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Germany: the world's next neutral state
A rebalancing of Western power
While sitting at Chicago O’Hare waiting for my flight to Munich a couple weeks ago, I was surrounded by U.S. Army soldiers. They were in civilian clothes and only identifiable by the Army issued backpacks, some T-shirts suggesting combat, and glimpses of military ID cards. I’m getting used to this journey but have never seen so many soldiers join me. I thought: This is one way to quietly move troops overseas. Maybe they were just replacements and a similar count were on a flight heading the opposite direction, but I doubt that was the case considering the mounting tensions in Eastern Europe.
Flows of armies across Europe entered my imagination. Fear was not my feeling but rather intrigue. I popped open Google Maps and dropped a pin on the western most border of Ukraine and then asked for directions to Munich. Result: a 582 mile drive, or almost the distance between Kansas City and Denver. I drove this stretch of America just four weeks ago and there is A LOT of space to roam, but the biggest rivalry between these two points are the Chiefs and Broncos, which has been pretty lopsided this past decade.
On that very flight I finished reading After the Apocalypse by Andrew Bacevich, which comments on how the U.S. has over played its hand since the end of World War Two. This has led to countless foreign policy mistakes, all with the help or acquiescence of its Western allies. He rightly says that the U.S. (and I’m suggesting the entire West) needs to consider new ways to organize and approach foreign policy and wars.
This geopolitical fight over Ukraine brings the greatest potential to disrupt the peace in Europe since World War Two and the realities of today’s global economy and power struggles tell me its time to rebalance the West. (When I speak of the West, this is the U.S., U.K., EU, other democratic European societies, NATO and Five Eyes all jumbled up with varying levels of involvement.)
Right now, the West is dancing around with themselves to determine what moves they want to make today over Ukraine. The lack of a coherent approach is primarily because of Germany, which I will get to later. The West is trying to find a diplomatic solution through multiple channels, some done by French President Emmanual Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Sholz, some going through Ukraine, but mostly it’s between the U.S. and Russia.
Skipping past Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and use of Pro-Russia separatist militants to take control of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, Putin most recently has amassed a reported 127,000 troops along the border of Ukraine and Belarus. He claims that this is a defensive act in response to the West’s expansion of the EU and NATO to the east over the past couple decades. There is also his dream of uniting what he thinks is a greater Russian society in Ukraine.
This has all been widely reported but nobody really has any idea what is motivating him and what he will do next. What can also be said is that he has squeezed everything out of the Russian economy and political system that would benefit him for maintaining power. Therefore, he must go elsewhere to keep his rein alive. For this reason, I believe that Putin is at a point-of-no-return and Russia will invade Ukraine. Either by foot, tank, plane, or missile.
Between now and then all the West can do is continue diplomatic talks and continue sending arms to Ukraine. Stringing talks out will help Ukraine buy time, but the West cannot move any troops further east at this point. The rhetoric coming from the U.S. and U.K., the weapons they are providing, other small military moves by NATO members (Denmark, Spain and the Netherlands are all moving military assets around in the region) have been provocative enough.
If Russia invades, Ukraine will have to fight alone because the West is not ready to shed blood in this region. But the second Russia steps into Ukraine in whatever fashion, the U.S. should say to Germany, “What we’ve done together in rebuilding your country has been nothing less than miraculous, but you are all good. It’s time for us to move along, so we are closing all our bases in Germany permanently and moving lock, stock, and barrel into Poland. (A couple practicalities and benefits: the U.S. already has bases in Poland; the 35,000 U.S. troop movement will allow Germany to take a small bite out its housing affordability crisis; and Poland will get a shot in the arm economically.)
A rebalancing of NATO forces will commence with the U.K. and France to grow significantly. The U.S. and NATO presence in Poland will be, for lack of better terms, permanent. And here is the kicker to all this, Germany will become a neutral state, leave NATO, and not send their forces into Poland (remember, German armies in Poland does not go well). In this new role, Germany will be in the best position of any country to broker the end to this immediate conflict with Russia, hopefully without ever sending in NATO soldiers, and ultimately establishing a more lasting peace for all of Europe. Germany is not the most powerful country in the world, but it is in their region. This section of the world has societies ranging from free and democratic to despotic and violent. The map below shows that Germany is at the geographical center and therefore acts as a scale. It is this balance that it has already been playing halfway and needs to fully embrace the role.
Why should Germany become a neutral state? First, there was a time when America played a good moderator but it has just gotten too big and powerful. It can’t be a good moderator for that reason plus it has meddled in too many other countries. Secondly, considering the state of affairs across the globe, it seems like Switzerland, as the go-to neutral site has run its course. Switzerland is a charming and appealing country, but the world needs an arbiter with more weight.
