The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
The Rise of the Fifth Reich?

Over at the always interesting Small Wars Journal, Tony Corn has a stimulating piece on the implications of the European crisis for world politics.  He sees a clueless German policy establishment recklessly moving toward an unsustainable quest for power reminiscent in too many ways of problems Germany has had in its past.

Germany, warns Corn, is planning to use its financial domination of Europe to remake the EU into an extension of German power — more or less the way that Prussia used the Zollverein to bring northern Germany under its control and then dominated the Bismarckian Reich through a rigged constitutional system.  Once that is in place, he writes, the Germans will continue their policy of deepening relations with Russia at the expense of NATO and transatlantic ties, and end Europe’s embargo on arms sales to China.

As an analyst, Corn sometimes goes to what we more placid types at VM consider overexcited conclusions about Eurasian power realignments.  Safely ensconced among the storied oaks and elms, gazebos, pergolas, ha-has, follies and deer parks surrounding the stately Mead manor in glamorous Queens, we tend to take a wait-and-see attitude toward organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization which Russia and China have sometimes posited as a kind of embryonic counter-NATO.  Corn, in our perhaps excessively complacent view, can be too quick to take vague Eurasian fantasies and aspirations about diplomatic revolutions as accomplished facts; it is easier to dream about firm Russian and Chinese anti-US cooperation than for those two countries to make it work.  But that said, there is no doubt that Corn’s industry, historical grounding and sensitive, even over-sensitive nerve endings give him the ability to produce original and striking ideas.

It would be truly foolish to ignore the reality that in many world capitals there are intelligent people who are not in love with the American world system that now exists, and who spend a great deal of time and energy thinking about how to cripple it.  Russia’s shrewd decision to invade Georgia in 2008 is an example of how, taking advantage of American preoccupation and Georgian overreach, a swift and limited Russian move was able to shift the regional power balance in its favor and catch the US off-guard.

Corn’s sensitivity to the possibility that actions Americans do not anticipate based on the very different priorities of policy makers in other parts of the world could radically reshape the global picture animates his article on Germany.  He begins provocatively:

“If Clausewitz is right that “war is the continuation of policy by other means”, then Germany is again at war with Europe, at least in the sense that German policy is trying to achieve in Europe the characteristic objectives of war: the redrawing of international boundaries and the subjugation of foreign peoples….

Germany’s goal?

A constitutionalization of the EU treaties, which would irreversibly institutionalize the current “correlation of forces,” and allow German hegemony in the 27-member European Union to approximate Prussian hegemony in the 27-member Bismarckian Reich.

This is much more exciting than the usual bland pap about European politics one reads in the US, and Corn’s analysis is deeply grounded in what serious people are thinking and writing in Paris, London and Berlin.

Corn goes on to analyze what this German Europe would mean for Russia and NATO:

In a not-too-subtle way, German pundits are today hinting that Germany would be better disposed economically toward Europe if Europe, in turn, was better disposed politically toward Germany’s Russia policy – more specifically toward the Meseberg process initiated (without prior consultation with the EU or NATO) by Angela Merkel in May 2010.  The problem is, once you read the fine print, you discover that the Meseberg Memorandum calls for an EU-Russia Committee which would have greater powers than the NATO-Russia Council, would give Russia access to the EU decision-making process and, ultimately, would make NATO altogether irrelevant.

And on China?

Or take EU-China relations. Since Germany is responsible for 47 percent of EU exports to China, German pundits are now arguing, the rest of Europe should give Germany the lead in the formulation of the EU’s China policy. The problem is, for all the rhetoric about Berlin having long forsaken military power and become a “civilian power” (Zivilmacht), Germany in the past decade has overtaken Britain and France as Europe’s main arms exporter. Since the Berlin Republic now defines itself almost exclusively as a “geo-economic power,” there is no doubt that the first priority of a German-dominated EU China policy would be to lift the arms embargo in place since 1989.  American taxpayers would thus continue to provide for the defense of the “civilianized” Germans (who spend only 1.3 percent of their GDP on defense) while Germany would be making money selling advanced military technology to America’s peer competitor.

So: is Germany planning to take over Europe, stab the US in the back and enter an entente with China and Russia?

Via Meadia thinks not, or at least not yet, though we don’t rule out some thoughts by some serious people in this general direction.  Certainly former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder occasionally seems to have let his mind drift towards vague and ambitious eastern visions even before Gazprom bought him.

In any case it is clear that too many American policy makers and opinion makers live in a bubble of conventional wisdom, comfortable assumptions and complacent ignorance.  Articles like this one are a useful corrective to that complacency, and even readers who end up thinking Corn goes a little over the top will appreciate the guided tour of European strategic analysis he provides.

The article also serves as a timely reminder that even in the Age of Asia, Europe still counts.  The euro crisis is a foreign policy crisis and not just a financial headache.  The future of the European Union matters deeply to the United States, and the level of US discussion about the implications of this crisis for the future evolution of the European project is depressingly low.

