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Europe, Interrupted

The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines brings an end to Europe’s latest attempt to free itself from American tutelage.

Merkel And Medvedev Inaugurate Nord Stream Gas Pipeline
(Photo by Sasha Mordovets/Getty Images)

If Gerhard Schröder, Germany’s former chancellor, is to be believed, Europe may just have let its “last chance” to develop a sovereign foreign policy slip—sovereign and independent from the United States, that is. Last Chance was the title of the book Schröder co-wrote with Gregor Schöllgen, a renowned historian of German foreign policy, published in 2021. It bore the subtitle Why We Now Need a New World Order.

In it, Schröder and Schöllgen unabashedly announced that NATO deserves to be flung on the ash heap of history. After all, they argued, the alliance had lost its raison d’être in 1991 with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But since France and the United Kingdom feared the potentially hegemonic aspirations of a newly unified Germany, the two countries demanded that American troops remain stationed in Europe. This, Schröder and Schöllgen wrote, produced “a bizarre situation”:


Because Germany needed to remain under supervision, NATO needed to survive, even though it had accomplished its purpose in 1991 and, looked at that way, spectacularly triumphed. Because NATO needed to persist, Russia needed to continue to pose as the adversary that the Soviet Union once used to be. And in order for Germany to remain under supervision and Russia under check, the United States needed to remain in Europe.

It should come as no surprise, then, that the two authors defended the friendly relations Schröder sought as chancellor with Vladimir Putin, which culminated in the Nord Stream deal that Schröder was instrumental in sealing. The E.U. and Russia would henceforth be tied to each other via the steady and reliable flow of natural gas. In fact, the co-authors concluded dramatically, these gas pipelines “belong to the few hinges that hold Europe together.” Beyond that, the E.U. consists of too many particular interests to stand as a unified political body.

They may have been right, but one year after publication of the book, these hinges were destroyed in an act of sabotage. (That operation, according to investigative journalist Seymour Hersh, was allegedly carried out by a joint American-Norwegian mission.) Whether the destruction of its hinges means that Europe will fall out of joint remains to be seen. But it is clear that, with the destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines, Europe’s latest attempt to free itself from American tutelage and assert its sovereignty has come and gone. 

It wasn’t the first. In many ways, the history of post-World War II Europe has been the history of various, persistent, and always foredoomed attempts by its anchor nations, France and Germany, to shake off American control over the continent. 

After two devastating world wars, many European leaders felt that Europe could not allow old nationalist divisions to return. They sought to avoid a repetition of the mistakes that had been committed after World War I: The Treaty of Versailles humiliated the defeated German Reich and helped spawn its ultra-nationalist reaction, which set the continent on the path to another cataclysm. 


Some observers of the interwar era, John Maynard Keynes among them, thought that an economically resurgent Germany integrated into a larger supranational union might produce peace and prosperity for the whole continent. “The national states,” A.J.P. Taylor wrote in his 1961 book on The Origins of the Second World War, “were regarded as reactionary, militaristic, economically backward. The sooner Germany pulled them together, the better for everyone concerned.”

These lessons were widely learned, it seemed. Winston Churchill in 1946 dreamed of a “United States of Europe”, in which the member nations, above all France and Germany, were “freely joined for mutual convenience in a federal system.” The United Kingdom, of course, would remain separate from these new United States. Basic steps toward accomplishing such a union were soon undertaken, when in 1951 the Treaty of Paris—signed by Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and West Germany—established the European Coal and Steel Community, the seed from which later arose the European Union.

But these first steps toward economic and political cooperation were undertaken under the approaching storm clouds of the Cold War. And so, in order to protect themselves from the Soviet Union, whose sphere of influence had grown enormously at the close of World War II, the Western European nations fled into the protective arms of the United States and the NATO alliance, even though, as NATO’s first Secretary General Hastings Lionel Ismay quipped at the time, the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

This Yankee presence was a thorn in the side of prouder nations like France, which still clung to dreams of becoming great powers and equals to the United States and the Soviet Union. After rising to the presidency in the newly formed Fifth Republic, Charles de Gaulle hoped to bring about a “Europe of Fatherlands,” which would preserve the sovereignty of its member nations rather than dissolving them into a larger supranational entity. This Europe, de Gaulle famously announced in 1959, would stretch “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” It would, in other words, include distant Russia as a partner, not an adversary. With that, the decidedly anti-American French president hoped to exclude the United States from the continent and ideally the United Kingdom, too, which he—not without justification—at that point regarded as little more than an American outpost.

