chummy with Russia’s Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday.
So let’s get back to basics. The purpose of NATO is still to keep Russia “out”. From the Baltics to the Black Sea, Russia remains belligerent. Its weapons and agents are protean and insidious. One minute it deploys a deadly nerve agent; the next, little green men; then fake news, a computer virus, or a full-on invasion.
NATO’s problem is that the Americans are no longer unconditionally “in”. Trump is not the first US president to criticize Germany and others for “free-riding”. But he is the first to do so with contempt. With his ahistorical and transactional worldview, Trump is casting doubt on NATO’s raison d’etre: its deterrent. Article 5 — an attack against one is an attack against all — was written to eliminate ambiguity for potential enemies.
But Trump keeps conflating separate controversies — Germany’s trade surplus, its miserly defense budget, and now Nord Stream 2. And he keeps hinting (“you need to start paying your bills!”) that he would weigh costs against benefits in deciding how to respond to an attack on an ally. This could invite Putin to test NATO. That’s why countries like Estonia are frightened.
So what about Germany? It has long ago stopped being “down”. And for that it had America to thank. It was the Pax Americana that kept the sea lanes open so that Germany could become a trading superpower; that subsumed the old Franco-German rivalry, thus making European integration possible; and that allowed Germans to define themselves as anti-militarist and moralistic do-gooders.
Now the Pax Americana has been revoked in a few rounds of haggling over price tags. The consequences for security and German identity are vast. Angela Merkel understands this. That’s why she is worried. She knows that the German domestic debate lags far behind these geopolitical realities.
The question is not when exactly Germany reaches the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. It is how to explain to Germans that their country must start leading Europe to create, one day, a European substitute for American power, as America increasingly turns its gaze from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Ready or not, Germany must step “up”.
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