‘German question’ back on centerstage

Working sessions of US-Russia summit at Camp David on the deck, outdoors –from top left, Secretary of State James Baker, President George HW Bush (3rd & 4th from left), Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze,  President Mikhail Gorbachev (1st & 2nd from right), June 2, 1990.

The high noon of the illustrious career of Ambala-born Lord Ismay who served with distinction as a British Indian Army cavalry officer, was probably reached when he became Winston Churchill’s Chief of Staff in the Second World War. 

But Ismay is best remembered today for a remark he made while serving as the first secretary-general of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (1952-56) — that the purpose of the alliance was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” 

Ismay’s remark succinctly captured the spirit of those times and since became a saying and a common way to quickly describe the genesis of the Cold War. Joseph Stalin actually made a startling proposal in 1954 that the Soviet Union was willing to join the NATO and prevent a division of Europe. 

In a formal diplomatic note, Moscow stated its “readiness to join with the interested governments in examining the matter of having the Soviet Union participate in the North Atlantic Treaty.” France was sympathetic, but Britain put its foot down and Ismay remarked wryly that the Soviet request was “like an unrepentant burglar requesting to join the police force.” 

The ‘German Question’ continues to haunt world politics. Last week, another fascinating trove of declassified Soviet and American documents was released in Washington, DC, by the National Security Archive, devolving upon the Camp David summit exactly thirty years ago (1-3 June 1990) between presidents George HW Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev.  

The three days of intense discussion on the future of Europe took place at Camp David largely under the shadow of the unification of Germany that would happen later in October. Gorbachev had come under immense pressure by then. Perestroika had developed signs of fatigue. 

Gorbachev was seeking financial assistance from the US to salvage the bankrupt Soviet economy — plaintively telling secretary of state James Baker, “We need some oxygen.  We are not asking for a gift.  We are asking for a loan.” (Baker was non-committal.) 

Equally, the CPSU Central Committee was in revolt over the loss of the East European satellites, Gorbachev’s unilateral demilitarisation policy, and the prospect of unification of Germany. The memo of the Soviet Politburo, while giving approval for Gorbachev’s dealings with the Americans, stated explicitly that “it would be politically and psychologically unacceptable for us to see a united Germany in NATO. We cannot agree to the destruction of the balance of power and stability in Europe that would inevitably result from this step.” 

This memo (dated 15th May 1990) was Gorbachev’s official ‘negotiating brief’ as he went into the summit at Camp David. Gorbachev held his ground on German unification and warned with great prescience that “if the Soviet people get an impression that we are disregarded in the German question, then all the positive processes in Europe, including the negotiations in Vienna (over conventional forces) would be in serious danger. This is not just bluffing. It is simply that the people will force us to stop and to look around.”  

This recap is useful to put in perspective the reports last week that President Trump has approved a plan to withdraw roughly a third of the US troops stationed in Germany — by 9,500 from the 34,500 assigned in Germany permanently as long-standing arrangement with Washington’s NATO ally. 

There is speculation that Trump is taking personal revenge on German Chancellor Angela Merkel for scuttling his project to host a G7 summit in end-June in Washington that would have highlighted his leadership of the western world just when his campaign for the November election entered the final phase. But there could be more to it than meets the eye. 

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has stood up to offer to host more US troops in his country. Poland, which is one of the US’ closest European partners, has long regarded Washington as the primary guarantor of its security within NATO. Poland has been campaigning for a permanent US troop presence (although current rotations in the country already number 5,500 personnel.)

Morawiecki said on Saturday, “I really hope that as a result of the many talks we’ve had, and by having shown what a solid NATO partner we are, some of the troops currently stationed in Germany that are being pulled out by the US will indeed end up in Poland.” 

With an eye on Poland’s testy relations with Russia, he said, “The real danger lurks across the eastern border, so moving US troops to NATO’s eastern flank will be a security boost to all of Europe.” Morawiecki added that “talks are ongoing” with Washington. 

The German reaction to Trump’s plan ranges from expressions of regret to relief. Johann Wadephul, the deputy chair of the parliamentary group of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, described the withdrawal as a wake-up call. 

“The plans show that the Trump administration is neglecting an elementary task of leadership, to bind coalition partners into decision-making processes. Everyone profits from the alliance sticking together, only Russia and China profit from discord. Washington should pay more attention to that.” he said. 

Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee and one of the front-runners to succeed Merkel when she steps down next year, criticised the plans: “Such a withdrawal would be regrettable from every point of view. I cannot see a rational ground for such a withdrawal.”

But the leader of the leftwing party Die Linke, Dietmar Bartsch welcomed the development: “The federal government should accept it with gratitude and promptly start preparing the complete withdrawal of US soldiers with the Trump administration. It would have the collateral benefit of saving taxpayers billions, because there would be no longer a need to acquire new fighter jets.” 

Curiously, neither the White House nor the Pentagon would confirm Trump’s plan and there are no indications that NATO officials had been briefed ahead of time. But then, Trump often catches allies off-guard with unilateral military action. 

No doubt, this controversy is symptomatic of the badly strained transatlantic relations at any point during Trump’s tumultuous tenure in office. Trump’s plan appears to be less of a form of rebuff to Merkel’s G7 decision but more a follow-through on his previous threats to reduce the US military presence in Germany. 

The Russian reaction so far has been subdued. Evidently, Moscow is keeping its head below the parapet, considering that the optics look as if this 28 percent reduction in the size of US military capability that was a core part of NATO’s deterrence is a “gift” to Putin (whose equations with Merkel have been patchy.) Having said that, if the US proceeds to deploy more troops to Poland, Moscow will view it as provocation and of course any weakening of the transatlantic bond will be a development of utmost importance to future Russian startegies.  

The “leak” to the media last week on Trump’s plans to withdraw troops from Germany by September coincided with the 30th anniversary of the unification of Germany, which has been a signal achievement of then German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. In a sense, it is a reminder to Merkel, who used to be Kohl’s protege.

Kohl’s strongest ally on that front as those fateful months of 1990 unfolded was President Bush who — along with then Secretary of State James Baker — had played a historic role in chipping away at Gorbachev’s resistance to German unification.

Bush disregarded the robust scepticism of then British PM Margaret Thatcher and French President François Mitterrand who were greatly perturbed about a resurgent Germany and the reappearance of the “German Question” on Europe’s political and strategic landscape for which they weren’t yet prepared.

Thatcher even made a trip to Moscow in September 1989 to voice her concerns over the future of Europe as Gorbachev began furiously dismantling the Warsaw Pact. During the visit — according to highly classified (translated) Soviet records of key meetings between the two leaders that were spirited away secretly to the US in the chaotic period of the disbandment of the USSR — Thatcher cashed in on her mutual-admiration relationship with Gorbachev in the 1980s to reach a behind-the-scenes agreement with the Soviet leader against the reunification of Germany.

In recent years, Merkel has been a keen advocate of Europe looking after its security without depending on an America whose commitment to Euro-atlanticism is perceived to be increasingly in doubt. Trump’s plan will only reinforce the train of thinking in Germany that the US can no longer be counted upon as a provider of security.

To be sure, the “German Question” that Ismay alluded to at the time of NATO’s creation resurfaces on the centerstage of contemporary world politics if Germany embarks on a new variant of the “Ostpolitik”, in the nature of a pivot to China, with profound consequences to the global alignments.