Germany needs to stand up, not as an aggressor or an imperialist power of the past, but as a defender of democracy.
The end of January 2017 marked the first time that Germany has sent troops to Eastern Europe since the time it was “Nazi Germany” and waged World War II.
For the first time in more than 70 years, German tanks have rolled east (that is, not counting the German peace-keepers in the wretched republics of the former Yugoslavia).
There is great symbolism in this event, which poses the big question as to whether today’s jealously democratic and liberal Germany can rise to the challenge as the leader of the West by taking up arms to defend itself and fellow NATO and EU members against potential aggression by outside powers.
‘West Berlin’-Type NATO Presence in the Baltics
Some 450 German troops with 30 tanks have arrived in Lithuania, where Germany is in charge of one of four 1,000-strong NATO battalions (or battle groups).
In 2016, the North Atlantic Alliance decided to send the battalions to the three Baltic States and Poland in response to Russia’s seizure and then annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula back in 2014, and its support for the pro-Russian insurgency in the Donbass region in Eastern Ukraine.
Germany is leading NATO’s Lithuanian battle group in the so called Enhanced Forward Presence (which also has contributions from France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Croatia, and Norway), while the NATO battle groups in Estonia, Latvia, and Poland are led by the UK, Canada, and the US, respectively.
The tiny NATO battalions in the Baltics and Poland appear to be designed just like the American, British, and French forces in West Berlin back in the Cold War years – in case of Soviet aggression, they were supposed to get sacrificed so that America, Britain, and France would be sure to step in.
The distribution and the leadership roles of America, Britain, Canada, and Germany in the NATO battalions in Eastern Europe warrant additional analysis.For instance, France playing second fiddle seems to be a reflection of the French unwillingness to tackle the Russians to the benefit of their fellow Europeans in the east.
(This was certainly not the case of the ill-fated NATO 2011 operation in Libya where the French with their focus on the Mediterranean were eager to lead the way.)
However, Germany’s stepping in is significant because it shows that it is both capable and willing to assume a leadership role in NATO and possibly the EU for European security.
Back in the 1990s when the three zones of the NATO-led UN mission in Bosnia and Herzegovina, SFOR, were led by the Americans, the British, and the French, this was not the case.
Now Germany has agreed to lead inside NATO, albeit in a secondary role to America.
But how much are the Germans really capable of contributing in terms of leadership and resolve to stand up for themselves, and, indeed, for the system of European security from which they have benefited so much since the Third Reich was left in ruins 72 years ago?
German troops and tanks marching and rolling east brings back shocking historical memories and images not so much from World War I as from World War II, when the Nazis attempted the extermination of Jews, Slavs, and Gypsies, which invading the Soviet Union.
Post-war Germany has spent decades in shame over this, and with good reason. It is fair to say that, being the exemplary democratic state that it is today, often to the point of absurdity, Germany has paid much of its guilt dues.
But today’s world, or, rather, West, needs a Germany that can, first of all, defend itself, and second, can lead and defend its EU and NATO allies!
Paramount in this regard has been the cooperation with the Americans — but what if under President Donald J. Trump the Americans decide to pull out?
With the Brexiting Brits out of the picture, and the French reluctant to take up arms to defend Eastern Europe, Germany seems the only power that can be counted on to assume the leadership for European security, regardless of its own complicated relationship with Russia.
(The only other possible candidate for such a job would be Poland, but the Poles have much more limited resources, and thus their leadership role would be questionable.)
It is not just that today’s Germany has changed beyond recognition from its imperial periods in the early 20th century—it is a peace-loving nation that’s even ultra-liberal in many ways.
And it has got so much to lose: the irony is that, having achieved its power through economic development and cultural soft power, today’s Germany is more powerful than it was at any time during World War I or World War II (as the old dark political joke goes, Germany started democratizing in the late 19th century, and 70 years later it was a perfect democracy).
Today’s Germany needs to get rid of its historical guilt (without forgetting what it did, of course). This guilt has been professed since 2013 in its highly questionable “refugee policy” – it just cannot fit the population of the entire Middle East in the North European Plain even if it wanted to.
And even if it could, this would in no way undo whatever was done in World War II.
(I’ve never understood the hypocrisy of dying to help refugees that you see in front of your eyes, i.e. the ones who make it to your borders by massively subsidizing human trafficking and international organized crime on the way, and not giving much of a heck about the millions who couldn’t afford to pay to be smuggled all the way to Central Europe.)
In this sense, a Germany that’s able to project power abroad for the sake of protecting democracy, liberty, and human rights would be able to do far more good in the world than a weak-minded Germany thinking it owes non-Europeans the right to settle within its borders.
For the time being, it remains uncertain if Germany can handle this type of responsibility. It’s just like a person who did something terrible in their past and then repented and found the right way, but still hasn’t overcome the guilt complex and has their demons.
The Intricate Russia Relationship
And it is not just these “demons,” but also the country’s vastly intricate relationship with Russia, that are complicating the potential German position of leadership today.
For example, Germany and its Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was largely behind one of the most stupid decisions in Western and European history: refusing Georgia and Ukraine NATO accession at the Bucharest Summit back in July 2008.
Part of the rationale for this was not to anger Russia. But guess what, a month later Russia invaded Georgia in an open, full-scale conventional war involving a major power that Europe hadn’t seen since World War II.
And we all know what has happened in Ukraine since 2014, after Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula and possibly backed an insurgency in the Donbass region.
If Georgia and Ukraine had been admitted to NATO in the summer of 2008, there would have been no 2008 War in Georgia and no ongoing War in Ukraine, and there would have been no need for Germany to head a NATO battalion in Lithuania today.
Instead, Germany and the other Western European NATO powers (certainly not George W. Bush’s neocons) created a wonderful window of opportunity for Russian President Vladimir Putin, who took advantage of it more than once (who wouldn’t in his position?).
They actually sealed the fate of Georgia and Ukraine for a long time to come since Russia has created frozen conflicts in those countries, so Georgia and Ukraine can never join NATO because to get into NATO (and the EU) one needs to have settled any disputes with one’s neighbors.
(A sensible policy, but only up to a point. By the way, how Cyprus, i.e. the Greek part, was allowed to bypass this requirement to join the EU, I will never know.)
Now the only way for Georgia and Ukraine to seek NATO membership would be to surrender all claims on everything occupied by the Russians—what kind of a politician would go for such a suicidal deal before its nation and constituents?
Looking at the lessons from Germany’s reluctance to lead internationally in the past couple of decades, the only sensible conclusions with respect to its leadership of a NATO battalion in Lithuania are that this is a good thing, and that Germany potentially needs to step in ever more to help defend NATO, the EU, and the rights and liberties that its citizens enjoy.
Germany needs to stand up, including militarily, not as an aggressor or an imperialist power of the past, but as a defender of democracy. Because when it hesitates to do that, as in the case of the failed Georgian and Ukrainian bids to join NATO, it is potentially hostile foreign powers that might take advantage.
Germany must help protect freedom and democracy and defend the European way of life.
Sounds a bit tacky, like a speech of President George W. Bush in post–9/11 America, I know.
But are there any other words and ways of putting it?
Any contribution is appreciated!
*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on intelligencerpost .com.