Can Putin Survive?
The Lessons of the Soviet Collapse
Robert Kagan’s thought-provoking essay (“The New German Question,” May/June 2019) addresses the important issue of how a collapse of the European Union and the liberal international order might affect Germany and its role within Europe. He concludes that such a breakdown would bring back the pre–World War II “German question,” which European integration and the Atlantic alliance were in part meant to resolve.
But Kagan underestimates the deep cultural change that has occurred in Germany since World War II. It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which Germany would revert to militarism; the commitment of ordinary Germans to peace is simply too strong. If the United States were to withdraw its security guarantee to Europe, or even if the liberal international order were to collapse, Germany would likely defy the expectations of realist international relations theorists and simply choose to be insecure rather than abandon its identity as a Friedensmacht, or “force for peace.”
At the same time, Kagan underestimates how problematic today’s “democratic and peace-loving” Germany is in the European context. Germany’s semi-hegemonic position within the EU is one of the main reasons Europe has struggled to solve the series of problems that began with the euro crisis in 2010. On the one hand, Germany lacks the resources to solve problems in the way a hegemon would. On the other, it is powerful enough that it does not feel the need to make concessions to other EU member states, and in particular to France, as it used to. As a result, the EU has become dysfunctional.
Moreover, postwar Germany has not acted quite as selflessly as Kagan suggests. Although (or perhaps because) Germans abandoned militarism, they found new sources of national pride—in particular, a kind of economic nationalism based on the country’s success as an exporter. German economic policy is often described, with some justification, as mercantilist, and even before U.S. President Donald Trump singled out Germany for its large current account surplus, the U.S. Treasury had put Germany on a list of countries it was monitoring for currency manipulation.
Kagan is right to ask where “the dark path that Europe and the transatlantic relationship are currently on” might lead, but that path might not be as straight as he suggests. In particular, the consequences of a withdrawal of the U.S. security guarantee to Europe are far from easy to predict. It is true that, historically, that guarantee pacified Europe, and so there are good reasons to worry that withdrawing it could lead to the disintegration of the region and even the reactivation of security dilemmas. But it is also possible that such a withdrawal could help resolve the German question in its current form. Thanks to the U.S. security guarantee, Germany had no need for France’s military capabilities and thus had little incentive to make concessions to France on other issues, such as the euro. Whatever Trump’s intentions, his threat to withdraw the U.S. security guarantee has given France greater leverage over Germany and thus has gone some way toward restoring the balance of power in Europe. Making good on that threat could mean the end of German semi-hegemony.
Kagan worries that Europeans could return “to the power politics that dominated their continent for millennia.” But power politics never really went away in Europe; it was just no longer pursued using military tools. Within the peaceful, institutionalized context of the EU, member states continued to advance their own national interests. In short, Europe might not have been such a Kantian paradise after all. In resolving one version of the German question, the United States and the EU created another.
Senior Research Fellow, Europe Programme, Chatham House