hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Can the German-US Relationship ever be Special?

“There is a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children and the United States of America”.
Otto von Bismarck

Alphen, Netherlands. 10 December.  Can the German-US relationship ever be special?  That was the question that this interloping, Brexit-escaping Brit saw hanging in the crisp Alpine air like new snow on a mountain fir in Germany’s beautiful Garmisch-Partenkirchen.  My purpose for being in Germany was to attend a meeting of the Loisach Group. Set up this year, the Group is ‘co-hosted’ by the excellent George C. Marshall Center and the Munich Security Conference. The aim of this high-level working group is to explore those areas of grand (and not-so-grand) strategy where Germany and the United States should co-operate more fully in pursuit of peace and stability.  It is a timely and much needed initiative.

Now, I suppose my first port of call should be to define the meaning of ‘special relationship’. President Trump, in the way that President Trump does, put the UK-US special relationship this way, “The special relationship between America and the UK has been one of the great forces in history for justice and for peace, and by the way, my mother was born in Scotland, Stornoway, which is serious Scotland”.  His essential point is that for the past seventy or so years the US and UK working together have been one of the “…great forces in history”.

The contemporary West certainly needs a strong German-US strategic relationship and for it to be a new force in history. Sadly, with the UK in a mess, and the British political elite seemingly incapable of rising the challenges of the twenty-first century, the two anchor states of the West are undoubtedly Germany and the United States.  Nor, as a Brit, am I particularly concerned about the strategic eclipsing of Britain by Germany, were it the case. My German friends can irritate the hell out of me, primarily because they have a tendency to believe they are always right about everything all of the time, even when they are plain wrong. Americans? Their collective and complete refusal to properly understand the causes of Brexit being a case-in-point.
Equally, I am equally irritated by those, particularly in my own country, who seek to equate contemporary liberal democratic Germany with Nazi Germany simply because they resent powerful Germany.  As L.P. Hartley once wrote, “The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there”.  In other words, the need for America and Germany to lead, and preferably lead together, is just plain power-sense.

It is at that point the complexities in the German-US relationship become apparent. Donald Trump’s other point was that kinship does indeed play a role in the US-UK special relationship.  It is changing, and over time will change, but whilst the US and UK are very different countries, with the latter very much a European country, there are still powerful cultural ties between the two that do not exist between Germany and the US.

Moreover, the ‘special’ bit in the special relationship has hitherto been founded on a level of mutual trust and respect of such import that the most sensitive of material and information continues to be shared between the US and UK (although whether that trust survive a Jeremy Corbyn government in London is a moot point).  It is this ‘automaticity’ of trust that is missing in the German-US relationship.  Indeed, I would go as far as to say that the US and German establishments are profoundly ambivalent about each other, and that such ambivalence goes far deeper than the implicit animosity that characterises the Merkel-Trump non-relationship.

This is a shame because as America’s over-stretched, world-wide reach grows relatively weaker over time as China and other ‘super-regional powers’ rise to challenge Washington’s writ the US will rely ever more on powerful allies and partners such as Germany. And, with Britain leaving the EU (if one reads the small-print of this week’s deal Britain really is leaving the EU) and with Berlin leading the way to deeper European integration, Germany will inevitably become relatively more powerful, and thus more vital to the US.

There is, however, a very large caveat with my thesis – Germany and its attitude to the utility and use of military power.  As the Loisach Group debated with Germans occupying the 'high' ground of theory, whilst Americans seeking joint policy action, a few hundred kilometres to the West a ceremony was taking place of profound strategic and political significance.  Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was commissioning the first of Britain’s new 70,000 ton aircraft carrier’s HMS Queen Elizabeth into the Royal Navy. 

Now, being rude about my country is a European habit these days because Brexit has dared pose a question the Euro-Aristocracy regard as heretical and would rather not have asked; who governs us? And, yes, one can nit-pick over the number of aircraft Big Lizzie will operate etc. etc.  However, the simple truth is that Britain will soon have two such ships that will greatly assist the United States to maintain global military reach.  Germany does not have, nor will it have anything like such military power. 

You see, for all the bluster about the ‘special relationship’ over the decades, culture, shared values, kinship et al, it was only ever REALLY special when Britain brought significant additional military heft to America’s super-heft (are you listening Mr Hammond?). Or, to put it another way, for all their challenges the British face they are investing in the kind of military force projection the Americans see as power vital to maintaining a special relationship, whilst the Germans, who continue to see ‘power’ in very different and mainly civilian and institutional ways, are not.
The subject for the Group’s discussion was, Harmonizing German and US Engagement with Russia.  As I sat through the various presentations I became ever more convinced the title of the meeting should have been, Harmonizing German and US Engagement with Each Other.  This is a vital mission because the German-US strategic partnership really matters. However, the Americans see the centre of gravity of the relationship as primarily helping them by better sharing burdens to offset their increasing military-strategic over-stretch, whilst the Germans see it as part of a non-military grand bargain that would constrain, as much as reinforce American might. As long as that fundamental fissure exists the best that will be said of the German-US strategic relationship is that is essential, rather than special. 

Still, the Loisach Group has a vital role to play to strengthen what is for all my caveats a, if not the vital strategic transatlantic relationship of the twenty-first century. For, to re-phrase Bismarck, in the twenty-first century there is no longer a Providence that protects idiots, drunkards, children, Germans, or even Americans.

Julian Lindley-French 

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