How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
Many have been lamenting the dark path that Europe and the transatlantic relationship are currently on, but there hasn’t been much discussion of where that path leads. European weakness and division, a strategic “decoupling” from the United States, the fraying of the European Union, “after Europe,” “the end of Europe”—these are the grim scenarios, but there is a comforting vagueness to them. They suggest failed dreams, not nightmares. Yet the failure of the European project, if it occurs, could be a nightmare, and not only for Europe. It will, among other things, bring back what used to be known as “the German question.”
The German question produced the Europe of today, as well as the transatlantic relationship of the past seven-plus decades. Germany’s unification in 1871 created a new nation in the heart of Europe that was too large, too populous, too rich, and too powerful to be effectively balanced by the other European powers, including the United Kingdom. The breakdown of the European balance of power helped produce two world wars and brought more than ten million U.S. soldiers across the Atlantic to fight and die in those wars. Americans and Europeans established NATO after World War II at least as much to settle the German problem as to meet the Soviet challenge, a fact now forgotten by today’s realists—to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as Lord Ismay, the alliance’s first secretary-general, put it. This was also the purpose of the series of integrative European institutions, beginning with the European Steel and Coal Community, that eventually became the European Union. As the diplomat George Kennan put it, some form of European unification was “the only conceivable solution for the problem of Germany’s relation to the rest of Europe,” and that unification could occur only under the umbrella of a U.S. security commitment.
And it worked. Today, it is impossible to imagine Germany returning to any version of its complicated past. The Germans have become arguably the most liberal and pacific people in the world, everyone’s choice to take on the now unclaimed mantle of “leader of the free world.” Many on both sides of the Atlantic want to see more assertiveness from Germany, not less, in the global economy, in diplomacy, and even militarily. As Radoslaw Sikorski, then Poland’s foreign minister, noted in 2011, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” It was a remarkable thing for a Polish leader to say, and it rested on the widespread assumption that what the Germans have done in transforming themselves can never be undone.
Is that true? Is this the only conceivable Germany? With the order that made today’s Germany possible now under attack, including by the United States, the world is about to find out. History suggests it may not like the answer.
As a historical matter, Germany, in its relatively brief time as a nation, has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene. It achieved unification through a series of wars in the 1860s and 1870s. Otto von Bismarck then forged it into a nation, by “blood and iron,” as he put it, turning it into the peaceful “satiated power” of the next two decades. Then, from the 1890s through World War I, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it became the ambitious German empire, with dreams of Mitteleuropa, a Germanized sphere of influence stretching all the way to Russia—and visions, in the words of Bernhard von Bülow, who was then Germany’s foreign minister, of a “place in the sun.” After the war, Germany became the cautious revisionist power of the Weimar years, only to emerge as the conqueror of Europe under Hitler in the 1930s, and then collapse into a defeated, divided state. Even during the Cold War, West Germany vacillated between the pro-Western idealism of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the realist Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt. The country’s domestic politics were no less turbulent and unpredictable, at least until the late 1940s. Scholars have long mused about Germany’s Sonderweg, the unique and troubled path the nation took to modern democracy, by way of failed liberal revolution, hereditary monarchy, authoritarianism, frail democracy, and, finally, totalitarianism, all in the first seven decades of its existence.
This turbulent history was a product not just of the German character, however. Circumstances played a big part, including simple geography. Germany was a powerful nation in the center of a contested continent, flanked on the east and the west by large and fearful powers and therefore always at risk of a two-front war. Germany rarely felt secure, and when it did seek security by increasing its power, it only hastened its own encirclement. Germany’s internal politics were also continually affected by the waves of autocracy, democracy, fascism, and communism that swept back and forth across Europe. The novelist Thomas Mann once suggested that the question was not so much one of national character but one of external events. “There are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one,” he wrote. “Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt, and ruin.”
The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated liberal international order established after World War II. The Germans transformed themselves over the postwar decades, but there were four aspects of that order, in particular, that provided the most conducive circumstances in which that evolution could take place.
