(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s not every day that the defense minister of a major NATO ally proposes a new deal in transatlantic relations by repeatedly and emotionally avowing her “gratitude” toward the U.S. But that’s what Germany’s Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer did last week.
Even in the final throes of a presidential election, the cognoscenti in Washington on both sides of the aisle would be fools not to read between Kramp-Karrenbauer’s lines and consider her offer. It’s no secret that Berlin’s policy makers are praying for Joe Biden to defeat Donald Trump. But Kramp-Karrenbauer explicitly makes her pitch to any future resident of the White House: Democrat or Republican.
At the heart of her message is this conundrum: How can Germany help defend “the West” when that very concept, in the age of Trumpist nationalism, may not even exist anymore? Furthermore, should Germany even consider itself part of a notional West at all, or rather “equidistant” between East and West — between China and the U.S., for example — in a strategic quest for independence?
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s answer is an unequivocal yes to the West. She thereby revives a German tradition called “Westbindung,” or “Western bond.” Beginning with Konrad Adenauer, West Germany’s first chancellor, it meant ending the long and disastrous German history of floating, both geopolitically and culturally, between West and East in the misguided belief that Germany was “exceptional.”
Adenauer, and all chancellors since him — but especially the Christian Democrats — instead cast Germany’s lot squarely with the U.S. on one hand and France on the other. This double bond found expression in NATO and the European Union. But it was the U.S. that guaranteed Germany’s security under its military and nuclear aegis. Simultaneously, it “taught us our democracy,” as Kramp-Karrenbauer acknowledged gratefully in her speech. America thus became a “father figure” for the fledgling Federal Republic. This made the open disdain shown more recently by Trump, a German-American, so poignant.
An alternative German tradition is called “Ostpolitik,” or “Eastern policy.” It began with Willy Brandt, the first Social Democratic chancellor, and has always been emphasized by the SPD (the junior partner in Merkel’s government). Ostpolitik originally sought detente with the countries of the Warsaw Pact. But since the end of the Cold War, it has largely stood for tighter relations with Russia. One example is a controversial and nearly finished gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany through the Baltic Sea.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s point is that a united West, anchored by the U.S. on one side of the Atlantic and Germany on the other, is more important than ever. China is rising with an authoritarian countermodel to Western values. Russia and Turkey are dangerous. The climate is changing, and prosperity, democracy and peace are all at risk. Who else will stand up for Western values if the U.S., Germany and their friends won’t?
She freely acknowledges that the U.S. will henceforth be more interested in the Pacific than the Atlantic. She even nods to the genuine, bipartisan American criticism of Germany for shirking its duty to build a strong army.
So here’s her deal: Once the silly season in the U.S. is over, let’s push the reset button. Instead of threatening each other with tariffs, let’s talk again about a free-trade area for the whole West. In return, Kramp-Karrenbauer promises that Germany will invest in its military and, when diplomacy fails, use it to maintain order in its neighborhood — from the Baltic to the Balkans, from the North Sea to the Mediterranean.
This she calls “a new German realism.” In effect, she’s saying Germany could relieve the U.S. of the burdens of being regional cop, so America can better allocate its power and effort globally.
Such a proposal, coming from a German, is remarkable. It represents a clear rejection of the vision peddled by the likes of French President Emmanuel Macron, who see Europe as agnostic about the major world powers and striving only to become geopolitically “autonomous” and “sovereign.” Second, she also spurns the remnants of Ostpolitik and what she calls its “romantic fixation on Russia,” which is often combined with a large helping of anti-Americanism.
In a sign that the debate in Berlin has moved, even Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, a Social Democrat, this week seemed to second Kramp-Karrenbauer. While still intoning that the goal is “European sovereignty,” he accepts that there’s no alternative to the U.S. partnership, and proposes aligning the countries’ foreign policies, from international sanctions to the climate.
Veterans of the transatlantic relationship would be forgiven for rolling their eyes. At the Munich Security Conference in 2014, several German leaders promised that they would cooperate with their allies “earlier, more decisively, and more substantially.” Nothing much came of those words, in part because popular opinion remains wary of Germany throwing its weight around.
But the world has changed. Whoever wins next week — and the polls favor Biden — should remember America’s long and tortuous friendship with Germany. Rejuvenating it on new terms would be good for both countries, and the world.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He's the author of "Hannibal and Me."
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