Ironically, out of the same nationalist aspirations, France had sunk the more plausible attempts to form a joint European military, such as the European Defence Community, whose ratification France prevented by never even bringing it to a vote in its parliament. Then in 1966, De Gaulle visited the Soviet Union for the first time since 1944. Also in 1966 he withdrew France from the NATO Military Command Structure. This angered the Atlanticists within the Western German government greatly. 

“And the more blatantly the general cooperated with Moscow,” Gregor Schöllgen has written elsewhere, “the closer the Federal Republic of Germany moved to the side of the predominant power USA.” After all, the Germans needed America’s nuclear and conventional forces to protect them from a possible Soviet invasion.

But the Germans, too, in their own right sought rapprochement with the Soviets. And natural gas would play a key role in those efforts. Since the 1950s, German companies sought to close deals with Russia to sell them steel pipes. A first one fell victim to an embargo imposed in 1962 as a consequence of the construction of the Berlin Wall. But in 1970, amid Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik, a first of a series of so-called "gas pipe deals" went through. The Nord Stream agreement of 2005 was, in fact, the fifth such deal, all of which were made under social democratic chancellors. While Schröder’s successor, Angela Merkel, partly campaigned for the job in 2005 in opposition to the Nord Stream deal, she said in 2006, in the first year of her reign, that the project was “in principle good.”

Naturally this was so the energy intensive German export economy would be flooded with cheap and reliable Russian gas, which would further fortify German economic supremacy over Europe. And had Nord Stream 2 been turned on, it would have doubled the gas sent to Germany and Western Europe and been able to provide more than half of Germany’s annual gas consumption. This the Biden administration, intent on knocking Russia off the map as a formidable regional power, apparently could not permit.

The U.S. defense establishment could also not permit further energy ties with Russia because it did not trust Germany’s will to remain a devoted Western partner. This distrust of German self-assertion has been quite common among U.S. administrations, going back a long time. Nothing raised American eyebrows more than when the Germans and Soviets improved their relations. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his 1979 memoir White House Years:

It seemed to me that Brandt’s new Ostpolitik, which looked to many like a progressive policy of quest for détente, could in less scrupulous hands turn into a new form of classic German nationalism. From Bismarck to Rapallo it was the essence of Germany’s nationalist foreign policy to maneuver freely between East and West.

By “Rapallo,” Kissinger referenced the Treaty of Rapallo of 1922, in which the Weimar Republic and the young and internationally isolated Soviet Union recognized each other’s territories and opened diplomatic relations. The treaty was later seen by many skeptical Western observers as the first step toward the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Such would be the likely outcome, it seemed, if Germany was ever allowed to maneuver freely again. 

This fear was laughable. Germany by the 1970s was a dramatically different country than just two generations earlier, with far more restrained national ambitions. As part of the Ostpolitik, for example, the Federal Republic officially gave up all long-term goals of regaining its lost territories east of the Oder-Neisse line. This was no easy sell; even as late as 1959, 70 percent of West Germans rejected reunification if it was accompanied by the permanent loss of these territories. In 1990, a newly reunified Germany officially recognized its post-war border to Poland. For the younger generations of today, the former imperial ambitions and ultra-nationalist sentiments of Wilhelmine and Nazi Germany are the stuff of high school history classes.

Successive German administrations have nonetheless sought to gain more freedom to act independently of American will. This culminated in Schröder’s vocal and admirable opposition to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. At the time Schröder famously said that it was his ambition to deal with the Americans “on an equal footing.” The United States repaid this perceived betrayal by what Donald Rumsfeld called the “old Europe” by blocking Germany’s ambition of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.

