Russia and Germany and the Chance for Menage a Trois

23 september 2014

Relationship between Washington and Berlin Could Well Be Transformed

Dmitry Slapentokh - Associate Professor of History, Indiana University South Bend.

Resume: Germany would not “divorce” the U.S. to embrace Russia. Still, a monogamous relationship between Washington and Berlin could well be transformed to a peculiar menage a trois, in which Moscow could find its role in sharing influence and possibly even domination in East/Central European space.

In the present global international environment arrangements are not simplistic. Each move has positive and negative implications, and this could be said about the crisis in Ukraine for all parties engaged, including Russia. Moscow’s reluctance to support the rebels in East Ukraine would have not only negative but also positive implications for Moscow for it could improve Moscow’s ability to move closer to Germany and through this increase Russia’s influence in East/Central Europe, where the imperial heritage of its old empire seems to be lost for good. And, here, Moscow could exploit the increasing rift between Washington and Berlin caused by Germany’s rise as a global power. 

NEW MOVES OF BERLIN

Among the turmoil in Iraq, Gaza/Israel and Ukraine, one important nuance has been missed by the international policies observers: the clear worsening of Berlin/Washington’s relationship and its potential implications. Recently, Germany discovered – mostly due to Edward Snowden’s revelations – that Washington has spied on Berlin and even on Chancellor Merkel’s phone. The Chancellor appealed to Obama to stop these activities. Still, recently a new American spy was caught. As a result, the official representative of the CIA was compelled to leave Germany. Even more important was another Berlin step. In the wake of the scandal, the Interior Minister announced that “Germany is ditching the no-spy agreement it’s had with the U.S. and Britain since 1945 to launch 360-degree surveillance of intelligence-gathering operations in the country.”

The departure from one of the key elements of the German/U.S. alliance was also, implicitly, a peculiar exit from NATO. Indeed, one should remember here that both the U.S. and Germany are NATO allies, and allies can hardly interact efficiently unless their intelligence agencies are working together. This, for example, could be seen in the United States’ relationship with its Anglo-Saxon allies, such as the UK, Australia and New Zealand. Not only do the intelligence officers of these countries work together, but there are cases where New Zealanders and Australians led teams of intelligence officers in which Americans were subordinates. Why don’t Germany and U.S. intelligence officers work in the same way? Why did such a scandal emerge and why were such drastic measures undertaken? One could state that this is actually due to the brazen American actions and the German elite’s sensitivity. This is not the case.

One might safely assume that the U.S.’s spying over Germany had been going on for a long time and without any reaction from Berlin. This sort of geopolitical voyeurism had been accepted without complaint. Not just by Germany but by other European allies who implicitly accepted much more serious unfriendly gestures from the American side.

Moreover, quite recently, during the Bush era, U.S. intelligence openly kidnapped from Europe those individuals whom they suspected of being engaged in terrorism. Some European governments protested, but their clamoring led nowhere. Washington has continued to act, and the governments took no visible actions to thwart Washington’s behavior. Certainly, Germany seems to be the last one that would make such a move. It seems to have continued its process of, implicitly, geopolitical, or even cultural, self-abnegation. As a matter of fact, the English play a much better role in German academic discourse than in any other big European, non-English-speaking countries, such as France or Italy. So why at present does Berlin make this unprecedented move? One can understand this only if one places the Germany-U.S. relationship in a broader context. 

FROM DEFEAT TO RISE

After WWII, Europe was a charnel house. Germany was especially badly beaten. It was a place of heavy fighting, mostly with the Red Army, and the subject of devastating aerial bombardment by American and British air forces. There were horrific losses on the Eastern Front, and millions of uprooted refugees came from what now became the USSR, as well as from Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. There was also a sense of implicit guilt for the Nazi atrocities. In addition to all these calamities, Germany was divided, apparently undoing the hard work of a thousand years of German leaders, from Arminius to Bismark who tried to unify Germany as a state. As a matter of fact, there was not much celebration, if any, of the centennial of German unification in 1971.

ln this situation, Germany, at least West Germany, had limited choice. It should either be under Soviet imperial domination or under the U.S’s more benign protectorate. And needless to say that even the most vociferous German left would prefer the latter to the former. Germany was absolutely submissive and totally loyal to the U.S. Certainly, it hardly supported the French attempt to reassert Paris’s influence in Europe. Paris’s intention was clear during de Gaulle‘s tenure, when France left NATO and built up its independent nuclear force. Still, with the end of the Cold War and the unification of Germany, the situation started to change, and this could be seen clearly in the new Germany’s vision of itself. 

