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German flag waving at the Bundestag in Berlin, Germany

Keeping the Americans In, the Russians Out and the Chinese in Check: Germany’s Future Strategy

Maximilian Terhalle
Commentary, 21 July 2020
China, United States, NATO, Germany, Russia
Germany’s next leader will need to restate not only the country’s future security stance, but also help articulate the Alliance’s adaptation to new strategic realities.

Thirty years into Germany’s reunification, the most fundamental, if unspoken, question Berlin’s allies are asking is: are you ready to defend freedom? Globally challenged by powerful strongmen whose self-confidence has fed off democracies’ self-doubt about the future, the latter have betrayed a tendency to fatalism in their likeliness to prevail in the 2020s.

Looking ahead, Germany’s future leaders need to deliver their new narrative to the public by showing how it responds to their international vision of the future. Addressing the evolving power and ideological struggle of the 2020s, Germany’s future chancellor will need to provide, most crucially, a clear sense of direction as to which fundamental challenges are threatening the Western way of life. In fact, by adapting NATO’s vision of 1949 – ‘keeping the Americans in, the Russians out and the Germans down’ – Berlin’s new vision needs to be geared at ‘keeping the Americans in, the Russians out and the Chinese in check’.

Keeping the Americans In

Such persuading of German and European publics may only succeed if framed by a realistic understanding of today’s strategic landscape. For one, President Donald Trump’s disregard for global leadership has opened up a power vacuum which others have exploited, at the expense of the West. Therefore, European allies need to make ‘keeping the Americans in’ their strategic priority. 

In this new vision, the West’s economic and military power needs to be joint to safeguard the one core value that sets it apart from China and Russia: freedom. Clearly, neither Europe nor the US alone can successfully take on the strategic challenge posed by China, as it may outgrow them individually. But together they can. The fundamental strategic question is, therefore, whether the West wants to continue to economically feed the dragon. 

As the total decoupling of economic exchanges is currently not intended (but a last resort), Europeans need to muster their immense economic power, as strength is the ultimate prerequisite for the establishment of a partnership of equals. Not least, Beijing depends on open global markets and access to technology much more than the West. Moreover, the EU needs to ensure that its weaker members can withstand the temptation to be lured into the marsh of China’s realm. The latter’s exploitation of Italy and Greece’s moments of national weakness caused by the coronavirus pandemic made it conspicuously clear that President Xi Jinping understands all too well how to identify, and manipulate, the weakest links in the EU chain. Here, Berlin needs to display leadership that signals to the US that Western unity, as opposed to Trump’s disregard for the European project, is the most effective way of keeping China at arm’s length.

Dealing with China and Russia

Simultaneously, it is vital to recognise the reverberations triggered by the dynamic interplay between China’s gargantuan economic growth and the scope of Russia’s military threats and blackmailing of Europe. China’s continued rise has structurally affected the US’s strategic outlook on Europe: the more China grows (and the less prudent it goes about finding its future place in the world), the more it absorbs US capabilities away from Europe. In turn, this dynamic has already somewhat altered the psychological balance of power in President Vladimir Putin’s favour. A war in East Asia, to take this argument to its extreme, would create a much-desired opportunity for Russia’s leader. In the event of such an opportunity, Putin would see a Europe that, in his view, would be freed for the first time in 70 years from the iron fist that the US has demonstrated. It is not at all inconceivable, therefore, that his ambitions would be much less rational than many of those who have welcomed rapprochement – or simply believe Russia is materially too weak to fight – would think.

It is precisely in this strategic context that the West needs to reinvent itself. Thus, listening to French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech on Europe’s nuclear deterrence in February 2020, it should be clear from the outset that his goal of a rapprochement with Russia is flawed. Russia understands perfectly well that the West needs it so that the US has its back safe to turn more comprehensively on China. And, while Russia’s increasingly strong Eurasian leanings might make it altogether impossible to decouple it from China, there can be no doubt that Putin would want a significant prize if he did. 

The Job for a New Chancellor

Against this backdrop, Germany’s next chancellor ought to offer a new vision of a future grand bargain for NATO. In contrast to the previous 15 years, such a vision needs to be predicated on the notion of power, understood as the defining element of international affairs. It must also be based on the related understanding that the current struggle over the future international order is, at its core, a ruthless power struggle, in which major challengers need to be economically weakened, militarily balanced and their suppression of liberty exposed. This must be achieved before they become sufficiently emboldened to employ non-diplomatic means of strategy in their strife for power.

In particular, as the US’s strategic focus will unabatedly be centred on China, regardless of who will enter the White House on 20 January 2021, such a NATO bargain must start with fresh thinking about how the future of ‘keeping the Americans in’ may be ensured. Crucially, this would command all European states, guided by the UK, France, Germany and Poland, to do five things: 

  1. Drastically raise their defence budgets to two percent of Europe’s GDP before 2025, while not duplicating capabilities. 
  2. Coordinate the buildup of a large, integrated and sea-based European nuclear force, initially spearheaded by the UK and France, but complemented by Germany and Poland within reasonable time. 
  3. Demonstrably support the defence of Western interests around the globe, including in East Asia, through Europe’s own military presence.
  4. Converge on a technology-related strategy with the US, which systematically prevents Beijing from purchasing cutting-edge semi-conductors as well as from building telecommunication networks abroad.
  5. While retaining room for potential realpolitik-based agreements, encourage the US administration to jointly finesse China’s human rights violations to mobilise NATO’s domestic audiences and rally non-members, such as Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan, around the Alliance’s strategic values. 

After all, convincingly demonstrating to China that the US can rely on Europe will ensure that ‘keeping the Chinese at arm’s length’ works. The US, in turn, will then be more likely to reassure the Europeans of the credibility of its extended nuclear deterrence. 

Restating Burden-Sharing

The vital side effect of such a new German model for Western burden-sharing is that, should Putin not turn out to be the benign partner that Macron appears to imagine, it would nonetheless deter Russia effectively. ‘Keeping the Russians in check’ would, thus, be a deliverable prospect. As a worst case, should the US’s relationship with China dramatically deteriorate and the former’s unilateralist instincts come to guide it, those European safety valves would properly protect Europe’s NATO members against Russian aggression. 

To the US’s strategic advantage as a global sea power, such a European contribution to NATO’s provision of international stability would thereby help sustain the US’s taken-for-granted reliance on friendly coasts connecting the Atlantic and safeguard its investments in Europe, which amount to approximately $500 billion. In essence, propelled forward by Berlin, this could serve as Europe’s answer to James Mattis’s matter-of-fact admission made in early 2017 that the US could not fight two major wars at the same time.

Ultimately, for the West to prevail in economic and military terms, European leaders – including Germany’s future leader – need to rally their people, with passion and determination, to remind them of the unique value bonding them with the US: the defence of freedom. 

Maximilian Terhalle (@M_Terhalle) is Senior Research Fellow at King’s College London and Adjunct Professor at Potsdam University. His most recent book, Strategy as Vocation, was published in May 2020. He is currently co-authoring a book on Germany and the future of Western security.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

BANNER IMAGE: Courtesy of niroworld / Adobe Stock.

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