By Edward Goldberg
Thomas Friedman in the New York Times writes regularly about how you can’t fool, deceive, or trick Mother Nature. Well the same logic applies to history and geography. Although the headlines are currently focused on the Black Lives Matter movement and the continuing COVID pandemic, a geopolitical blunder of historic importance is being committed: President Donald Trump is pushing Germany away from the United States. Former Secretaries of State Dean Acheson and George Marshall are turning over in their graves. Henry Kissinger, the Merlin of balance of power thought in international relations, must be in total despair.
Germany is not only the fourth-largest economy in the world; it is the industrial and financial engine of the European Union. Furthermore, with its interlocking trade connections to the other 25 members of the European Union, its economic weight is significantly amplified. Germany is truly the leader of Europe, and Europe is America’s largest trading partner. In 2018 (latest data) the European Union accounted for 22.4% of total U.S. trade.
In our globalized world, where national sovereignty is still key but where market power counts as it never did before, the European-American relationship is crucial to the United States’ position in the world. Because of the explosive growth of the global economy, the GDP of the United States went from being 36% of the world’s totalin 1969 to only 15.2% today. However, the combined U.S.-EU economic relationship (a key to the Western alliance) should in principle dramatically magnify the economic power and influence of the United States.
This multiplier effect of economic power is built not only on daily trade flows, but also on investments. The European Union and the United States enjoy the most integrated economic relationship in the world. U.S. and EU investors together invested roughly $5.8 trillion directly into each other’s economies in 2018. U.S. foreign direct investment in the European Union totaled $3.27 trillion in 2018, while EU FDI in the United States was worth $2.6 trillion that year. For the United States, this number is 3 times higher than what it invested in Asia. For the EU, it is almost 8 times higher than the amount of money it invested in India and China combined.
What should make this powerhouse of an economic bloc work is a shared cultural perspective that exists in few other sovereign economic relationships. That commonality is based on a belief in free societies protected by the rule of law, legally protected property rights, and intellectual property rights, as well as strong support for private enterprise, competition, and innovation.
In a world where Trump sees China as a Cold War-style competitor, and where Russia is consistently trying to return international relations to a 19th century-style balance of power game, what is the rationale for pushing Germany further away from the United States and closer to Russia or China?
The great post-World War II strategists -- whether Robert Schuman, the father of the EU, or George Marshall and Dean Acheson in the United States with their concepts of the Marshall Plan and NATO -- knew instinctively how important it was to keep Germany bound to the West. One of the key accomplishments of both the European Coal and Steel Community, the early forerunner of the European Union, and of NATO, was securing Germany’s economic power to the West. It was based on what at that time was a difficult tradeoff for much of Europe: In exchange for being economically bound, a defeated Germany would be recognized as an equal partner.
But that was 70 years ago, and today an American administration that doesn't know history sees the world differently. For Germany, it would not be terribly novel to shift its view east. Shortly after the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, Bismarck adapted his Reinsurance Policy (Rückversicherungspolitik). To stop Russia from making an alliance with France, he offered Germany’s de-facto support for Russia’s geopolitical claims in the Bosporus and the Dardanelles, ensuring Russian access to the Mediterranean.
Bismarck also spoke about Germany being like a rolly poly doll with a weight in its bottom that could move east or west. Fortunately, for the moment Angela Merkel, who grew up with the horrors of the east, is Germany’s chancellor. But Merkel’s term ends in October 2021.
As Robert D. Kaplan pointed out in an interview in the December 5, 2019 edition of CAP X, a British foreign Policy review:
“So that leaves Germany as the most successful of the major powers on mainland Europe and leaving Europe in the hands of Germany – when the next generation of German leaders may not have the wisdom of the Kohls, the Schmidts, the Adenauers and even the Merkels, who had a deep, deep knowledge of World War Two and memories of the Cold War – I think that leaves Britain at the mercy of a very disorganized, less united Europe over which Russia and China will be vying for influence.
I would not be surprised if down the road, Germany leans more in the direction of Moscow, because that’s the path of least resistance: take the second Nord Stream gas pipeline from Russia, have an informal German-Russian Alliance. This is the fear – I’m not predicting it, it’s just a fear I have.”
Immediately after Mao took control of China, the Republicans consistently asked the question: Who lost China? If that question now comes up about Germany, it will be very easy to answer: A leader who ignored history and geography has foolishly lost Germany.
Edward Goldberg is an assistant professor at New York University Center for Global Affairs where he teaches International Political Economy. He is the author of “The Joint Ventured Nation: Why America Needs A New Foreign Policy.” His new book “Why Globalization Works for America: How Nationalist Trade Policies Are Destroying Our Country” will be published in July by Potomac Books. The views expressed are the author's own.