NEW SELF-IMAGE

It would be entirely wrong to assert that there was a complete break with the past. Nazism and the Holocaust continued to be viewed as absolutely evil in both official and, as one could assume, non-official discourse, possibly with the exception of a marginal fringe. (Germany is among a very few countries where denial of the Holocaust is a crime leading to prison term.) Still, it was asserted that anti-Nazi allies did not behave in a stellar fashion. The USSR played its role in starting WWII by the partitioning of Poland. It is also acknowledged that the Red Army engaged in wholesale rape and other atrocities. The U.S. and UK killed hundreds of thousands if not millions of civilians in carpet-bombing; and following the war, both the USSR and other European countries engaged in ethnic cleansing where millions of ethnic Germans were driven from the lands where they had lived for centuries and only because of the notion of “collective guilt.” Here Germany emerged as not just a butcher but also as a victim: the totalitarian plague of Nazism and war, spreading death and suffering, became in a way detached from the German body. It became completely independent. In this reading it could well affect those whom official Berlin regards as liberators – the U.S. During the war in Iraq, Rumsfeld, the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was compared with Nazi war criminals who should be sent to a new Nuremburg Tribunal. German history was also rehabilitated, and the German state is no longer associated only with aggression and repression. This, for example, could be seen in the rehabilitation of Der Alte Fritz, (“Old Fritz”) – Frederick the Great. Hitler loved this Prussian king, and for this reason he was marginalized by public discourse. Now, he has been rehabilitated (together with the Prussian state) as the man responsible for the development of the German economy, life and culture. This new self-image has been increasingly related to growing German assertiveness vis-à-vis the U.S. During the War with Serbia (1999), Germany was quite reluctant to become engaged. Even less was Germany willing to engage in the Iraq war, providing very few combat troops, and refusing to engage in the war in Libya. There was also increasing German protests during the financial crisis in these early years of the twenty-first century, which Berlin related to the U.S.’s financial mismanagement. And during the Ukrainian crisis, Germany was clearly more predisposed to Moscow than to Washington. Even the latest spy scandal provides Germany the opportunity to humiliate the U.S. As Eli Lakake wrote in The Daily Beast in his article “One Big Reason the Cia Spied on Germany: Worries about Russian Moles in Berlin” (February 12, 2014), “the German government publicly ordered the CIA’s station chief in Berlin to leave the country… A similar request was not issued to his Russian counterpart albeit it was clear that Moscow has a strong intelligence presence in Berlin. All of this made Washington increasingly frustrated, and a leading U.S. publication noted that Germany departed “from the West.” As a matter of fact, it was implied that Germany might not be a part of “the West ” – allusions last made during WWI, exactly a century ago, when Germans were compared with “Huns,” Asiatics hostile to the civilized West.

What is the reason for such a change in Berlin’s relationship with Washington? One might state that it is due to the idiosyncratic behavior of both Germany and America’s leaders. Still, the reason lies much deeper: it is the rise of Germany. As a matter of fact, Germany increasingly became a peer of the U.S. or possibly even on the verge of taking over as an economic power. All of these factors make Germany increasingly a rival of the U.S. 

THE RISE OF GERMANY AND THE DECLINE OF THE U.S.

It has taken several generations to mend the destruction of WWII. Still, as one could assume, the wounds of the war were healed; and, while Germany continued its economic expansion, the U.S. started its speedy economic decline, accelerated by the beginning of the twenty-first century. The U.S. economists would, of course, discard these notions. They might state that the economic growth in the country is not as great as Americans might wish. They also might acknowledge two major economic downturns and refer to the “Great Recession.” Still, they would state that the U.S. economy is rising. Moreover, they would note that regardless of all problems with the American economy, it developed much more quickly than the almost stagnated European economy, including Germany, and that American statistics show this. Still, one should remember the popular adage that “there are lies, damned lies, and statistics.” The point here is that the U.S. statistics count everything as GNP (Gross National Product.) Indeed, financial speculation, increasing layers of bureaucracy or similar stuff, are counted as economic output. This was not done even in Soviet statistics. To be sure, the Gosplan of the Soviets could falsify, in this or that way, numbers, e.g., actual steel production. Still, it counted steel, not the numbers of bureaucrats in Gosplan or the Central Committee and never regarded the increasing number of bureaucrats as a sign of economic progress. And, here, Soviet statisticians would be quite different from the Americans. At the same time, if one would look at the American economy without taking into account “service,” one could see that it has not risen in the last couple of generations but actually has been declining. It is not just that the American share in global industrial production is declining but industrial production fell in absolute terms. For example, the U.S. is producing fewer automobiles than it produced 30 to 40 years ago. The critics might state here that automobile production is not a criterion of economic viability; car production is a remnant of the past and, therefore, has no bearing on the economic health of the nation. One could agree that the decline of production of some goods has no implication for the national economy. For example, if in the last 3000 years the production of chariots declined sharply in Eurasia, it did not indicate the economic decline of the region plainly because no one uses chariots in the twenty-first century AD. Still, cars are the major means of transportation in the U.S.; and, therefore, the decline of car production is one of the potent symbols of de-industrialization and, therefore, the decline of the U.S. economy. While the U.S. engages in a steady economic decline, the story is different with Germany, where a comparatively small rise of the GDP has been related to real growth but not to a bogus “service” sector.

