Will President Trump provoke a descent back into hell?

Robert Kagan, the realist, or as he prefers to call himself, the liberal-interventionist historian, who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, has written a rather frightening essay in Foreign Affairs which is headlined: “The New German QuestionWhat Happens When Europe Comes Apart?

Dr Kagan reminds us that “The German question produced the Europe of today, as well as the transatlantic relationship of the past seven-plus decades. Germany’s unification in 1871 created a new nation in the heart of Europe that was too large, too populous, too rich, and too powerful to be effectively balanced by the other European powers, including the United Kingdom. The breakdown of the European balance of power helped produce two world wars and brought more than ten million U.S. soldiers across the Atlantic to fight and die in those wars. Americans and Europeans established NATO after World War II at least as much to settle the German problem as to meet the Soviet challenge, a fact now forgotten by today’s realists—to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down,” as Lord Ismay, the alliance’s first secretary-general, put it. This was also the purpose of the series of integrative European institutions, beginning with the European Steel and Coal Community, that eventually became the European Union. As the diplomat George Kennan put it, some form of European unification was “the only conceivable solution for the problem of Germany’s relation to the rest of Europe,” and that unification could occur only under the umbrella of a U.S. security commitment.” And, he says, and I agree, it worked, and the real brilliance of the Truman, Acheson, Bohlen, Kennan, Marshall strategy is fully apparent only when one expands Pug Ismay’s quip so that America’s aim can be seen as being to, simultaneously, contain both the USSR’s aggression and the harmful, unhealthy nationalist impulses of Germany, Japan and others. That strategy, generally known as the Truman Doctrine, was broader and deeper than many people realized then … or even now.

He also reminds us that “As a historical matter, Germany, in its relatively brief time as a nation, has been one of the most unpredictable and inconsistent players on the international scene. It achieved unification through a series of wars in the 1860s and 1870s. Otto von Bismarck then forged it into a nation, by “blood and iron,” as he put it, turning it into the peaceful “satiated power” of the next two decades. Then, from the 1890s through World War I, under Kaiser Wilhelm II, it became the ambitious German empire, with dreams of Mitteleuropa, a Germanized sphere of influence stretching all the way to Russia—and visions, in the words of Bernhard von Bülow, who was then Germany’s foreign minister, of a “place in the sun.” After the war, Germany became the cautious revisionist power of the Weimar years, only to emerge as the conqueror of Europe under Hitler in the 1930s, and then collapse into a defeated, divided state. Even during the Cold War, West Germany vacillated between the pro-Western idealism of Chancellor Konrad Adenauer and the realist Ostpolitik of Chancellor Willy Brandt. The country’s domestic politics were no less turbulent and unpredictable, at least until the late 1940s. Scholars have long mused about Germany’s Sonderweg, the unique and troubled path the nation took to modern democracy, by way of failed liberal revolution, hereditary monarchy, authoritarianism, frail democracy, and, finally, totalitarianism, all in the first seven decades of its existence … [but, he explains] … This turbulent history was a product not just of the German character, however. Circumstances played a big part, including simple geography. Germany was a powerful nation in the center of a contested continent, flanked on the east and the west by large and fearful powers and therefore always at risk of a two-front war. Germany rarely felt secure, and when it did seek security by increasing its power, it only hastened its own encirclement. Germany’s internal politics were also continually affected by the waves of autocracy, democracy, fascism, and communism that swept back and forth across Europe. The novelist Thomas Mann once suggested that the question was not so much one of national character but one of external events. “There are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one,” he wrote. “Wicked Germany is merely good Germany gone astray, good Germany in misfortune, in guilt, and ruin” … [thus, he says] … The democratic and peace-loving Germany everyone knows and loves today grew up in the particular circumstances of the U.S.-dominated liberal international order established after World War II. The Germans transformed themselves over the postwar decades, but there were four aspects of that order, in particular, that provided the most conducive circumstances in which that evolution could take place.”

And we must also take note of the fact that, as he explains, “If the Germany of today is a product of the liberal world order, it is time to think about what might happen when the order unravels. Consider the Europe in which Germans now live. To their east, the once democratic governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia have entered varying stages of descent into illiberalism and authoritarianism. To the south, Italy is governed by nationalist and populist movements with a questionable commitment to liberalism and even less allegiance to the eurozone’s economic discipline. To the west, an increasingly troubled and resentful France is one election away from a nationalist electoral victory that will hit Europe like an earthquake. It will also drive a final nail into the coffin of the Franco-German partnership around which European peace was built 70 years ago … [and, he says] … Then there is the United Kingdom’s departure from Europe. In 2016, as the vote on Brexit approached, Prime Minister David Cameron asked, “Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?” It was the right question, for Brexit will indeed contribute to Europe’s destabilization by exacerbating the imbalance of power and leaving an already weakened France alone to face a powerful but increasingly isolated Germany. It is also another victory for nationalism, another blow to the institutions that were established to address the German question and to keep Germany moored in the liberal world.

