Alex Motyl has written a provocative piece, “Can Europe Survive Germany?” which takes Europe’s largest state — in terms of both population and economy — to task for being insufficiently committed to the West’s shared principles and asserts that, “If Europe ever dies, Germany will have killed it.”

While I share many of Alex’ frustrations,  I respectfully dissent.

It’s true that Germany (along with other Western European powers) has recently slowed if not thwarted NATO’s eastward expansion, prudently safeguarding its own economic interests over the Alliance’s proclaimed values.   While not alone on the Continent, Germany’s ties with Russia’s are the strongest in the EU and its leaders are therefore more likely to side with the Russians, even when they behave badly, than with American leaders waving the banner of principle.

Still, it goes light years too far to say that Germany “prefers authoritarianism to democracy,” let alone “unconditionally.”  It prefers good relations with one particular very powerful authoritarian state, Russia, even at the expense of the interests of very minor quasi-democratic ones, if it serves its own geostrategic interests.   One could just as easily say the same of the U.S. and our relations with Red China vis-à-vis Tibet and even Taiwan. 

Nor is it obvious to me why the atrocities of the Nazi regime require Germany forevermore to set aside its own interests.  Again, one could argue that the United States committed genocide in its quest for westward expansion and that we should have learned from that. That doesn’t mean we’re obligated to intervene in Darfur against our current interests.

Moreover, it’s simply not true that Germany reflexively supports autocratic regimes at the expense of fledgling democracies.  Indeed, modern Germany has embraced the democratization of eastern Europe.  Not only did it lead the way by embracing reunification with its East German brother in 1990 but it was among the first to recognize the breakaway Slovenia and Czech Republic from a crumbling Yugoslavia.  While it may seem so in hindsight, this was not an easy gesture.  Here’s an excerpt from a December 1991 NYT article

The Security Council backed away from a confrontation with Germany over Yugoslavia today after Germany’s European allies on the Council decided that they did not want a major clash with Bonn.

The incident underscored Germany’s growing political power in the 12-nation European Community, diplomats said. Some added that it marked the single most visible demonstration of that power since reunification of the two Germanys more than a year ago.

Moreover, in its unusual assertiveness in moving ahead with a plan to extend diplomatic recognition to the breakaway Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia, Germany has stirred troubling historical associations, even though on other issues it has emerged as a proponent of greater European unanimity. Nazi Germany dominated the two Yugoslav regions during World War II, absorbing Slovenia into the Third Reich and creating a puppet regime in Croatia.

As late as Friday evening, the Security Council was discussing a draft French-British resolution that sought to deter Germany from going ahead with its plan to recognize the two republics, whose declarations of independence in June set off the Yugoslav civil war. The United States also opposed the German plan.

Nor was this a one-time show of courage that has since faded.  The AP photo atop this post depicts a man painting “Thank You, Germany” on a wall in Gnjilane, Kosovo in February of this year, recognizing Germany’s role in not only recognizing his country’s independence but sending in troops to help preserve it.

To be sure, I often wish Germany would do more.  Its participation in NATO is too small given its resources.  The German military is, as has always been the case, superbly trained and equipped.  It is, however, regretably undersized and too constrained by lack of political will.   Partly, this is an unfortunate cultural hangover from a country ashamed of its past and partly it reflects a society that views itself first and foremost as an economic power and reluctant to devote resources to military spending, let alone jeopardize its trade relations with force projection.  Then again, there’s no small irony in lamenting Germany’s restraint in military affairs.

It’s in the interests of the United States and likeminded NATO states to work to persuade Germany that it’s in their long term interest to do more.  But Germany is an essential partner in the Western community and has been, for over half a century now, a good friend to the United States.   We should not let frustrations over short-term political disagreements overshadow those facts.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.


Can Europe Survive Germany?, Alexander Motyl

NATO Expansion: Time for a Deep Breath, Nikolas Gvosdev