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Is Germany ready to lead?

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Maybe Europeans are not from Venus after all. In a rare display of unity and resolve, they are pouring advanced weapons into Ukraine, expanding NATO, kicking their addiction to Russian gas and tightening the economic squeeze on Moscow.

With the reprehensible exception of Victor Orban’s Hungary, our European allies seem determined to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s brutish attempt to dismember Ukraine if not erase it from the map altogether. To the surprise of many Americans, the creaky old transatlantic alliance is beginning to look like a strategic asset again.

Sweden and Finland, strictly neutral during the Cold War, are joining NATO. That’s confronted Putin with a new, 800-mile northern border with the defensive alliance he loathes and falsely claims poses an offensive threat to Russia. 

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But the most consequential shift in Europe’s dovish Zeitgeist has occurred in Germany. Stung to action by Putin’s second invasion of Ukraine in February, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced a “Zeitenwende” – turning point – in the quasi-pacifist drift of Germany’s post-Cold War diplomacy. Instead of the usual humanitarian aid, he promised to send Kiev weapons for self-defense and to boost Germany’s military spending by $100 billion a year.

This would bring Germany up to NATO’s guideline that all members spend at least 2 percent of GDP a year on defense. In persuading Berlin to meet its collective security obligations, Putin’s serial aggressions have succeeded where four years of boorish browbeating by former President Trump failed.

This is a very big deal — if Scholz follows through. It would signal an end to Germany’s policy following World War II of strategic reticence and reliance on U.S. military power to keep the peace in Europe. That policy was understandable in light of German repentance over starting the most destructive war in history and organizing the Holocaust. But after 77 years of peace and good global citizenship, it no longer makes sense for the European Union’s strongest economy and most populous nation to play a bit part in assuring European security.

But is Germany ready to lead? That was the question everyone was asking at the recent Progressive Governance Summit in Berlin, which I attended.

Since the Soviet Union disappeared, Germany has styled itself as an economic and soft power colossus pursuing a diplomatic version of virtue signaling. It has championed human rights, multilateral consensus-building and international law, while mostly shrinking from the morally fraught business of using military force to deter aggressors, maintain order and prevent genocidal violence.

Since German reunification in 1990, it’s also been axiomatic among the nation’s governing elites that cordial relations with Russia are integral to Europe’s peace and stability. Economic self-interest reinforced that view, as Germany grew reliant on Russian oil and gas to fuel its mighty manufacturing base. This dependence only deepened after Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster, which led then-Chancellor Angela Merkel to rashly pronounce a death sentence on nuclear energy in Germany.

Now many Germans are ruefully reassessing their accommodative stance toward Putin as well as official backing for the Nord Stream pipeline network under the Baltic Sea that brings Russian gas to Germany and other EU countries. “The Russian regime around Putin had become increasingly repressive and aggressive, even revisionist,” Lars Klingbeil, a top leader of Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD), acknowledged in a speech last week. “In our search for common ground, we overlooked what separated us,”

Scholz has drawn fire from Ukraine and his own governing coalition for the slow pace of arms deliveries, and for withholding state-of-the art weapons such as the Leopard tanks Kiev has been pleading for. He’s said doing so risks escalating the Ukraine crisis into a direct military confrontation between Germany and Russia.

Nonetheless, the government has begun sending advanced air defense systems to help Ukraine counter Russian missile barrages aimed at vital energy and transport infrastructure as well as civilian targets. Nonetheless, the relatively modest scale of Germany’s military aid hasn’t gone unnoticed in Europe or Washington.

Berlin has sent about $1.2 billion in military aid to Ukraine. That puts it well behind the contributions of Great Britain and Poland, and is barely a blip in comparison to America’s $27 billion in arms deliveries. 

The SPD’s partners in Scholz’s coalition government, the Greens and Free Democrats, are pressuring him to do more. Robin Wagener, a Green foreign policy leader, and 23 other parliamentarians appealed to the government last week to “provide Ukraine with higher-quality supplies of equipment and weapons to liberal those areas illegally by Russia.”

While defending Berlin’s decision not to send its main battle tanks to Ukraine, Wolfgang Schmidt, a top adviser to Scholz, compared Germany to a “teenager” and urged patience as it grows into a leadership role.   

“We are not yet an adult when it comes to foreign security policy. In teenage years you have lot of hormones, there’s a lot of overshooting and shouting, you are not very sure of yourself and don’t know where your place is,” he told the Progressive Summit.

The United States has a big stake in Germany’s speedy exit from adolescence. If Germany stays the course on Zeitenwende and assumes security leadership commensurate with its size and wealth, it will decisively tip the balance of power in Europe toward NATO and the EU. That would be true “burden sharing” at last, allowing Washington to concentrate on China’s rapid military balance and the need to maintain a favorable balance of power in the Pacific. And it would also hedge against the risk that a Republican-controlled Congress might fulfill Putin’s fondest wish by throttling back U.S. aid to Ukraine.

For Americans, and Europeans, it’s time to revise Lord Ismay’s old saw about NATO’s raison d’etre. Its purpose is still to keep the Russians out and the Americans in — but no longer is it to keep the Germans down.  

Will Marshall is president and founder of the Progressive Policy Institute (PPI).

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