Commentary

Arrogant Americans vs. Irresponsible Germans: Why Europe needs to show some backbone

This article originally appeared on Reason Online on October 14, 2002.

The U.S. remains at war in Afghanistan, has troops searching for terrorists throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, and is preparing to initiate war against Iraq. As if that weren’t enemies enough, Richard Perle, chairman of the Defense Policy Board, wants to add Germany to the list, calling on newly-reelected Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to resign.

Why? Because Schroeder criticized U.S. policy towards Iraq: “Never in my life have I seen relations with a close ally damaged so fast and so deeply,” says Perle.

Instead of recoiling at the thought of Berlin proclaiming policy independence, Washington should use the opportunity to push Europe towards defense independence. Without a Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, there is nothing against which America must defend the Europeans.

Unfortunately, neither side has conducted itself with much maturity in the ongoing international spat. The Bush administration believes that allies such as Germany should do what it says, no questions asked. The Schroeder administration believes that Germany deserves a significant say in international relations, while shrinking its military and relying on Washington to resolve tough global problems.

Despite Washington’s claims to undisputed international leadership, Berlin is entitled to set its own foreign policy. Even when the Soviet threat helped maintain a degree of European unity, interests between America and its allies often diverged.

It is even more natural today that other NATO members look at the world differently than does America. Especially when it comes to launching an unprovoked war in the world’s least stable region.

That Washington believes itself to be the final arbiter of every dispute everywhere on earth bothers some Americans; it certainly should concern Europeans. Stuart Reid, British deputy editor of The Spectator, notes that even some British conservatives have “begun to look to Europe as a bulwark against the spread of American ideas.”

In fact, the U.S. will act more responsibly only when confronted with consistent and firm opposition from other major powers. Thus, Washington should be sobered rather than angered that Chancellor Schroeder, backed by German voters, is not enamored with Washington’s aggressive plans against Iraq.

Still, it is understandable why Europe has so little influence over American policy. Europe as a whole is a security black hole for America. True, some analysts made much of the fact that after the September 2001 terrorist strikes NATO invoked Article 5 for the first time in its history, formally declaring the attack on the U.S. to be an attack on all.

But expressions of solidarity are cheap. Providing a handful of special forces and lending a couple of AWACS planes would not have been necessary were the U.S. not devoting a substantial share of its military to defending Europe. The Europeans would do far more for America by simply garrisoning their own continent, instead of expecting the U.S. to maintain 100,000 troops to protect populous, prosperous industrialized states, as well as another 13,000 to enforce order in the Balkans, a region of no strategic interest to America.

In short, Europe currently consumes U.S. defense resources while providing few assets in return. Yet the alliance is considering including several Central and Eastern European nations.

Expanding NATO will offer no benefits to America. Rather, doing so will extend U.S. security guarantees to peripheral regions without augmenting Western military power.

And there is no doubt that it would be Washington that would be expected to resolve any new security problems. The membership might be in NATO, but the security guarantee would be American. It’s not likely to be German troops confronting Russian forces in, say, any dispute with Latvia.

Washington’s goal should be to turn NATO into a European- manned and European-run alliance while concentrating its own resources on genuine threats to its own security. That, however, requires a Germany that is serious about international leadership, including taking a more active military posture.

Obviously history remains a deterrent, though Berlin has begun participating in international military operations, most importantly in the Balkans and Afghanistan. But instead of taking on serious international responsibilities and building a potent, future-oriented military, Berlin lets the U.S. do the heavy lifting and relies on an outmoded conscript force. Indeed, as Washington dramatically hiked military spending—President Bush’s proposed increase of $46 billion next year is more than any state other than Russia spends in total—Berlin has steadily shrunk defense outlays.

Washington currently outspends the FRG by more than ten to one. America’s force deployment in Germany is the equivalent to almost one-fifth of the entire Bundeswehr.

In short, why should anyone, least of all America, take Germany’s international pretensions seriously?

Schroeder unveiled his stance as the peace candidate a bare month before the election, without offering a larger, independent foreign policy vision. That would mean devoting the resources necessary to build a capable military, and ending Germany’s and Europe’s security dependence on Washington. It would involve joining with other European states to create a genuinely independent military and foreign policy, and refusing to allow the U.S. to use German territory to launch military missions which it opposes.

The last step—forbidding use of German facilities for U.S. military operations—is particularly important. Rhetoric alone will inspire only contempt in Washington. For Chancellor Schroeder to criticize America’s plans in Iraq, but not take the one step that might slow down the Bush administration’s rush to war, shows that he is interested only in cheap political gain.

Washington has long wanted Europe to do more militarily; Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently proposed a rapid reaction force for use outside of Europe. But America still does not want to share decision-making authority with its allies.

Indeed, at the NATO summit in Warsaw Secretary Rumsfeld admitted that the alliance had not been asked—which means it is not likely to be asked—to play a formal role in any war with Iraq: “It hasn’t crossed my mind; we’ve not proposed it.”

The administration wants doormats, not allies. Germany and Europe don’t have to remain irrelevant, however. The Schroeder- Bush fight offers Berlin and other European states a unique opportunity to strike a more independent course. It’s time for Washington to encourage such a change.

Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute.