“The Balkans [Europe?] are not worth the life of a single Pomeranian Grenadier”.
Otto von Bismarck
The guns of August
August 4, 2020. On this day in 1914 World War One broke out because Great Power had created the conditions for relatively small events to trigger a major cataclysm. This is a story of two twenty-first Great Powers, America and Germany, both sleepwalking towards disaster, aided and abetted by a host of strategically delinquent lesser Powers, most notably Britain and France.
Whilst the cause of World War One was primarily due to the egregious arrogance and miscalculation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Prusso-German elite the other Great Powers of the day, Austria-Hungary, Britain, France and Russia, also ‘sleep-walked’ into a conflict that for many came out of the August blue. In June, I wrote a piece entitled The Guns of August 2020? My use of Barbara Tuchman’s classic book was quite deliberate. My fear was (and is) that a mix of miscalculation, complacency, stupidity, opportunity and growing Russian desperation, allied to a coalescence of dangerous events, could lead to another surprise war in a Europe paralysed by COVID-19 and asleep in the August sun.
The reason for my concern was President Trump’s decision to withdraw and move some 12,000 US troops from Germany, which he has now confirmed. A decision that is sending a powerful message to friend and foe alike, and not the one Secretary of Defense Mark Esper would like that the US is merely “…following our boundary east, where are newest allies are”. On cue Poland has agreed to fund the headquarters of US Army V Corps and the infrastructure and logistics needed for the basing of 4500 American troops and an additional 1000 rotational troops. On Monday, Esper stated that the US-Polish deal “…will enhance our deterrence against Russia, strengthen NATO, re-assure our allies, and our forward presence in Poland on our eastern flank will improve our strategic and operational flexibility”.
The move will certainly shorten the distance between the diminishing bulk of US force in Europe and NATO’s eastern border, but is the aim really to strengthen deterrence? In June President Trump said, “…we’re protecting Germany and they’re delinquent. That doesn’t make sense. So I said, we’re going to bring down the count to 25,000 soldiers.” In other words, Trump is using US forces as a negotiating tool in a high-stakes game of poker with Chancellor Merkel in which the defence of Europe is the main chip. His message to Germany is brutally clear: if Germany and other Europeans fail to spend enough on their own defence, why should the defence of Europe come at the cost of even one American ‘grenadier’?
Low politics, high stakes
President Trump is playing presidential politics with Europe’s defence. Political decisions have strategic consequences. This August a host of events will take place that reveal the extent of America’s strategic dilemma, the global military over-stretch from which its forces are suffering, and Europe’s utter and shameful indifference to the consequences of both. Ironically, it is not Russian military exercises that perhaps pose the greatest threat. If anything President Putin has scaled back KavKaz 2020 on the Russo-Ukrainian border. Still, Russian forces and their proxies continue to act aggressively around Europe’s borders and the build-up of Moscow’s forces on the Ukrainian border must be watched carefully. In July, NATO also held the twentieth Sea Breeze exercise in the Black Sea Region with the US Sixth Fleet to the fore. In any case, Moscow is fully capable of striking at short-notice almost anywhere from Northern Finland to Ukraine and into the Mediterranean.
It is the politics of the European theatre and the relationship between Europe’s deteriorating deterrence and defence and events that is of most concern. Of particular concern are the August 9 elections in Belarus, or at least what passes for ‘elections’ in Belarus. There is an extraordinary campaign underway to unseat President Lukashenko which Moscow is closely monitoring. The extent of Lukashenko’s concerns were revealed last week when Minsk ordered the ‘arrest’ of several members of The Wagner Group, Russian mercenaries with close links to Russia’s SVR (foreign intelligence) and GRU (military intelligence). The purpose was to demonstrate Minsk’s ‘independence’ from Russia. In fact, Belarus is firmly in Moscow’s strategic pocket and President Putin will go to great lengths to keep it that way, even using force if necessary. Belarus is the hinge around which Russia exerts complex strategic coercion across the entirety of Central and Eastern Europe and across the spectrum of 5D warfare – disinformation, deception, destabilisation, disruption and threatened or actual destruction.
A senior American friend of mine was at an event in Washington last week on the occasion of a visit by the State Secretary of the German Ministry of Defence, Thomas Silberhorn. On the face of it all is well and good in the US-German relationship. Silberhorn not only re-committed Germany to NATO’s nuclear deterrent, he used the visit to announce Berlin’s decision to purchase US F-18 Superhornets. Berlin is already committed to buying F-18 Growlers to replace the Luftwaffe’s elderly Tornado fleet.