The first was the U.S. commitment to European security. This guarantee put an end to the vicious cycle that had destabilized Europe and produced three major wars in seven decades (beginning with the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71). By protecting France, the United Kingdom, and West Germany’s other neighbors, the United States made it possible for all to welcome West Germany’s postwar recovery and to reintegrate Germans fully into the European and the world economy. The commitment also eliminated the need for costly arms buildups on all sides, thereby allowing all the European powers, including West Germany, to focus more on enhancing the prosperity and social well-being of their citizens, which in turn produced much greater political stability. West Germany had to give up normal geopolitical ambitions, exchanging them for geoeconomic ambitions, but it was not unreasonable to believe that this was more a favor than a constraint. As U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes put it in 1946, “freedom from militarism” would give the German people the chance “to apply their great energies and abilities to the works of peace.”
The second element of the new order was the liberal, free-trading international economic system that the United States established. The German economy had always relied heavily on exports, and in the nineteenth century, the competition for foreign markets was a driving force behind German expansionism. In the new global economy, a nonmilitaristic West Germany could flourish without threatening others. To the contrary, West Germany’s export-driven economic miracle of the 1950s made the country both an engine of global economic growth and an anchor of prosperity and democratic stability in Europe.
The United States not only tolerated the economic success of West Germany and the rest of Western Europe but welcomed it, even when it came at the expense of American industry. From 1950 to 1970, industrial production in Western Europe expanded at an average rate of 7.1 percent per year, overall GDP rose by 5.5 percent per year, and per capita GDP rose by 4.4 percent per year, exceeding U.S. growth in the same period. By the mid-1960s, both West Germany and Japan had pulled ahead of the United States in a number of key industries, from automobiles to steel to consumer electronics. Americans accepted this competition not because they were unusually selfless but because they regarded healthy European and Japanese economies as vital pillars of the stable world they sought to uphold. The great lesson of the first half of the twentieth century was that economic nationalism was destabilizing. Both the global free-trade system and such institutions as the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community were designed to check it.
One effect of this favorable environment was that West Germany remained rooted in the liberal West. Although some leading Germans advocated adopting a more independent posture during the Cold War, either as a bridge between the East and the West or as a neutral country, the benefits that West Germans gained from integration in the American-dominated order kept them firmly planted in it. Temptations to pursue a normal, independent foreign policy were tempered not only by economic interest but also by the relatively benign environment in which West Germans could live their lives, so different from what they had known in the past.
The United States not only tolerated the economic success of West Germany and the rest of Western Europe but welcomed it, even when it came at the expense of American industry.
There was an ideological component, as well. German economic success in a benign liberal world order strengthened German democracy. It was not a foregone conclusion that democracy would take deep root in German soil, even after the calamity of World War II. Certainly, no one in the late 1930s would have regarded Germany as being on a path toward liberal democracy. Even during the Weimar period, only a minority of Germans felt a deep attachment to the democratic parties and institutions of the fragile republic. They were easily dismantled in 1930, with the declaration of a state of emergency, even before Hitler’s accession to power three years later. Nor had there been much resistance to Nazi rule during the war, until the final months. The disastrous defeat, and the suffering and humiliation that followed, damaged the reputation of authoritarianism and militarism, but this need not have translated into support for democratic government. The U.S. occupation precluded a return to authoritarianism and militarism, but there was no guarantee that Germans would embrace what seemed to many the imposition of a conquerer.
Yet they did, and the environment had a lot to do with it. In Soviet-occupied East Germany, Nazism gave way only to a different form of totalitarianism. But West Germany by the 1960s was deeply embedded in the liberal world, enjoying the security and prosperity of a demilitarized society, and the great majority of citizens became democrats in spirit as well as in form.
If the Germany of today is a product of the liberal world order, it is time to think about what might happen when the order unravels.
It helped that West Germany lived in a Europe and a world where democracy seemed to be the way of the future, especially from the mid-1970s onward. This was the third key factor that helped anchor Germany in the liberal order. The European and global environment was very different from the one in which Weimar democracy had failed, Nazism had thrived, and Germany had embarked on a course of aggression. In the 1930s, European democracy was an endangered species; fascism was ascendant everywhere and seemed to be a more efficient and effective model of government and society. In the postwar era, by contrast, the increasing strength and prosperity of the democracies not only provided mutual reinforcement but also produced a sense of shared European and transatlantic values—something that had not existed prior to 1945. This feeling came into full bloom after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the founding of the European Union in 1993. The explosion of democracy across the continent, the idea of a Europe “whole and free,” as U.S. President George H. W. Bush put it, helped create a new European identity that Germans could embrace. And they did, at significant sacrifice to their independence. The pooling of sovereignty that membership in the new pan-European institution entailed, especially the replacement of the deutsche mark with the euro, and the further constraint that NATO membership imposed on German independence, would hardly have been possible had the Germans not felt bound by common ideals to the rest of Europe and the United States.
This new Europe was, among other things, an answer to the nationalism and tribalism that had contributed so much to the wars and atrocities of the continent’s past. The fourth element of the new order that made it possible for Germany both to escape its past and to contribute to the peace and stability of Europe was the suppression of nationalist passions and ambitions by transnational institutions such as NATO and the EU. These prevented a return of the old competitions in which Germany had invariably been a leading player. German nationalism was hardly the only European nationalism that seemed historically inseparable from anti-Semitism and other forms of tribal hatred, but no other nationalism had played such a destructive role in Europe’s bloody past. A Europe in which nationalism was suppressed was a Europe in which German nationalism was suppressed. Germany’s leading role in fostering this common European, antinationalist vision played a big role in creating mutual trust on the continent.
These four elements—the U.S. security guarantee, the international free-trade regime, the democratic wave, and the suppression of nationalism—have together kept the old German question buried deep under the soil. There was nothing inevitable about them, however, and they are not necessarily permanent. They reflect a certain configuration of power in the world, a global balance in which the liberal democracies have been ascendant and the strategic competitions of the past have been suppressed by the dominant liberal superpower. It has been an unusual set of circumstances, abnormal and ahistorical. And so has Germany’s part in it.
Even before this liberal world order began to unravel, it was always a question how long Germany would be willing to remain an abnormal nation, denying itself normal geopolitical ambitions, normal selfish interests, and normal nationalist pride. A similar question has been front and center for years in Japan, the other power whose destiny was transformed by defeat in war and then resurrection in the U.S.-dominated liberal world order. Many Japanese are tired of apologizing for their past, tired of suppressing their nationalist pride, tired of subordinating their foreign policy independence. In Japan, it may be that the only thing holding this desire for normalcy in check has been the country’s continuing strategic dependence on the United States to help it manage the challenge of a rising China. How long would Japan restrain its nationalist urges were American support to become unreliable?
The Germans have found themselves in the opposite situation. With some exceptions on the fringe, Germans remain highly conscious of their past, wary of resurrecting any hint of nationalism, and more than willing to tolerate limits to their independence—even as others urge them to lead. At the same time, unlike Japan, Germany since the end of the Cold War has not needed the United States’ protection. Germans’ commitment to NATO in recent years has not been a matter of strategic necessity; rather, it stems from their continuing desire to remain unthreateningly anchored in Europe. They have sought to reassure their neighbors, but perhaps even more, they want to reassure themselves. They still harbor fears of old demons and take some comfort in the constraints they have voluntarily accepted.
But shackles that are voluntarily accepted can also be thrown off. As generations pass, demons are forgotten and constraints chafe. How long before new generations of Germans seek nothing more than a return to normalcy?
Over the past quarter century, Germany’s neighbors, and Germans themselves, have watched attentively for any signs of such a shift in German attitudes. The anxiety with which the British and the French greeted German reunification in 1990 showed that, at least in their eyes, even 45 years after World War II, the German question had not been entirely put to rest. That anxiety was eased when the United States reconfirmed its commitment to European security, even with the Soviet threat gone, and when a reunified Germany agreed to remain part of NATO. It was further dampened when Germany committed to being part of the new European Union and the eurozone.
