National Security & Defense

Calls to Arms, Part I

German mechanized infantry soldiers train in Viereck, July 2015. (Reuters photo: Axel Schmidt)
Germany, Japan, and their militaries — after 70 years, time to get going?

Editor’s Note: In our December 31 issue, we published a piece by Jay Nordlinger called “Calls to Arms: The pregnant question of Germany, Japan, and their militaries.” This week, in a two-part series, Mr. Nordlinger expands that piece. Today’s installment is on Germany; tomorrow’s will be about Japan.

Germany and Japan have not been known for military forays since 1945. Much of the world has liked it that way. So have many Germans and Japanese. But a new era is upon us. Germany and Japan are venturing out. They are rethinking their military postures. After 70 years, this was perhaps inevitable. In any case, it is so.

The Germans are sending a battalion to the Baltic states — specifically, to Lithuania. Japan is sending troops to South Sudan under new, indeed historic, rules of engagement: They may use force, not only to defend themselves but to defend others. More broadly, Germany and Japan are responding to new threats.

They are also responding to a new America, which is ready to abandon or lighten the burdens it has long carried.

Not everyone was happy about the reunification of Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Prominent among the unhappy was Margaret Thatcher — who said, with alarm, “We beat the Germans twice, and now they’re back.” Her fellow Briton, General Ismay, had made a famous remark. He was the first-secretary general of NATO. And he described the alliance’s purpose as “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Eventually, many people decided that Germany had been down long enough. Radek Sikorski made a famous statement of his own, when he was foreign minister of Poland. The year was 2011 and he was speaking in Berlin: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”

Madeleine Albright, remember, had made a famous statement when she was the American secretary of state: “We are the indispensable nation.”

When he became president, Barack Obama made clear his distaste for “free-riders,” as he calls them: nations that ride freely on the back of the United States, without paying for their own defense. And his defense secretary, Robert Gates, issued a clear warning. This too was in 2011, the year of Sikorski’s remark: “The blunt reality is that there will be dwindling appetite and patience in the U.S. Congress — and in the American body politic writ large — to expend increasingly precious funds on behalf of nations that are apparently unwilling to devote the necessary resources or make the necessary changes to be serious and capable partners in their own defense.”

Of late, Germany has not been exactly a wallflower on the international scene. They are part of the Afghan coalition, of course: That war is a NATO operation, among other things. The United States invoked Article 5 (which says that an attack on one is an attack on all). Germany was not part of the Iraq coalition, though they trained Iraqis in countries outside Iraq (including in Germany itself).

The Germans have been in Africa — in Mali, for example, and they are planning to build an outpost in Niger. This is all with an eye to counterterrorism. And they have been arming and training Kurds in the fight against ISIS.

But it is Russia that has really concentrated the German mind. In 2014, Vladimir Putin’s state annexed the Crimea, and made war in the Donbass region of Ukraine. This was alarming in Berlin and throughout NATO, and it was particularly alarming in the Baltic states, the eastern flank of NATO. The alliance decided to send fresh battalions to those states: Britons to Estonia, Canadians to Latvia, and Germans to Lithuania.

The Lithuanian president, Dalia Grybauskaite, made an exuberant statement. “I think we are at a historic turning-point,” she said. “First, a lot of time has passed, and a breakthrough is occurring in the German mindset: Time for self-doubt, fear, reluctance to take responsibility, and dread of what Putin might think is over.”

In Germany, support for a mission to Lithuania was not universal, of course. The Left, in particular, objected — and there is a political party called, straightforwardly, “The Left,” Die Linke. It has 64 members of parliament (out of 630). One of them is Sahra Wagenknecht.

She said, “Chancellor Angela Merkel is committing an irresponsible provocation when, 75 years after the attack on the Soviet Union, she is sending the Bundeswehr to the Russian border.” (The Bundeswehr, or “Federal Defense,” is the German military.) “The federal government is playing with fire if they blindly support NATO’s aggressive game.”

The German air force — the Luftwaffe — is in Estonia at this moment. They are part of the NATO mission called “Baltic Air Policing.” Night and day, NATO pilots escort buzzing, taunting, aggressive Russian planes from Baltic airspace. Rival pilots get very close to each other.

In November, the Washington Post reported an interesting tidbit: A Russian pilot gave a German pilot the finger. Observed a German commander, “Maybe he watched too much Top Gun.” (This is a reference, as you know, to the hit movie of 1986.)

Germany is embarked on a tremendous military expansion: billions more euros, thousands more soldiers. Giving a speech in October, Chancellor Merkel explained, “In the 21st century, we won’t be getting as much help as we got in the 20th.” She went on to say, “We have to spend more for our external security. The conflicts of this world are currently on Europe’s doorstep, massively so.”

In saying this, she was surely thinking of Middle Eastern and African migration, as well as Russia.

Constanze Stelzenmüller is an expert on Germany and Europe at the Brookings Institution. And she notes a dog not barking: a lack of protest within Germany over the government’s new direction. (There is a lack of protest in Europe at large, too.) Yes, there is some dissatisfaction, as from the Left party. But generally there is agreement or acceptance. This is in amazing contrast, Stelzenmüller says, with the huge protests that took place over the installation of U.S. missiles in the early 1980s. At the time, she was in Bonn, the West German capital, studying law. She could barely get to class for the crowds.

Visiting Lithuania in September, the German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, made a declaration: “It is time to move forward to a European defense union.” She said that such a union would complement and strengthen NATO. Plus, it’s “what the Americans expect us to do.”

A few months earlier, President Grybauskaite had made a telling statement: “With Britain withdrawing from the European Union, but remaining a NATO member, responsibility for stability in Europe will increasingly fall on the shoulders of Germany — not only for economic stability, but also for security.”

Germany is indispensable, said Grybauskaite, because of “the strategic tendency of the United States to turn more and more security responsibility over to Europeans.”

It is perhaps not well enough understood around the world — very much including the United States — how fundamental the idea of Europe is in Germany. “The Russians are meddling with the European project,” says Stelzenmüller, “which is the foundation of German prosperity, stability, and peace. It is the be-all, end-all of German power.”

I think of Willy Brandt, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971. He was the West German chancellor, and he won the prize for his rapprochement with countries to his east. Here is a passage from his Nobel lecture, given in Oslo:

I say here what I say in Germany: A good German cannot be a nationalist. A good German knows that he cannot refuse a European calling. Through Europe, Germany returns to itself and to the constructive forces of its history. Our Europe, born of the experience of suffering and failure, is the imperative mission of reason.

Constanze Stelzenmüller says, “There is a general sense that there’s a tsunami heading Europe’s way.” This question of military power — of doing the necessary, militarily — “is about values, interests, and the integrity of Europe. And it’s about Germany and our future, damn it.”

A reminder from the editor: Tomorrow, Japan.

And a word from the National Review Store: To get Jay Nordlinger’s new collection, Digging In, go here.

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