Just from an increased magnitude of global dynamics require a larger neutral state. In 1950 the global GDP was a little more than $4 trillion but just in 2019 it topped out at nearly $85 trillion. Switzerland has an enviable GDP per capita of $86,000 but Germany’s overall GDP of $3.8 trillion can be a lot more useful. Imagine two sides negotiating with a moderator and they are 99% in agreement but have hit a wall. A country like Switzerland does not have the heft to move economies, which is the best non-violent negotiation tool. (Sure, Switzerland is a major player in the banking system, but I’m talking about goods, trade and manufacturing. The U.S. with the dollar is the real financial warrior anyways.)
For that last 1%, Germany as a facilitator can say, “Okay, glad we could get this far, we will throw “X” in to get the deal done.” Clearly there is a balancing act to playing neutral. If there is an implied understanding that Germany will always influence these negotiations, this will be a failed strategy. But because Germany is not the size of the U.S. and has not played an aggressive foreign policy game these past seventy-five years, their status as a fair moderator should hold. Plus, if there is one thing I have learned after living here, it’s that Germans follow the rules (of course there are exceptions—Wirecard, Deutsche Bank as of late).
The West is going to be bitter about this new “have your cake and eat it” role for Germany, but it will be brief because let’s be honest, the West doesn’t need Germany’s army, the West just wants their cars and a nice place to vacation. With Switzerland and its 63% German speaking population and Austria as a neutral country and not part of NATO as well, it would seem fitting to put the entire Germanic world in a neutral position.
Realpolitik needs to rule the day in this moment over ideologies. It’s clear that Germany is holding a fine line with all the handwringing over their lack of response to Ukraine. Something needs to give. They are not jumping in at this moment with the U.S., U.K. and France, because of some long lost love for Mother Russia, but rather they recognize in themselves as the main player of a tight balancing act geopolitically and economically—that stretches to China. Any bold movements could crumble economies.
An ideologue would go for broke, but if Germany can step out gracefully and go neutral, then Europe can avoid catastrophe and a new more peaceful world order can emerge. This peace also means addressing energy independence. Gas from Nord Stream 2 is probably going to flow but this hopefully will only accelerate the need to create new energy sources. Nord Stream 2 was a mistake, but as you will read, a new healthier trading zone in Eastern Europe will emerge with Germany becoming neutral (my deus ex machina for today).
Another reality to Germany needing to become neutral is all the historical baggage that still exists from the two world wars. I can tell you, the German society is not in a fighting mood. When people ask me what it’s like over here, I simply say, “It’s the good life.” There is a certain level of complacency that is of concern, but I believe the Germans are a long way from going to war in Europe. In this new neutral role, Germany’s army will simply become a defense force just like Switzerland’s. Western allies can then stop begging them to reach a defense spending equal to 2% of their GDP.
Neutrality would be a big shift for Germany, and one that needs to happen quickly, but there is historical precedence. The philosopher Yuval Noah Harari said in regards to Germany, “In the 20th century, you see the same people, with the same DNA, the same geography, the same climate, and during 100 years they switch between five completely different stories, just like that. From the Second Reich (German Empire), to the Weimer Republic, to the Nazi regime, to communist East Germany…then to a reunited and liberal democratic Germany.” Germany has one of the strongest democracies on earth, so no worries of sliding to something else, but this past suggests it can quickly shift into a new role as a neutral country.
So where does this lead us regarding the immediate crisis over Ukraine and Russia? My worst-case scenario is that history would repeat itself. It won’t be an exact replica of a divided Germany, but Ukraine would be divided east and west along the Dnieper River with Kyiv being an East/West Berlin light. Blood will be spilt between Ukraine and Russia on the way to this resolve but afterwards, no military troops, on either side, would be based within 100 km of the border.
NATO troops would remain in Poland, but a new West Ukraine would have its own military and can work toward EU membership. The new East Ukraine could possibly be absorbed into Russia.
I think regardless of scenarios, we are looking at a protracted conflict here, but there will not be a Kyiv Wall, Cold War, or Iron Curtain simply because a new negotiating and peace environment will be in place with Germany as a neutral state. Ukraine as we know it today, or a divided one, can materialize into positive Eastern European countries with a robust trading policy. Even with Putin still sitting in the Kremlin, this new balance of power could bring light to the idea of a productive arrangement between the West and Russia.
The Munich Security Conference returns next month. We shall see if this idea makes it around the state departments and an invite shows up in my mailbox.