Germany is undermining NATO unity against Russian aggression

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz (file photo)

The war in Ukraine is painfully exposing the decline of German leadership in Europe. Once referred to as the European ‘hegemon’ during the euro crisis, Berlin is now showing hesitance and indecisiveness instead of leading Europe through what could be described as the crisis of the century.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine, Germany has been pressing the brakes the hardest when it comes to European efforts to put the spoiler of international peace in its place.

Publicly, Berlin toes the NATO line on sending troops and equipment to the Baltic states and Romania in order to boost the alliance’s eastern flank. In practice, it does not want to send any defensive weapons to Ukraine. It blocked Estonia from sending such equipment, which had been made in Germany, and a UK aircraft carrying military equipment to Ukraine detoured around German airspace. The German political establishment believes such moves will destabilize Europe and make it more difficult to have a dialogue with Russia.

With anger. The Baltic states and Central European countries believe Germany doesn’t understand their security concerns or Russia’s intentions. They believe the German political and business establishments are so close to Russia that they don’t want to upset those decades-long ties.

In almost every sanction round – from banning Russia from SWIFT in March to the current issue of energy imports – Germany is one of the last countries to drop its opposition and clear the way for joint EU action against the aggressor.

The same picture emerges when it comes to weapons deliveries, where Germany is still hesitant to provide Ukraine with the tanks they need to fend off the Russians in Donbas.

Given the current political fiasco, it is hard to believe that Germany was once feared as reaching an almost hegemonic position in Europe during the euro crisis, where it managed to impose its vision of austerity on the continent.

But how did we get here, and why is Europe’s economic powerhouse lacking any serious capacity to guide us through this crisis?

The easy answer is, of course, to point the finger at Chancellor Olaf Scholz and say he is the one stalling the process and showing indecisiveness in Ukraine’s hour of need. Something like this would have never happened if Angela Merkel were still in power, critics utter in Berlin and Brussels.

However, this is only part of the story. While Scholz’s leadership skills have been criticised in recent weeks – even by his coalition partners in the FDP and the Greens – the problem is much more profound.

For Germany, foreign policy was always rooted in its economic interests. It resembled more of an external economic policy instead of focusing on the tough decisions that come with the mess that is international security.

Leadership in Europe meant, first and foremost, protecting its economic interests and spreading its ordoliberal model across Europe.

This ‘economy first’ approach was, of course, also the reason why Berlin could exert dominance during the euro and Greek debt crisis because all that foreign policy was about was economics.

In hindsight, it almost feels as if Germany stumbled through the messy place that is international security blindfolded. After all, Merkel was responsible for Germany’s energy dependency on Russia.

And economic interests once again prevailed over security concerns when she disregarded the warnings by allies and laid the groundwork for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline – only a few years after Russia revealed its true colours in Ukraine and annexed Crimea.

Germany managed to lead Europe as long as the EU was primarily concerned with questions of economic integration and the problems that come with it. But now, where Europe has to sacrifice its economic interests to support Ukraine, and the situation requires strong geopolitical leadership, Berlin is not up to the challenge.

After all, Germany is currently forced to walk on a turf it is not used to – geopolitics.

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