Washington’s German Dilemma
Berlin’s actual attitudes toward Moscow are a sore point inside the Washington beltway.
The opportunity for Washington to consider the merits of Moscow’s opposition to Ukraine’s future membership in NATO is now over. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced “no concessions to Moscow.” Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov reported that the U.S. delegation had side-stepped the core issue: an end to NATO expansion eastward, no NATO membership for Ukraine, and opposition to NATO strike weapons on Ukrainian soil that are capable of reaching Moscow in minutes.
Given Washington’s incurably hostile attitude toward Moscow, the possibility of a compromise emerging from the talks in Geneva was always slim. In Europe, the responses to the announcement are mixed. In fact, an objective observer of the alliance would be justified in describing NATO as a “paper tiger,” or at least an aging tiger with an impressive growl but not much bite.
In Washington, it’s hard to exaggerate Berlin’s strategic importance in the current crisis. General Eisenhower and Field Marshal Montgomery both recognized Germany’s critical importance to the West and its defense against Soviet communism. Both men worked hard to integrate Germany into NATO early in the 1950s, arguing that NATO’s viability was in doubt without German participation.
This helps to explain why Berlin’s discomfort with Washington’s plan to exclude Moscow from the SWIFT system and impose new, harsher economic sanctions on Russia is a sore point inside the Washington beltway. Clearly, Berlin has no intention of letting German citizens freeze this winter, but Berlin’s rationale for cooperation with Moscow extends beyond Germany’s desire to purchase cheap natural gas in quantity.
Washington’s inflexible demands that Moscow conform to Washington’s standards of liberal internationalism or face economic sanctions that are likely to fail—and, as a result, could eventually lead to war—genuinely worry Berlin. Bismarck’s famous assertion that the secret to peace in Europe was to make a good treaty with Russia continues to resonate with many German elites.
It was a viewpoint held by a series of rulers in Berlin since the Treaty of Narva cemented a mutually profitable relationship between Berlin and Moscow. As both states grew stronger, so did their economic bond: In 1914 and again in 1941, Russia and Germany were one another’s top trading partners. Both states regard the two world wars as horrors that should not be repeated.
Berlin also knows its Ukrainian neighbors well. Ukrainians west of the Dnieper River have a long history of cooperating with Swedes, Germans, Austrians, and even Crimean Tatars in their long pursuit of liberation from Moscow’s governance. Berlin is acutely sensitive to the fact that at least a third of the citizens living inside Ukraine’s borders are, in terms of culture and language, Russian. Kiev’s unwillingness to exercise tolerance toward them, to accept this reality or let the Russian speakers govern themselves, has led to the current impasse as much as any single factor.
The formal statement read by German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock in Moscow reflects Berlin’s difficulties with Washington and Moscow. In the statement, the foreign minister noted Germany’s history with Russia and insisted that good relations between Berlin and Moscow would not be disrupted; that Berlin is committed to its good relations with Moscow. Foreign Minister Baerbock, who is closer in her worldview to Antony Blinken than she is to Chancellor Olaf Scholz, cringed as she read the statement.
When she finished, the German foreign minister refused to shake Lavrov’s hand—an unnecessarily childish gesture. But the statement still reflected the wisdom of three centuries which Scholz has no intention of ignoring.
In the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s collapse, Washington tended to view any change in the international system not pre-approved by Washington as a form of lawlessness to be resisted and punished. In 1965, a similar mentality led Washington to conclude that it could not pick and choose when and where to confront communism; that communism had to be challenged everywhere. As we know, Vietnam was invested with a strategic importance to Washington and its allies that the country never actually possessed. Germans were seldom comfortable with Washington’s behavior in Vietnam, in the Balkans, or the Middle East.
To many in Berlin, Washington’s current universalism is evidence for Washington’s obsession with global hegemony in an area where the situation is complex and by no means conducive to solution by politicians in Washington. Berlin is aware that Washington is full of arrogant politicians with a superficial appreciation of Russia, Ukraine, or Germany, let alone the potential for a devastating conventional war in Eastern Europe. In fact, though no one in Berlin’s government will say so, many regard the Biden administration and its stalwart neoconservative and globalist supporters on the Hill as living testimony to the impact of the Dunning-Kruger effect, a condition of cognitive bias that inclines people in authority of questionable ability to overestimate their own knowledge and experience.
Still, Germany remains the keystone in the edifice called NATO, a condition that both Berlin and Washington would rather not change. In an obvious bid to reassure Washington, Chancellor Scholz told reporters that NATO member states would act jointly if there is an invasion and that Russia would pay a “high price.”
It’s hard to predict what happens when the Russians intervene in Eastern Ukraine, but Kennan’s words of wisdom ring true today as they did when they were first uttered, “It is her own laws of development, not ours, that Russia must follow. The sooner we learn that there are many mansions in this house of nations…the easier we will make it for other people to solve their problems, and for ourselves to understand our own.”
The world has changed dramatically since 1991. Yet Kennan’s words apply with just as much force to contemporary Germany as they do to Russia.
Douglas Macgregor, Col. (ret.) is a senior fellow with The American Conservative, the former advisor to the Secretary of Defense in the Trump administration, a decorated combat veteran, and the author of five books.