By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The U.S. Senate recently passed additional sanctions targeting Russia for their alleged interference in the 2016 U.S. election. Though the bill has yet to pass the House of Representatives, it is already receiving criticism not only from Russia – as one would expect – but from Germany and Austria as well.
Current Russian sanctions are in response to Moscow’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict and the downing of a civilian airliner by pro-Russian militants. Germany and Austria are both highly dependent on Russian natural gas and receive a substantial amount via the Nord Stream pipeline.
Under the proposed sanctions, a penalty would be imposed on both nations for using a Russian product. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Austrian Chancellor Christian Kern claim that the sanctions are nothing more than an attempt by Washington to replace Russia as the primary source of energy to the European market.
Germany Now Pursing National Interests More Strongly
This claim is essentially nonsense. However, it represents the shift in German thinking over the past two decades. The Cold War is over, Germany has been reunified and Germany is a “normal country,” in the words of Chancellor Angela Merkel.
In referring to Germany is a “normal country,” Merkel is stating that Germany must pursue its national interests. At times, that will mean Berlin will be at odds with Washington.
This issue with sanctions and energy is an example. Germany is heavily dependent on Russian energy. But the Nord Stream pipeline and the future Nord Stream 2 bypass the Baltic States and Poland to deliver natural gas.
Washington is at odds with this deal. The deal allows Russia to disrupt natural gas deliveries to former Soviet states and influence countries currently aligned with Washington without interfering with deliveries to Western Europe.
Moscow Trying to Regain Influence in Nearby Countries
Russia has done this type of deal for decades, but the disruptions also affected Western Europe. Now, Moscow is primarily concerned with regaining its lost influence in the former Soviet states.
The Nord Stream projects allow Russia to pursue economic relations with other nations such as Germany, but retain a lever to influence those nations unfortunate enough to be in Russia’s vicinity. Unsurprisingly, Poland and the Baltic States vehemently opposed the Nord Stream project because of this issue.
Trump and Obama May Have Inspired Germany’s Move to Assert Itself
It is only in the last few years that Germany has asserted itself in its national pursuits. Some experts have chalked this up to U.S. President Donald Trump pushing NATO to meet the agreed-upon spending threshold.
Trump is hardly alone, however. Former President Barack Obama made a similar push shortly after his first election.
German Chancellor Merkel Tells NATO That Europe Can’t Rely on Allies
Germany’s current trajectory is merely the functioning of an independent state. Merkel’s response following the recent NATO summit in Brussels is telling in this regard.
Chancellor Merkel stated, “The times in which we could rely fully on others – they are somewhat over. This is what I experienced in the last few days. We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.”
Merkel made her pitch to Europe at large, but the interests of NATO members are diverging quite dramatically, regardless of the U.S. position. Merkel sees Germany as the economic leader of Europe and is positioning her nation to expand that leadership into defense as well.
It’s wishful thinking. Berlin can align the interests of Europe, but it cannot supplant U.S. leadership in NATO.
What Is Germany’s Place in Europe?
Before Prussian Chancellor Otto von Bismarck unified Germany into a modern nation-state in 1871, the Germanic people lived in various duchies in the dysfunctional German Confederation. Some contemporary accounts referred to these duchies as the Germanies; they were part of a larger, ever- shifting empire.
The German Question originated during the revolution of 1848. It referred to the debate over where the borders of the future German state should lie. However, the topic of what a unified Germany would mean to Europe was less discussed and likely of greater importance.
If place informs behavior, then it follows that the question of German borders is also the question of Germany’s role in Europe. This question still hasn’t been answered, despite two world wars and a 50-year Cold War.
Other Countries Financially Dependent on Germany
Today, Germany is the de facto leader of the European Union. Its economy is dependent on the E.U. continuing to function as it has since the late 1990s.
This is why Merkel refers to the future of Germany and Europe synonymously. Germany is so plugged into the success of the E.U. that it has bankrolled several bailouts for other countries. When some of these troubled European countries need cash or austerity relief, they go to Berlin instead of Brussels.
Germany’s Actions during 2008 Recession Caused Other Nations to Question German Leadership
Since its reunification in 1990, Germany has done quite well economically. This financial prowess was growing unchecked until the financial crisis of 2008.
German banks were engaged in risky lending across the Eurozone and helped contribute to that crisis. However, Germany didn’t own up to its role in the recession.
Instead, Germany forced numerous EU members to enact austerity measures to stabilize some of their economies. This event caused many of these nations to question German leadership and led to the rise in formerly fringe Euroskeptic political parties that gained power via a continent-wide populism movement.
Germany’s Economic Dependence on US and France
Germany has tempered much of this behavior, much to its credit, but it is facing a more profound problem. Germany needs energy from Russia, but its export-oriented economy is heavily dependent on buyers in the U.S. market.
Berlin floated the idea of taking retaliatory measures against the U.S. for levying sanctions on Russia, but half of Germany’s GDP is exports and the majority of those go to the U.S. and France. Germany is in a bad position and finding its balance will not be easy.
German Government Trying to Maintain Its EU Leadership
Germany must find balance in its foreign policy and economic interests if it is to be truly independent. Currently, Berlin has courted Russia extensively while it tries to hold onto the reins of the E.U.
Holding on to the E.U. is problematic because of the natural skepticism that arises from a close German-Russian relationship, not to mention the strong U.S. support for nations like Poland. For this continued leadership gambit to work, Berlin must reorient its economy away from its export dependence and offer some security guarantees to the former Soviet states. This action, by extension, would help to assuage Washington.
This is easier said than done, however. But if any nation on the planet can pull off an economic remodel in short order, it is Germany.
Furthermore, Russia may accept some German influence in its vicinity if it helps to keep the Americans at bay. There are numerous moving parts in Berlin’s attempt to satisfy the question of Germany’s place in the world and it has never been successful in finding the necessary balance.
Under Merkel’s leadership, Germany has done something that none of her predecessors managed to do since the end of the Holy Roman Empire. Basically, the Chancellor has taken on the role of European leader without firing a shot.
Germany will continue to struggle with this role, however. The failures of Germany’s past occurred for good reason. Nothing in Europe is easy.
Like US, Germany Growing Less Dependent on Electrical Power
The U.S. is set to be a net energy exporter in the next one to two years. There has been a boom in shale production, but another factor to consider is that U.S. now uses less electricity because of a demographic shift. As people age, they tend to use less energy. Currently, the U.S. has more citizens over the age of 65 than under the age of five.
Germany is also using less electricity for the same demographic reasons, though Germany’s demographics are in worse shape. Germany is also concerned about energy, but some of this concern is a matter of choice.
Germany Relies on Coal Power Plants, Despite Solar Energy Use
A few years ago, Germany began taking its nuclear power plants offline and investing more money in solar energy. It looked like a great move on paper, but several factors have led the ostensibly green Germans to rely more on coal-fired power plants.
Most of Germany sits north of the 50th parallel, which is further north than most major Canadian cities. The result is shorter daylight hours during much of the year and less solar power to be harvested.
Germany Still Needs Russian Natural Gas as Short-Term Energy Source
Germany has enough solar panels in place to generate nearly all of its electricity needs (about 40 gigawatts). But these panels only supply 6% of Germany’s current electrical usage.
Ultimately, Germany will still rely heavily on Russian natural gas to replace coal-fired plants in the short term. That dependence will require Germany to exercise caution in its diplomatic relations with Russia, the U.S. and the rest of the world.