President Joe Biden’s press conference last week was atrocious, but one of his worst missteps amounted to telling the truth about Germany, if not by name.
Biden said that there’d be divisions within NATO over a “minor incursion” by Russia into Ukraine. This is true enough and the chief cause would be a Germany that is staking a strong claim to be our worst European ally.
If NATO is hollowed out over time, Germany will have much to do with it. The country is too guilt-wracked over its enormities in World War II to contribute rigorously to the defense of the West and too cynical to allow anything to interfere with its selfish interests, both in Russian energy and the Chinese export market. It is attempting a kind of de facto economic alliance with the revisionist autocratic powers, China and Russia, at the same time it is allied politically with the foremost defender of the democratic West, the United States.
Its defense spending is inching upward but is still short of the 2% of GDP pledged by NATO countries. It stands now at 1.5% of GDP. This is an economic powerhouse that has been shirking its responsibilities, in part because it has been able to rely on the United States — and its vast military might — as a crutch.
Germany imagines its unique contribution is a commitment to soft power and peace through diplomacy. It’s hard to credit German idealism, though, when it has tethered itself to Russian gas over the long-standing objections of its allies. They warned that this would inevitably increase the geopolitical sway of Vladimir Putin, and so it has.
In a fit of self-sabotage, Germany is closing the last three of its nuclear power plants this year and is scheduled to close its coal plants by 2038. No one buys more gas from Russia, where Germany now gets more than half of its supply. The country has been hell-bent on the development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to bring gas directly from Russia to Germany, bypassing Ukraine and making it even more vulnerable to Russian coercion.
Germany has to be calculating that if it participates in harsh sanctions against Russia, it makes itself vulnerable to Russian countermeasures. Already, Russia has been squeezing Europe’s gas supplies. It’s not at all clear that Germany would give up on the pipeline even if Russian tanks roll for Kiev.
The Germans, meanwhile, aren’t willing to make even the slightest gesture toward deterring Russia. They are blocking Estonia, a fellow NATO ally, from sending howitzers that originated in Germany to Ukraine.
Germany has no problem selling weapons all around the world, including to the perpetually troubled, Taliban-supporting government in Pakistan and the dictatorship in Egypt.
The justification for blocking the Estonia-to-Ukraine transfer is that Germany was responsible for unspeakable horrors in that part of Europe in World War II, so it has to be especially sensitive to German weapons going there.
Needless to say, there’s a categorical difference between the depredations of the Nazis and providing weapons to a plucky independent nation in fear of being dismembered by a neo-imperialist country to its east (a county, by the way, that once was allied with the Nazis).
Not to worry, though, Germany is pledging to open a field hospital in Ukraine.
When we talk about European divisions over Russia’s menacing of Ukraine, we are mostly talking about Germany (although France is always a nettlesome partner). The British have taken a hard line. Sweden and Finland have been stalwart. Spain is deploying ships to the Black Sea. The Dutch have said they are open to providing weapons to Ukraine.
All that is heartening and appropriate. It is Germany, the laggard of NATO with a deep and growing conflict of interest regarding Russia, that is the weak link — and Putin, unfortunately, knows it.