German nostalgia is threatening Europe

By Edward Lucas

By Edward Lucas

Olaf Scholz yearns for an era in which his country profited at others’ expense

Ukraine is winning its war against Russia. But some allies are wobbling. Last week Germany’s chancellor Olaf Scholz hankered publicly for a return to what he termed Europe’s “peace order”. He later phoned Vladimir Putin for an hour. His French counterpart Emmanuel Macron in remarks broadcast on Saturday repeated Kremlin talking points about Nato enlargement to Russia’s borders, saying that the West must prepare “to give guarantees to Russia the day it returns to the negotiating table.” 

The thinking behind these efforts is shaky. By far the best outcome to the war is a Russian military defeat, accompanied by (and probably prompting) Putin’s exit from power. Dealing with a defeated Russia will admittedly be tricky and Western failure, so far, to prepare for this eventuality is lamentable. But an even partly victorious Russia is a far graver threat. Rewarding Kremlin aggression with territorial gains guarantees more wars in future. 

Macron’s attempts to assuage Russian worries about Nato defy both justice and common sense. Any post-war security guarantees should be constructed to reassure not Russia, which nobody has attacked; instead, they should ensure that Ukraine is protected, ideally through immediate Nato membership. Russia will not like that. But it has only itself to blame. Post-1991 Russia has been the Western alliance’s best recruiting sergeant. If the Kremlin dumps its neo-colonial thinking and treats its neighbours decently, relations will improve. For as long as it menaces them, they will seek protection.

The French president’s attention-seeking diplomatic gambits are notorious and often empty. Scholz’s ill-judged words are more worrying, as they reflect a fundamental disconnect between Germany and most of its east European neighbours. For three decades Germany has been a notorious free-rider on defence spending, undermining Nato’s credibility and unity. It dismissed its eastern neighbours’ security woes, and their prescient warnings about the threat from Russia, with patronising scorn. It blocked and diluted attempts to allow east European countries to join Nato. 

Instead, it fostered trade and investment with Russia. This included the two Nord Stream gas pipelines which increased Kremlin leverage in Germany and hurt east European countries. Berlin decision-makers’ self-indulgence also allowed Russian spies to run wild, while the political class revelled in anti-Americanism. Far from a “peace order”, Germany’s past irresponsible and selfish approach to security led directly to the war now raging in Ukraine.

Russia’s offensive in February prompted Scholz to announce a Zeitenwende — literally, a “change of times”. Europe’s most important politician announced an £85 billion increase in his country’s defence budget, ending years of cheeseparing. But for Germany’s eastern neighbours, the trust deficit is still huge. Latvia’s defence minister, Artis Pabriks, summed up allies’ worries when he asked a conference in Berlin: “We are willing to die for freedom. Are you?” 

It is not just Germany. Contrition for the greed and sanctimony of the past 30 years is still stunningly absent in Europe’s rich, comfortable countries. Among “west” European leaders, only Finland’s prime minister, Sanna Marin, has publicly apologised, lamenting her predecessors’ failure to heed their Baltic neighbours. But as the continent’s most powerful country, Germany’s muddled thinking matters most. Scholz, like other German politicians, readily bewails his country’s Nazi-era crimes and recently also decried West Germany’s smug indifference to the fate of eastern Europe under communism. More recent mistakes barely feature. 

This is particularly acute in the main coalition party, Scholz’s SPD. Government ministers from Germany’s once-pacifist Greens are commendably hawkish. The justice minister, Marco Buschmann, from the liberal FDP, the other ruling party, said bluntly last week that Germany’s backing for Nord Stream made it responsible for the war in Ukraine, urging his country to “confront the truth directly”. In his latest state-of-the-nation speech President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who as SPD foreign minister epitomized the complacency of post-1991 western Europe, included only the coded words “there is no place for old dreams” — presumably his own. 

The ponderous, introverted tone of such foreign policy discussion is jarringly self-indulgent seen from the outside. Ukrainians are fighting and dying not just for their own security, but for all of Europe’s, including Germany. Tens of thousands of people are dead. Hundreds of thousands are maimed and traumatised. Millions are displaced. The final bill for reconstruction could easily reach a trillion pounds. This comes not from a natural disaster. It is the direct result of the naïveté and greed that led German and other decision-makers to ignore repeated warnings about recrudescent Russian imperialism.

German historical amnesia affects the future as well as the present. The war has exposed Europe’s strategic nakedness, about which Macron, to his credit, has repeatedly warned. The immediate threat is from Russia, but China over coming years is a far more serious problem. Compounding the geopolitical competition is uncertainty about the United States. Overstretch, distraction and the risk of political chaos in Washington DC spell the end of the post-1945 era, in which American guarantees cemented European security. Fixing the resulting mess requires Europe to build real economic, political and military clout, in which Germany, the continent’s industrial giant and soon its biggest military spender, will be central.

Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community offers the beginning of a framework for this, as does Nato’s European pillar. Both involve post-Brexit Britain. But careless talk in Paris and Berlin corrodes trust and risks undermining these efforts before they start. 

 A version of this article first appeared in in the London Times