Unfortunately, Germany’s purchase of the F-18s reveals Berlin’s lack of understanding of the direction and utility of future force, and thus the extent of Europe’s own strategic dilemma. Berlin should have purchased the F-35 Lightning 2’s as the ageing F-18s will soon prove a false economy. They are good 4G platforms, but Europe is fast entering a 5G and soon a 6G world. The Germans bought the F-18s to placate the Americans and to have at least one system that for a time might penetrate Russian air defences. For a time. The utility of force is relative and changes all the time but Germany’s political class do not seem willing or able to understand that.
For the past thirty years the main utility of force was as a super-police force in discretionary wars of the people. Now, the core utility of force is again fast becoming high-end deterrence which means a whole different kind of force, even if those forces will also need to contribute to a raft of stabilisation missions. If Berlin really wanted to assist the Americans it would instead focus on how it could better prepare NATO Europe for the defence and deterrence posture the Alliance will need across the hybrid-cyber-hyperwar mosaic of the twenty-first century conflict super-space. After all, Germany IS, to a very significant extent, Europe’s defence and technological industrial base. And yet, whilst Berlin is all too happy to sell advanced military stuff, it is not at all keen to invest in it.
Papiertiger? What would the demise of Trump reveal about Germany? Many German officials refuse to believe the US troop draw-down will ever take place, or it will have a minimal tactical effect. Many of them also assume Trump will not get re-elected in November and that a Biden administration would take a very different view. First, the US presidentials have yet to start and it is far too early to make that call. Biden has many weaknesses and frailties which Trump will mercilessly exploit. Much like Corbyn’s Labour Party in Britain, it is also hard to believe much of patriotic Middle America will vote Democrat if the woke Left of the party continues to enjoy the influence it has today. Second, US military over-stretch will worsen. Iran is about to conduct a major military exercise and Washington has been forced to markedly increase its presence in the South China Sea. US policy towards Europe over the sharing of burdens and risks will thus not change radically and a Berlin no longer able to use Trump as an alibi will need to think and act differently. Third, and most importantly, there can be no credible European defence without German strategic leadership and a strong US-German strategic partnership. That means a Berlin finally willing to confront the political demons that prevent the emergence of a democratic German strategic culture. It will also mean a Germany that finally stops bolting down the political rabbit hole of the fantasy that is a common EU defence every time someone calls on Berlin to pay the price of leadership.
Trump, Germany and the Pom-American Grenadier
World War Three is not about to break out tomorrow, but war in Europe can no longer be discounted, possibly as early as this month. In that light Bismarck’s famous quote needs unpacking because it was not about the Balkans per se, but posed much more fundamental questions about the utility of force that are relevant today. What is the best use of US forces in Europe, and at what strength, to serve both the US interest and the defence of Europe? What should the German-led Allies do in support of those legitimate strategic aims?
The Pomeranian Grenadiers were something of a joke in the Imperial German Army, very different from US combat forces today. Bismarck cited them to contrast his policy of strategy underpinned by force with Kaiser Wilhelm II’s preference for force without strategy. Bismarck’s essential point was that policy in the absence of strategy was not worth the life of a single soldier, even in Germany’s most third-rate regiment, for it was doomed to fail. President Trump’s decision is bad policy, Berlin’s reaction reveals a vacuum of strategy.
Contemporary Berlin and Washington both miss Bismarck’s essential point: the peace of Europe is maintained via a complex matrix of constraining agreements and treaties reinforced by minimum but credible conventional and nuclear military force. Too much force and Europe becomes unstable, too little force and Europe becomes unstable. Today, Germany has neither force nor strategy nor policy relevant to the threats it faces and the Europe it leads, whilst President Trump sees US forces in Europe only as a transactional ‘joker’ card in an obsessive poker play with a “delinquent Berlin” as he appeals to his voter base.
There is another factor in the causes of World War One that is relevant to Europe today and which many Americans tend to miss, preferring instead to see ‘WW1’ as another European ‘civil’ war into which they were dragged. In fact, World War One was the first major war between democracy and autocracy. The very cause of the war was the fear the agrarian Prussian aristocracy in then Germany’s east had of burgeoning calls for democracy in Germany’s industrialising west. For all President Putin’s put-downs of liberal-democracy, and as COVID-19 chaotic as it is, it is the fear autocracy has of real democracy which is driving much of the Kremlin’s strategy.
The real cause of US-German dissonance and the weakening of the transatlantic relationship is the structural shift in geopolitics, America’s inability to be strong all of the time everywhere, and Germany’s refusal to recognise that Americans can only underwrite European peace if Europeans do far more for their own defence. Critically, such a defence will not only require German leadership, but more (and better) legitimate, democratic German armed forces. No-one in Berlin wants anyone to point that out.
So, until there is a new and formal peace with Russia, and the Middle East and North Africa re-establishes stable states, across its region the security and defence of Europe will likely continue to ultimately rest on the lives of a relatively few ‘Pom-American Grenadiers’. At least they are first-rate. As for Americans and Germans they might heed the words of Albert Camus: “Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead. Don’t walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend”.