The accomplished and insightful British general Hasting Ismay is remembered today largely because of his famous assessment of NATO, offered when he was the alliance’s first secretary general. The purpose of the new treaty organization founded in 1952, Ismay asserted, was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”
Ismay formulated that aphorism at the height of a new Cold War. The Soviet Red Army threatened to overrun Western Europe all the way to the English Channel. And few knew who or what exactly could stop it.
A traditionally isolationist United States was still debating its proper role after once again intervening on the winning side in a distant catastrophic European war — only to see its most powerful ally of WWII, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union, become the victorious democracies’ most dangerous post-war foe.
A divided Germany had become the new trip wire of the free world against a continental and monolithic nuclear Soviet Union and its bloc.
Nonetheless, note carefully what Ismay did not say.
He did not refer to keeping the “Soviet Union” out of the Western alliance (which the Soviets had once desired to join, a request that Ismay compared to inviting a burglar onto the police force).
Ismay did not cite the need to ensure that Nazi Germany never returned.
He did not insist that the inclusion of Great Britain was essential to NATO’s tripartite mission.
Ismay, a favorite of Churchill’s and a military adviser to British governments, had a remarkable sense of history — namely that constants such as historical memory, geography, and national character always transcend the politics of the day.
Russians from the days of the czars have wanted to extend their western influence into Europe. Russia was often a threat, given its large population and territory and rich natural resources — and it was also more autocratic and more volatile than many of its vulnerable European neighbors.
If alive today, Ismay might remind us that were there not a Vladimir Putin posing a threat to NATO’s vulnerable Eastern European members, he might have to be invented.
Ismay instinctively sensed that what made the Soviet Union dangerous in the mid 1950s was not just Stalinism and the Communist system per se, or even its possession of nuclear weapons, but rather the resources of Russia and its historical tendency to embrace anti-democratic absolutism, whether left or right.
Constants such as historical memory, geography, and national character always transcend the politics of the day.
With that same insight, Ismay understood that a Europe caught between Germany and Russia would always need a powerful outside ally, one with resources and manpower well beyond those of Great Britain. Further, he accepted that Americans, protected by two oceans, 3,000 miles distant from Europe, and nursed on warnings about pernicious entangling alliances from their Founding Fathers, would always experience periods of nostalgia when it longed to return to its republican America-first roots.
Again, if the movement that helped propel Donald Trump to the White House had not existed, it would have to have been manufactured. Today’s Americans are peeved about rich European members shorting NATO of their mandatory contributions. They do not appreciate often dependent European nations ankle-biting the U.S. as a supposedly illiberal imperial power, when that power has long subsidized the defense needs of the shaky European Union socialist experiment.
Ismay apparently sensed that an engaged America would always be a hard sell, especially in the new nuclear age, given that, for less cosmopolitan Americans far from the eastern seaboard, Europe seems a distant perennial headache. For them, it might appear much easier to write off Europe as hopelessly fractious and thus not deserving of yet another bailout requiring American blood and treasure. If the U.S. came late into both World War I and II, it was because of the same sort of weariness with European internecine quarreling, albeit now in a milder form, that we currently see fracturing the EU.
Lastly in his triad of advice, Ismay referred generically to “Germany” — without specifying a contemporary friendly and allied West Germany, juxtaposed to the Soviet-inspired, Communist, and hostile East Germany. Again, the East–West German fault line existed in Ismay’s time; yet he reduced all those unique differences of his age into a generic “Germany down.”
Ismay wrote an engaging wartime memoir from which we can extract much of his thought and experience, so we need not put words into his mouth. But nonetheless, insightful men of his generation did not necessarily look at the rise of National Socialism as entirely a historical aberration, or, in contrast, as a generic murderous ideology that just as easily might have captured the hearts and minds of Frenchmen or British subjects. That historical angst is why both Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev were apprehensive about the idea of German unification in 1989.
Ismay apparently remembered the Franco-Prussian war of 1870–71, and the horrors of the First and Second World Wars. He concluded that the common denominator was Germany’s strong desire to recover from its historical hurt in predictable bouts of aggression and national chauvinism — and backed by considerable skill and power.