Robert Kagan explains, at some length, that “four elements—the U.S. security guarantee, the international free-trade regime, the democratic wave, and the suppression of nationalism—have together kept the old German question buried deep under the soil. There was nothing inevitable about them, however, and they are not necessarily permanent. They reflect a certain configuration of power in the world, a global balance in which the liberal democracies have been ascendant and the strategic competitions of the past have been suppressed by the dominant liberal superpower. It has been an unusual set of circumstances, abnormal and ahistorical. And so has Germany’s part in it.

So, for almost 75 years, we have enjoyed a finely balanced system that kept the Russians out, the Americans in and the Germans and Japanese down, in military-nationalistic terms. The Truman Doctrine was, indeed, brilliant and effective, but now, Dr Kagan says, “If one were devising a formula to drive Europe and Germany back to some new version of their past, one could hardly do a better job than what U.S. President Donald Trump is doing now. Overtly hostile to the EU, the Trump administration is encouraging the renationalization of Europe, as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo did in Brussels at the end of 2018, when he gave a speech touting the virtues of the nation-state. In the European struggle that has pitted liberals against illiberals and internationalists against nationalists, the Trump administration has placed its thumb on the scales in favor of the two latter groups. It has criticized the leaders of the European center-right and center-left, from German Chancellor Angela Merkel to French President Emmanuel Macron to British Prime Minister Theresa May, while embracing the leaders of the populist illiberal right, from Viktor Orban in Hungary to Marine Le Pen in France to Matteo Salvini in Italy to Jaroslaw Kaczynski in Poland. It was in Germany, of all places, where the U.S. ambassador, Richard Grenell, expressed in an interview the desire to “empower” Europe’s “conservatives,” by which he did not mean the traditional German right-of-center party of Merkel.” It almost seems as if Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin share a common aim.

Besides encouraging right-wing nationalism and the dissolution of pan-European institutions,” Robert Kagan says, “the Trump administration has turned against the global free-trade regime that undergirds European and German political stability. The president himself has specifically targeted Germany, complaining of its large trade surplus and threatening a tariff war against German automobiles in addition to the tariffs already imposed on European [and Canadian] steel and aluminum. Imagine what the effects of even greater pressure and confrontation might be: a downturn in the German economy and, with it, the return of resentful nationalism and political instability. Now imagine that Greece, Italy, and other weak European economies were teetering and in need of further German bailouts that might not be forthcoming. The result would be the reemergence of the economic nationalism and bitter divisions of the past. Add to this the growing doubts about the U.S. security guarantee that Trump has deliberately fanned, along with his demands for increased defense spending in Germany and the rest of Europe. American policy seems bent on creating the perfect European storm.

That is, as I said at the top, a pretty frightening analysis … but it is highly plausible, more likely probable than just possible. I think the EU is falling apart; I believe that much of Europe and, indeed, much of the world, including the USA, is in the grip of unhealthy nationalism; I suspect that America is, for now, and, likely for the next generation, inclined to step back from the liberal, free-trading, co-operative model that has kept the peace for almost 75 years, and I believe that is emboldening the unhealthy nationalists everywhere.

So, what should Canada do?

I think the answer is obvious; as I said about a week ago, “first, we must recapture our self-respect as a nation and act, at home and abroad, like the rich, sophisticated, liberal-democratic, middle power that we are.” That self-respect was something we tossed aside when Pierre Trudeau was in power and he persuaded many Canadians that we had done enough in the world and that our little domestic problems and our own ‘wants’ were more important. We sat on the sidelines and hectored the Americans for being militaristic even as we hid behind the USA’s military skirts. Now, 50 years after PET’s policy vandalism, recapturing our self-respect is going to require two actions, amongst many:

  • First, Canadians must toss the Trudeau Liberals aside in 2019 and elect a grown-up team, Andrew Scheer’s team, that will take foreign and defence policy and grand strategy at least somewhat more seriously ~ bearing in mind that Canadians don’t like spending on those government programmes; and
  • Second, the Liberal Party must look back at 50 years of weak, vacillating foreign and defence policies and commit itself to changing back to something more akin to a Liberal Party that Louis St Laurent would join.

I know I’m repeating myself, but Canada needs to re-examine its foreign policy, from top to bottom, starting with the AIM, which ought to be something like, to “protect and promote peace and prosperity for Canada by, inter alia, playing a leading role amongst the middle powers in advancing free(er) trade, negotiated resolution of disputes and effective peacemaking and peacekeeping when negotiations fail. Then Canada needs to rebuild its diplomatic and military services to give weight and muscle to its aim … which takes us back to the two actions, above, beginning with a new, Conservative, government in 2019.

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