Even in that benign setting, however, there was no escaping a return to the German question, at least in its economic dimension. As the scholar Hans Kundnani observed in his fine 2015 analysis, The Paradox of German Power, the old imbalance that destabilized Europe after the unification of Germany in 1871 returned after Germany’s reunification and the establishment of the eurozone. Germany once again became the dominant force in Europe. Central Europe became Germany’s supply chain and effectively part of “the greater German economy,” a twenty-first-century realization of Mitteleuropa. The rest of Europe became Germany’s export market.
When the eurozone crisis hit in 2009, a new vicious cycle set in. Germany’s economic dominance allowed it to impose its preferred anti-debt policies on the rest of Europe, making Berlin the target of anger among Greeks, Italians, and others who had once blamed the EU bureaucracy in Brussels for their hardships. Germans were angry, too, resentful at bankrolling other people’s profligate ways. Outside Germany, there was talk of an anti-German “common front,” and inside Germany, there was a sense of victimhood and a revival of old fears of encirclement by the “weak economies.” It was, as Kundnani suggested, a “geo-economic version of the conflicts within Europe that followed unification in 1871.”
But at least it was only economic. The disputes were among allies and partners, all democracies, all part of the common European project. As a geopolitical matter, therefore, the situation was “benign”—or so it could still seem in January 2015, when Kundnani published his book.
Four years on, there is less cause for reassurance. Things have again changed. Each of the four elements of the postwar order that have contained the German question is now up in the air. Nationalism is on the rise across Europe; democracy is receding in some parts of the continent and is under pressure everywhere; the international free-trade regime is under attack, chiefly by the United States; and the American security guarantee has been cast in doubt by the U.S president himself. Given Europe’s history, and Germany’s, might not these changing circumstances once again bring about a change in the behavior of Europeans, including the Germans?
If the Germany of today is a product of the liberal world order, it is time to think about what might happen when the order unravels. Consider the Europe in which Germans now live. To their east, the once democratic governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have entered varying stages of descent into illiberalism and authoritarianism. To the south, Italy is governed by nationalist and populist movements with a questionable commitment to liberalism and even less allegiance to the eurozone’s economic discipline. To the west, an increasingly troubled and resentful France is one election away from a nationalist electoral victory that will hit Europe like an earthquake. It will also drive a final nail into the coffin of the Franco-German partnership around which European peace was built 70 years ago.
Then there is the United Kingdom’s departure from Europe. In 2016, as the vote on Brexit approached, Prime Minister David Cameron asked, “Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?” It was the right question, for Brexit will indeed contribute to Europe’s destabilization by exacerbating the imbalance of power and leaving an already weakened France alone to face a powerful but increasingly isolated Germany. It is also another victory for nationalism, another blow to the institutions that were established to address the German question and to keep Germany moored in the liberal world.
American policy seems bent on creating the perfect European storm.
In the coming years, Germans may find themselves living in a largely renationalized Europe, with blood-and-soil parties of one type or another in charge of all the major powers. Could the Germans under those circumstances resist a return to a nationalism of their own? Would German politicians not face pressures, even more than they already do, to look out for German interests in a Europe and a world where all the others were surely looking out for their own? Even today, a right-wing nationalist party, Alternative for Germany, holds the third-largest number of seats in the Bundestag. The party is guided by ideologues who are tired of the Schuldkult (cult of guilt) and blame the influx of foreigners on German politicians they call, as one party leader did, “puppets of the victor powers of the Second World War.” There is no reason why a party espousing a more mainstream, less offensive version of such sentiments might not find its way into power at some point. As the historian Timothy Garton Ash has observed, a “cultural struggle for Germany’s future” is already under way.