In Ismay’s time, such aggression was different from lesser Fascist movements in Italy and Spain, largely because of the central geographic position of a unified young German nation-state, its sizable population, its national wealth, and what we reluctantly in today’s politically correct landscape might call “German character.” That stereotype originates from the time of Caesar and Tacitus: the ability of the German people to create economic, military, and cultural influence well beyond what one might expect from the actual size of even an impressive German population or geography. And such dynamism is often expressed by eyeing neighbors’ spiritual or concrete territory.
Once again, if there were not Angela Merkel’s increasingly defiant Germany, it too would have to be created. Some in the United States were troubled that Angela Merkel, from a beer hall in Munich no less, recently lashed out at the United States and promised that Germany might just have to navigate between the U.S. and Russia — quite a thought from a Germany once saved largely by the United States from its own carnivorousness and later likely Communist servitude.
Of course, what is disconcerting today about Germany is not the rise of totalitarian or nationalist movements, at least not as we usually use those terms. Indeed, in most respects, post-war Germany has been a model democracy. But there is a common denominator in Germany’s most recent controversies, with disturbing historical roots that might further amplify the logic of Ismay’s prescient “Germany down.” Germany might be pursuing a Eurocentric agenda, it might proudly declare itself an open-borders host for millions of impoverished immigrants, it might be at the vanguard of green energy, but it is doing all that in ways of Lord Ismay’s Germany of old.
The central bank of Germany de facto controls European finances. It uses the euro as a weaker currency than would otherwise be true of the Deutsche Mark to conduct a mercantile export economy, providing credit to weaker European economies to buy Germans goods that they otherwise could ill afford. The impoverished southern Mediterranean economies are essentially in hock now to Germany, and Germany apparently can neither be paid back its original loans nor write off the debts. In other words, German won all the chips of the European Union poker game and it no longer need play with its broke rivals.
No one quite knows the strange driving force behind Angela Merkel’s demand that the European Union open its borders to millions of mostly young men from the war-torn Middle East and the chaotic lands of North Africa. Cynics might suggest that a shrinking Germany wants young, cheap manual laborers. Post-war guilt may play a role as Germany’s cure for its past becomes nearly as obsessive as the behavior that led to the disease in the first place.
German postmodern multiculturalism encourages a naïve acceptance of millions of unassimilated Middle Eastern Muslims, and it demands the same from neighbors without Germany’s resources.
German postmodern multiculturalism encourages a naïve acceptance of millions of unassimilated Middle Eastern Muslims, and it demands the same from neighbors without Germany’s resources. A largely atheistic or agnostic Germany also has few religious worries about Islamic immigrants, given that secular affluence and leisure long ago proved far more deleterious to German Christianity than did radical Islam.
Germany saw Brexit as an intolerable affront to its own leadership. Apparently the British voter saw the increasingly non-democratic trajectory of the European Union as a future challenge to its own independence. If southern Europeans are becoming serfs to Germany, and Eastern Europeans its clients, and Western Europeans anxious subordinates, then the British across the channel thought they had to get out while the getting was good.
Recent Pew international polls reveal that Germany of all the countries of the European Union is by far the most anti-American, with scarcely 52 percent expressing a positive appraisal of the United States — well before Donald Trump ran for office. Media polls show that the German press ran the most negative appraisals of Trump of all global news (98 percent of all coverage was critical). A fair summary of current German views of the United States would be not much different from the stereotypes of the 1930s: undisciplined, prone to wild swings in policy, a bastardized and commercialized culture of poorly informed and highly indebted consumers.
Ismay’s generation welcomed the re-creation of Germany as a positive democratic force both in the soon-to-be-created European Common Market and the nascent NATO alliance. But it did not discard Ismay’s idea of “Germany down.” Instead, there was a wink-and-nod acceptance that a divided Germany was a safe Germany. NATO and the common Soviet threat would encourage ties of solidarity. And just in case they did not, weaker and smaller traditional rivals, France and Great Britain, would possess nuclear weapons — and stronger and far larger Germany would not.
What would Ismay say of his current tripartite formula?
He would warn about what happens when NATO withers on the vine: Russian is a bit in, America is somewhat out, and Germany more up than down — as Ismay feared when he helped offer the remedy of NATO at its creation.