An unlikely defense of German foreign policy

Germany is a country I came to know well in the 10 years I lived there, in Berlin and Bavaria. Despite the many sterling virtues of its people, lodged deep in the German collective psyche is a characteristic that I cannot abide — schadenfreude.

While not directly translatable into English, it is best thought of as “to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.” For example, I remember once riding a perpetually late German train and asking the off-duty conductor if he knew where I needed to go, as my route had been altered. He snarled at me: “Yes,” then went back to reading his paper. Exasperated, I asked him: “Are you going to tell me?” He smiled malignantly and said: “No.”

I must admit to feeling a good deal of schadenfreude myself at present, as two decades’ worth of the German political elite’s dim, arrogant, and complacent policymaking has come home to roost because of the war in Ukraine.

For literally 20 years I have pleaded with the Germans to stop free-riding on American defense expenditure, to wean themselves off their strategically dangerous dependence on Russian energy, and to stop drifting toward a mercantilist, isolationist, even neutralist geostrategic position. Insufferably, I was invariably met with a German elite who blandly assured me that trade would tempt Moscow away from revisionism in the international sphere, that war was an unthinkable anachronism in Europe, and that they — rather than the simplistic Americans —knew better how the world really worked. To the legions of German policymakers who said things along these disastrous lines, know that in any reasonably meritocratic society you would be shown the door.

But for all the understandable schadenfreude, I find myself in the oddest of positions: A champion in the defense of current German foreign policy. Where the Ukrainians and many in the Western media decry Germany’s strategic slowness, I see a highly favorable geostrategic shift occurring — and at the speed of light. The Germans have done more strategically in the past two months than they accomplished in the previous two decades.

First, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the able Green Energy Minister Robert Habeck immediately scuppered the egregious Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This latest Russo-German energy link-up, the culmination of the disastrous Angela Merkel’s geoeconomic policy, would have left Berlin dependent on Moscow for 70 percent of its natural gas.

Despite earlier US, Eastern European and French pleas to forgo the program (though Joe Biden quietly dropped the Trump administration’s earlier vociferous objections), Merkel had stubbornly refused to reconsider. Habeck, by German terms moving at quantum speed, ended this decade-long potential calamity, which would have left Europe’s most important country entirely at the mercy of Russia.

Second, under the new Scholz administration, a generation’s worth of free riding over defense issues has also abruptly come to an end. When the Cold War finished, Germany was not shy about immediately cashing in on the so-called “peace dividend,” becoming lotus-eaters in the process. Worse, in typical, maddening German fashion, the country’s elite constructed a holier-than-thou ideology as a cover for their short-sighted holiday from history. War was unthinkable, trade was the way to convert possible rivals into allies, and nationalism itself was an outmoded, dying way to think about the world. All of this, of course, was a convenient excuse for the Germans to do precisely as they wanted, and ignore the fact that all of the above was obvious nonsense.

In contrast, a heretofore complicit Scholz (he was finance minister in the last Merkel government) has moved fast — suddenly and dramatically agreeing to NATO’s terms of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense (in Germany it is currently only 1.5 percent, and has often been even lower), and to the establishment of a separate €100 billion fund to update Berlin’s woefully out-of-date defense systems. Incredibly, it has been estimated in the British newspaper The Times that a hollowed-out German military has only enough ammunition to fight for 3-4 days at a Ukraine-style level. From the bottom of the barrel, Scholz has made it clear that his government intends to redress the criminal defense negligence of the Merkel years.

Last, and most importantly, German has acquiesced in the EU’s application of vital energy sanctions on Russia, even though doing so will cost Berlin at least 1 percent of its GDP. Just this past week, EuropeanCommission President Ursula van der Leyen announced ambitious plans by Brussels to stop funding the Russian war machine. Since the invasion began, the EU’s imports of Russian oil have been worth about €22 billion to the Kremlin. Europe is the biggest buyer of Russian crude, accounting for fully 53 percent of the country’s total exports, which are worth a substantial $104 billion a year. Van der Leyen has proposed a full EU embargo on Russian oil within only six months, and all other petroleum products by the end of the year. Only with staunch German backing would such a proposal have been made.

So, despite me wanting to scream: “I told you so!”, here’s to German foreign and security policy awakening from its long hibernation — and not a moment too soon.

This post was originally published in Arab News.