There have been few such self-assertive murmurs under the meekly mannered Schröder protege and current Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who had to grin awkwardly when he stood next to Joe Biden as the latter spilled the beans in February 2022 and said that “if Russia invades, that means tanks and troops crossing the border of Ukraine again, there will be no longer a Nord Stream 2. We will bring an end to it.” 

Since Hersh published his investigations into the destruction of the pipelines, the Scholz administration has still kept mum. When the Left Party politician Sahra Wagenknecht made a formal parliamentary inquiry and asked the government to reveal everything it knew about who the culprits were, the government refused and said that “in the interest of the welfare of the state” the findings needed to be kept secret. Equal footing no more. The last chance has passed.

Funnily enough, Scholz still entertains dreams that “we, as Europeans and as the European Union, remain independent actors in an increasingly multipolar world.” In a December Foreign Affairs essay outlining his vision for the Zeitenwende—the historic turning point for Europe as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—Scholz wrote that

the goal is clear: an EU that will consist of over 500 million free citizens, representing the largest internal market in the world, that will set global standards on trade, growth, climate change, and environmental protection and that will host leading research institutes and innovative businesses—a family of stable democracies enjoying unparalleled social welfare and public infrastructure.

These are “pipe dreams,” as the leftist German economist Wolfgang Streeck recently put it. But there is a rational calculus at the heart of Scholz’s dreams: The 500 million number would represent a massive power potential that would outstrip the population size of the United States and be roughly a third of China’s massive population. And it is these two countries that will divide the spoils of the future between themselves and struggle to set global industrial standards.

Europe, by contrast, is far from achieving what is ultimately necessary to become a great power in its own right: political integration, which would include a military of its own. Right now, the not-yet-entirely-sovereign Germany doesn’t even know where on its own territory the Americans keep their nuclear weapons. In their book, Schröder and Schöllgen articulated what the necessary steps are that the E.U. member nations must take in order to accomplish the desired integration. These include:

the implementation of a majority vote that orients itself along that of the failed constitution of October 2004; the possibility to effectively sanction or even expel member nations that do not abide by the joint legal standards...the evolution of the monetary into a fiscal union; the definition of a unified European legal system; the development of a feasible migration and asylum policy; the formulation of a binding and sustainable resource, energy and environmental strategy; and not least a supranational army.

In order to realize these goals, Schröder and Schöllgen conclude, the member nations would have to “relinquish a considerable amount of their national sovereignty, no ifs, ands, or buts.” And that is the part that especially Eastern European member nations like Poland or Hungary would never accept, since the threat of expulsion for not abiding by the E.U.’s progressive cultural politics is obvious to these culturally conservative countries. That is not to mention the fundamentally antidemocratic nature of such a transformed political union, which would concentrate political decision-making authority to an unprecedented level with distant bureaucrats in Brussels. And they have enough power as it is. 

Schröder and Schöllgen know full well what it means when they harken back to the “failed constitution,” which was resoundingly defeated by democratic referenda in several European nations, not least France. The opposite, then, is more likely, namely a Europe of regained national sovereignty, perhaps with a future neo-Gaullist French president leading the charge.

Until then, the hinge that held Europe together is a pile of shrapnel at the bottom of the Baltic. “Gas,” Schröder and Schöllgen wrote, “will be for the foreseeable future a power source without alternative. The demand increases to the same amount that coal and nuclear plants are decommissioned.” 

This invocation of an energy policy without alternatives is, of course, absurd. It will forever be a stain on Schröder’s record that he empowered the Green Party. The Greens have fundamentally transformed themselves from the hippie-esque pacifist party of their early days into a ruthless proponent of NATO. But one thing has remained steady—an obsessive opposition to nuclear power, whose phasing out was initiated by Schröder’s government and seems now definite after the Greens returned to power under Scholz.

And so Scholz may still dream of setting global standards and leading a united Europe, but in greater likelihood Europeans will need to turn down their thermostats and cope with blackouts in the future, while the German foreign secretary, the Green Party official Annalena Baerbock, shoots her mouth off by saying that “we are fighting a war against Russia.” That is not a Europe, and certainly not a Germany, that maneuvers “freely between East and West”—but one that once again stumbles blindly toward the abyss.