The alliance was meant to contain a powerful, destructive force. The president risks unleashing it.
President Trump would have the world believe he’s the first American leader to shake out the cobwebs of a dusty old alliance called NATO. But there’s nothing novel about a U.S. president demanding that Europeans pay their fair share for U.S.-led defense, and there’s nothing uniquely Trumpian about a president questioning NATO’s purpose in a post-Soviet world — except, of course, Trump’s special way of casting aside diplomatic niceties.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the George H.W. Bush administration delivered much the same message as Trump sent this past week. Secretary of State James Baker III bluntly warned his German counterpart in 1992 that the United States would pull its troops out of Europe
if the Germans and other Europeans didn’t cough up the money and manpower to take more responsibility for their own defense.
What is new and different about Trump’s decision to use NATO and Germany as punching bags on his European trip is the president’s failure to understand that NATO and the European Union were designed both to build a counterweight to the Soviet Union and to save Germany from itself. The Americans and the other Europeans wanted to enmesh Germany so thoroughly in Western alliances that it never again became a dominant, destabilizing force. As NATO’s first secretary general, Lord Ismay, put it in the 1950s, the alliance’s purpose was “to keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
When I was The Washington Post’s bureau chief in Germany in the 1990s, I often met with the late Walther Kiep, a businessman and politician who had lived through both the Nazi era and Germany’s 1968 student revolts. Kiep would argue that the United States had left Germans in an impossible bind — we didn’t want them to show any hint of militarism or nationalism for fear of resurgent extremism, yet we wanted them to pay their share and take on some of the risk of defending the West.
The Germans, in turn, had a similarly unfair attitude toward the United States, he said. They took their post-World War II pacifism so seriously that they were largely unwilling to defend themselves: “The Americans have come to be considered by many Germans as a sort of night watchman whom we expect, for a nominal fee, to protect us. But we caution him not to make much noise and not to use weapons.”
Today, Germans are still confused by American expectations. Trump bashes German Chancellor Angela Merkel for paying “billions and billions of dollars” to Russia in a gas pipeline deal, yet he will sit down with Vladimir Putin to see if he can work out some deals of his own. Trump demands that the Europeans, and especially the Germans, take on much more responsibility for their defense, yet many of the Americans whom German officials consult with regularly assure them that the United States still wants Germany to act as part of a broader Europe, not as its own power player, according to German officials who spoke to me on the condition of anonymity. Does Trump really want Berlin to be noisier and more independent? Or does he just have contempt for Merkel?
Merkel is clearly nearing the end of her 13-year tenure as chancellor, but she has remained popular in the decades after unification in good part because of what she is not. As a product of communist East Germany’s opposition movement, Merkel was deeply suspicious of charisma and Western notions of leadership. She has appealed to Germans’ respect for a quiet, serious, business-like demeanor and a purposeful if dull focus on policy and fairness. She is, in many ways, the anti-Trump.
Merkel, like her mentor Helmut Kohl, understood in her gut that Germany’s success on the world stage depended on maintaining a certain reticence — on not scaring people, as she told me in a 1991 interview. She knew that by acting through the European Union and NATO, Germany could boost its role as Europe’s economic engine without seeming threatening.
Successive U.S. administrations encouraged that use of international alliances to guard against any new German extremism and to keep the Germans facing West. They welcomed Berlin’s integration into the West, its unification with Europe, a purposeful denial of its own identity. Europe would be the cause, rather than Germany.
Germany was so eager to play along that the country led the way toward the euro, giving up the single strongest symbol of the new, democratic, stable Germany: the German mark.
But over time, new voices in Germany wondered whether such self-abnegation was necessary. As a leading German legislator, Friedbert Pflueger, told me in 1992, “What is necessary is to change our practice, step by step, to educate the public to see that” participating in international military missions is part of being a normal country.
Was it normal for a successful nation to place limits on its own sovereignty? With a united Germany now serving as the economic engine of both Western and Eastern Europe, things got more complicated.
In the years after unification, Germany’s most vital alliances remained with the United States and France, yet Kohl, chancellor from 1982 to 1998, also spoke of a “relationship of the soul between Russians and Germans.” But even as Kohl reached out to the East, pushing for the European Union to absorb far weaker economies from the old Soviet orbit, Germany assured U.S. officials that it would remain firmly in Western alliances.
And long before Trump’s demands for more military spending, American politicians called for the Germans to break out of their post-Nazi-era reticence about military power and national identity. After the 9/11 attacks, George W. Bush’s administration pressed the Germans, as part of NATO, to take a more active role in the war in Afghanistan, and they did.
Still, Germany seems to have remained cautious about playing a larger role internationally.
In 1991, pollsters asked Germans
what country should be their role model. The United States? Two percent said yes. The world’s other economic dynamo of the period, Japan? Just 10 percent. No, the country Germans most wanted to emulate was Switzerland, followed by Sweden — a total of 69 percent of Germans chose one of those two models of sleek affluence and political unimportance. More than two decades later, in 2015, Germans were less than half as likely as people in the United States, Britain or France to support sending arms to Ukraine to help that country defend itself against Russian aggression, according to a Pew Research Center survey
The European Union and NATO were useful ways for many Germans to separate their nation from the crimes and horrors of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations. For many years, Germany was the only country in the E.U. where it was more common to see blue European flags flying than the national banner.
But that open, international mentality has had its limits. In the early to mid-1990s, when right-wing radicals reacted to the unsettling impact of German unification by staging marches and attacking foreigners, public opinion shifted toward tight restrictions on asylum seekers.
Two decades later, there’s been a sharp backlash against Merkel’s effort in 2015 to position Germany as a welcoming state during the wave of migration into Europe. Now, a far-right party is the main opposition in the Bundestag, and Merkel’s hold on power is shakier than ever as a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment crests.
Trump sees opportunity there, a chance to internationalize his nationalist populism, even as he buddies up to Russia and casts doubt on NATO’s purpose. Few in Europe disagree with him that NATO’s members now have more divergent interests than they did during the Cold War. But many Europeans — including many Germans — continue to see NATO and the E.U. as vital tools in assuring that Germany remains tightly wound up in a European identity rather than going off on its own.
What the Europeans don’t know is what Trump means when he says NATO is obsolete, or whether he’s given any thought to Germany’s future in an increasingly volatile Europe.
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