https://www.politico.eu-The only question is whether Berlin will step up, leading others in Europe and beyond to begin filling the void a retreating America threatens to leave behind.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz | Win McNamee/Getty Images
From Across the Pond
By Ivo Daalder
Ivo Daalder, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is CEO of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and host of the weekly podcast “World Review with Ivo Daalder.”
For decades, American officials have been traveling to Europe to cajole, persuade, even scold European allies into spending more on defense. I did a fair share of this table thumping myself, urging my NATO colleagues to do more.
But the tables have since turned. Now, it’s European leaders coming to Washington to urge American officials — especially lawmakers on Capitol Hill — not to waver in their support for European security.
The latest to do so is German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who briefly visited the U.S. capital last Friday to deliver a singular message: “When it comes to Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, support from the United States is indispensable.”
And Scholz is right to be concerned. The uncertainty of America’s commitment to Europe — namely, on whether it will continue to underwrite and maintain the global order that’s been the basis of Germany’s postwar success — represents a profound change and challenge to Berlin, as well as the rest of the world.
While in Washington, Scholz chose his words carefully. His was an effort at persuasion rather than deprecation — the latter is not his style. Nor would it have sounded the right note coming from the leader of a nation that got Russia so wrong and underinvested in its own defense for so long.
But Germany has a much more solid foundation — as well as a pressing reason — for asking the U.S. to do its part now. A core threat to European security, Russia’s imperialist effort in Ukraine could rapidly turn into a direct threat to NATO territory. Indeed, according to Danish Minister of Defense Troels Lund Poulsen, NATO now estimates Russia could attack an allied nation in as little as three years.
And such a move wouldn’t only affect security in Europe, it would also have repercussions for the U.S.
Ever since World War II, Americans have understood that their security and Europe’s security were indivisible — and that being present in Europe was the best way to ensure there would be no World War III. That understanding is the foundation of the North Atlantic Alliance, now celebrating its 75th anniversary.
But Russia’s success in Ukraine would call all this into question. That’s why it cannot and must not succeed, and why supporting Ukraine in its self-defense is so vital. Scholz was firm on the point in Washington: “Failure by the U.S. Congress to fund continued support will undermine Ukraine’s ability to defend itself,” he said. Russia would win. Everyone else, including America, would lose.
Scholz didn’t just have the best argument on his side though. He’d also come to Washington after making a fundamental about-face on policy toward Russia, Ukraine and European security more broadly. Plus, he could now tout Germany’s own contributions as an example to be followed.
Finally gone is Germany’s long-held notion that security rests on trade and interdependence with a potential adversary. For example, as a country that imported over half of all its gas from Russia before Moscow’s full-scale invasion in 2022, those imports had already fallen to zero by June 2023 — despite the fact that the cost to Germany has been significant.
Moreover, for the first time in decades, Berlin is taking defense seriously.
This all started with Scholz’s speech on Feb. 27, 2022, announcing the country’s “Zeitenwende” — its historic pivot. Recognizing that security depended on a strong defense, Scholz committed to spending €100 billion on buying new equipment and meeting NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. And while overcoming bureaucratic inertia has proven difficult, Berlin will meet NATO’s defense spending goal this year after all. It will play a key part in bolstering NATO’s defense and deterrence efforts as well, including the deployment of a brigade in Lithuania starting next year.
Furthermore, Germany has also become Ukraine’s largest supporter in Europe by far, sending both more military and economic aid than any other nation aside the U.S. The over €17 billion in military support Berlin has committed to Ukraine through October 2023 (according to the most up-to-date data) is more than a third of the U.S. commitment (€44 billion) and more than double that of Britain’s (€7 billion), making Germany the third largest contributor.
Add to that crucial economic aid — both bilateral and through the European Union — and the picture becomes even brighter. Through last October, Germany provided Ukraine with €38 billion in aid — well over half the €71 billion spent by the U.S. — and that doesn’t even include the nearly €14 billion spent on hosting Ukrainian refugees.
Germany is hardly alone in supporting Ukraine, of course. In fact, if you look at overall aid to the country as a percentage of GDP, every European nation (except for Iceland and Switzerland) has provided a higher share of support than the U.S. Indeed, as it stands, Germany’s share (almost 0.9 percent) is three times that of the U.S.
However, none of this may matter much in the U.S. debate on supporting Ukraine, deeply mired as it is in domestic politics and unlikely to be swayed by common-sense arguments or incontestable facts.
But it should matter to Europe — and especially to Germany. Like it or not, Berlin has taken on a much more central role when it comes to Europe’s future security than many may realize —or its population might support. And now it needs to build on this new reality, taking on the leadership role its underlying economic and political power suggests it can and should.
The only question is whether Germany will step up, leading others in Europe and beyond to begin filling the void a retreating U.S. threatens to leave behind.