There is another aspect of the U.S. economic performance that is usually ignored in the U.S. It is the continuous decline of the quality of most American goods. Often new products might be more fancy, look better, etc., but perform worse than previous ones. The American car of the past might consume more gasoline and be less slick than the modern one, but it was much more reliable and served much longer than the modern car. And to be sure, there was no mass recall of poorly-made and dangerous vehicles. This was not because the American car manufacturers were not concerned with consumers but because there was no need for such a massive recall for most cars were well-made and safe.

All of these U.S. problems are not those of Germany. The rise of Germany’s GDP is real and connects with real production, and quality has never been compromised. As a result, the German economy now might not be much smaller than that of the U.S. For example, if one would trust Forbes, Germany produces twice as many cars as the U.S. Or, at least, major German car manufacturers are clear peers for the major U.S. companies. All of this – Germany’s general economic vitality and quality of its goods – is starting to create problems for the U.S. 

TWO-FRONT WAR: BERLIN VERSUS WASHINGTON

Germany’s rise has led to several negative implications for the U.S. First, Germany became an important competitor for U.S goods. Secondly, Germany started to increasingly dominate Central/Eastern Europe.

The hue and cry about “unfair” competition and practices is the staple food of American mass media. And as American industry is dying, its captains shift the responsibility to the other countries whose “unfair” practices prevent U.S. industry from flourishing. The major focus here is, of course, China, which, in the view of the mass media, engages in an array of misdeeds: China “steals” U.S. technology, manipulates its currency and commits other similar crimes that lead to the increasing replacement of “Made in the U.S.A.” with “Made in China.” This story is well-known. Still, there is the other front, where American industry is pressed not just by the East but also by the West – Germany.

One could assume that the Western front should have presented no threat to American industry, plainly because German products, such as cars, priced in euros, should be prohibitively expensive. Yet, because of their superb quality, German cars have begun to compete with American-produced cars on the U.S. market. The same is true with other German goods; and Chancellor Merkel recently expressed her displeasure with the American regulations and tariffs, etc. that hinder the entrance of German goods to the U.S. A few months ago, The New York Times published the peculiar way that German cars enter the U.S. market. Before being shipped to the U.S., they are dismantled, then, upon arrival, they are re-assembled in the U.S. Thus, they have some “American” input by laborers and could be regarded as partially an American product. The author of the article noted that, as he implied, this surrealistic way of delivering cars to customers could be avoided; it would be much cheaper and more convenient to send the cars directly to the U.S. However, this would lead to a protest by American carmakers who fear German competition. Still, German competition is not the major problem. The major problem emerges in East Europe where Germany has expanded its influence. 

EAST EUROPE AND THE “FOURTH REICH”

The collapse of the Soviet empire in East Europe was hailed by the majority of East Europeans as the end of not just the Soviet empire but of Russian influence. As a matter of fact, to the majority of East Europeans, especially those who had centuries-old conflicts with Russia, there was not much difference between tsarist and Soviet Russia. Similar to the residents of post-Soviet space, most East Europeans believed that all of their problems were related with the nefarious influences of what they regarded as their Asiatic neighbors. They believed that freedom from Russia, market capitalism, and the help and guidance of the U.S. would transform them into prosperous nations. Their dedication to their new patron – the U.S. – was boundless; and it was not surprising that Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush’s Secretary of Defense, juxtaposed a “new Europe” to moribund and marginalized “Old Europe” unwilling to accept American leadership. Still, soon enough the East European countries became extremely disappointed. The U.S. template had ruined their economies; and for many the living standard plummeted. To be fair, East Europeans have no appreciation for Germany either. Still, it is only Berlin that could provide them with financial backing, and they grudgingly accepted Germany’s increasing influence. This could hardly please the U.S. for Berlin’s influence, in this case, is not reinforcing Washington’s influence but is virtually competitive with it. 

GERMAN GEOPOLITICS AND RUSSIA

The recent spat over spy standards is not the result of either Merkel’s sensitivity or Obama’s impudence. The reasons for the cooling of the German-U.S. ties lie much deeper, and they will not disappear with a change of leading personalities. Germany and East Europe could move closer to the U.S. only in case of a visible military threat, e.g., direct invasion of Ukraine. One could even assume that Washington might even wish this as the only way to increase trans-Atlantic ties and encourage Europeans to spend more on defense at a time when Washington’s resources are quickly drying out. At the same time, the absence of a drastic move could lead to Berlin’s increasing alienation towards Washington, which Moscow could well exploit. One, of course, should be realistic here. Germany would not “divorce” the U.S. to embrace Russia in a sort of renewed Berlin/Moscow axis as some romantic Russian nationalists – a term used broadly – believe. Still, a monogamous relationship between Washington and Berlin could well be transformed in the not-so-distant future to a peculiar menage a trois, in which Moscow could find its role in sharing influence and possibly even domination in East/Central European space. One might add that even Ukraine could well fall under this trio or even dual influence in the long run for only Berlin with its cash and Moscow with its gas could keep Kiev from moving from one economic and, therefore, political crisis to another.

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