Nor can one assume that in a world of increasing political and economic nationalism, European countries will continue to disavow military power as a tool of international influence. Even today, Europeans acknowledge that their postmodern experiment of moving beyond military power has left them disarmed in a world that never shared their optimistic, Kantian perspective. Europeans still cling to the hope that global security will be preserved largely without them and that they can avoid the painful spending choices they would have to make if they became responsible for their own defense. It is fanciful to imagine that they will never be forced in that direction, however. Fifteen years ago, most Europeans were comfortable playing Venus to the United States’ Mars and criticized Americans for their archaic reliance on hard power. But Europe was able to become Venus thanks to historical circumstances—not least the relatively peaceful liberal order created and sustained by the United States. With Russia more willing to use force to accomplish its objectives and the United States retreating from its foreign commitments, that world is vanishing. Setting aside the possibility that human nature can be permanently transformed, there is nothing to stop Europeans from returning to the power politics that dominated their continent for millennia. And if the rest of Europe ends up following that path, it will be hard for even the most liberal Germany not to join it—if only in self-defense.
There has always been something ironic about the American complaint that Europeans don’t spend enough on defense. They don’t because the world seems relatively peaceful and secure to them. When the world is no longer peaceful and secure, they probably will rearm, but not in ways that will benefit Americans.
If one were devising a formula to drive Europe and Germany back to some new version of their past, one could hardly do a better job than what U.S. President Donald Trump is doing now. Overtly hostile to the EU, the Trump administration is encouraging the renationalization of Europe, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did in Brussels at the end of 2018, when he gave a speech touting the virtues of the nation-state. In the European struggle that has pitted liberals against illiberals and internationalists against nationalists, the Trump administration has placed its thumb on the scales in favor of the two latter groups. It has criticized the leaders of the European center-right and center-left, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Emmanuel Macron to British Prime Minister Theresa May, while embracing the leaders of the populist illiberal right, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. It was in Germany, of all places, where the U.S. ambassador, Richard Grenell, expressed in an interview the desire to “empower” Europe’s “conservatives,” by which he did not mean the traditional German right-of-center party of Merkel.
Besides encouraging right-wing nationalism and the dissolution of pan-European institutions, the Trump administration has turned against the global free-trade regime that undergirds European and German political stability. The president himself has specifically targeted Germany, complaining of its large trade surplus and threatening a tariff war against German automobiles in addition to the tariffs already imposed on European steel and aluminum. Imagine what the effects of even greater pressure and confrontation might be: a downturn in the German economy and, with it, the return of resentful nationalism and political instability. Now imagine that Greece, Italy, and other weak European economies were teetering and in need of further German bailouts that might not be forthcoming. The result would be the reemergence of the economic nationalism and bitter divisions of the past. Add to this the growing doubts about the U.S. security guarantee that Trump has deliberately fanned, along with his demands for increased defense spending in Germany and the rest of Europe. American policy seems bent on creating the perfect European storm.
Whether this storm will descend in five years or ten or 20, who can say? But things change quickly. In 1925, Germany was disarmed, a functioning, if unstable, democracy, working with its neighbors to establish a stable peace. French and German leaders reached a historic pact in Locarno, Switzerland. The U.S. economy was roaring, and the world economy was in relatively good health, or so it seemed. A decade later, Europe and the world were descending into hell.
Today, it may well be that the German people and their neighbors in Europe can be counted on to save the world from this fate. Perhaps the Germans have been transformed forever and nothing can undo or alter this transformation, not even the breakdown of Europe all around them. But perhaps even these liberal and pacific Germans are not immune to the larger forces that shape history and over which they have little control. And so one can’t help but wonder how long the calm will last if the United States and the world continue along their present course.
Across Germany, there are still thousands of unexploded bombs dropped by the Allies during World War II. One blew up in Göttingen a few years ago, killing the three men trying to defuse it. Think of Europe today as an unexploded bomb, its detonator intact and functional, its explosives still live. If this is an apt analogy, then Trump is a child with a hammer, gleefully and heedlessly pounding away. What could go wrong?