Published on December 3, 2011 11:43 am
  • http://wjmc.blogspot.com William J McKibbin

    I predict that Germany will lead Netherlands and Finland into a separate monetary union, leaving France and the ECB to deal with the mess in southern Europe without the newly-formed German monetary alliance — Germany and Scandanavia have no reasons or incentives to remain in the Eurozone or ECB at this point…

  • Luke Lea

    So where are the Kaiser and the Nietzche of the new regime? Prussian militarism went all the way back to the Teutonic Knights, and WWI soldiers were supplied with copies of “Thus Spake Zarathustra” in their knapsacks. Social Darwanism was official ideology for all practical purposes.

    Is there anything similar in German business and banking traditions today? No.

  • Luke Lea

    “. . . the possibility that actions Americans do not anticipate based on the very different priorities of policy makers in other parts of the world . . .”

    Applied to China that makes more sense. We forget China is a communist country run by “the party.” I find it hard to imagine political power is NOT the only value that guides them (them? the central committee? the next Stalin or Mao?) or that war is not viewed, in official circles, as politics by other means.

    Should China’s economic miracle prove hollow, look out.

  • Andrew Allison

    Corn is overwrought: his is a minor thesis to the major one that there is a mountain of debt in Europe which is probably worth less than 50¢-on-the-Euro, and she who’s being asked to pay the Piper is calling the tune. Corn’s concerns arise from the profilgacy of the eurozone, the underlying issue that needs to be addressed.

  • Kenny

    1. you are absolutely correct in writing that “too many American policy makers and opinion makers live in a bubble of conventional wisdom, comfortable assumptions and complacent ignorance.”

    2. How do you define ‘serious people?’ You used the term at least twice. Is Mr. mead on of the serious people?

    3. I wonder why would Germany want to distupt the current world order? Germany is prosperous and faces not threat, so why invite one?

    And if you run into any of these ‘serious people,’ Mr. Mead, ask them who, who ever went to bed with the Ruskies or Chinese, ever came out the better for it? If they are really serious people, they’d know the answer is ‘nobody.’

  • joe

    I don’t know about the author’s reasoning here; it all sounds a little shrill, sadly plausible, but far-fetched. I see the Meseberg Process as a continuation of slick Willy’s Ostpolitik rather than the initial chapter of Generalplan Ost 2.0. It is less radical that Sarkozy’s dream of the Mahgreb as an EU frontier, which is an actual EU program.

    Germany wants to dominate its periphery–basically, the Visegrad group and the Dutch, but not the EU. The German elite may desire it, but there isn’t any public support for that type of thing.

    Euro 2012 is being held in Poland. If the German tabloids make a big deal about playing in Danzig, Posen or Breslau then perhaps I could imagine that today’s Germany isn’t my father’s Germany, but my grandfather’s; however, I really doubt it.

  • Eurydice

    Hmmm, I suposse if we’re going to talk about a Fifth Reich we might as well consider a Second Stalingrad. If Germany manages to remake Europe in its own image I don’t see why it wouldn’t try to extend that makeover to Russia – except, Russia’s always been kind of an immovable object, hasn’t it? And Russia’s a;ways has a distressing disregard for the interests of foreign investors – plus, now it has the advantage of still having control of its own currency. Germany is still stuck with the Euro.

    I’m not sure how clueless our policy makers are about this because scenarios like Corn’s have been discussed behind the scenes for quite some time. It’s just that there are so many ifs and moving parts, and the US can’t go around taking charge of everything. Somebody’s got to step up in Europe and I don’t know how useful it would be for “conventional wisdom” to turn Germany into a potential enemy.

  • mrs. Davis

    So: is Germany planning to take over Europe, stab the US in the back and enter an entente with China and Russia?

    No more than Bismark was planning to invade Belgium.

  • hortinon

    Germany is absolutely right to launch a Fourth or Fifth or whatever Reich…as long you take it as given the *other* assertion of Serious Observers In Paris, London, and Madrid, that dumping the Euro is absolutely unthinkable.

    These people are asking – ordering, really – Germany to spend itself into penury to pay for the retirement of these pathetic layabouts and their sugar-daddy states. It would be ridiculous to imagine Germany would do so without confiscating as much sovereign power from them as they can manage; never mind nationalism, they’re perfectly justified in doing so just to be sure this situation doesn’t repeat itself.

    As Bill Parcells said in another context, “if they want you to cook the dinner, at least they ought to let you shop for some of the groceries.” It’s ridiculous to claim some sort of moral peril or make dark parallels to Hitler based on Germany acting in its own interests.

  • willis

    Germany and Russia have not had much success in their alliances. The last one ended in the total destruction of Germany and a Russian dominance over it for many painful decades. I really doubt they have forgotten that experience so soon. Achieving dominace over western europe is a very small achievement. Any country willing to pick up the tab can own the PIGGS. They have no pride or ambition of any kind at all. They just want to live off the state and will sell themselves to anyone willing to support them.

  • toadold

    Well while Corn’s speculation looks over the top,I think about a parallel here in the US. Andrew Stern’s article in the Wall Street Journal saying how the US out to be run like China, and consider this clown has the ear of the US Presidential Administration…I’m quite sure you can find the equivalent anti-American pro commie die hard hold outs for central planning that would love to reconstruct the Warsaw Pact anew with add ons. “We can rebuild it better this time.”

  • peter38a

    My view? Carroll Quigley wrote a book some decades ago (Tragedy and Hope and oh, how I would like any input or other views) in which he said that there have been, historically, twenty-four civilizations and his premise was that they were composed of a “core” portion of the civilization and there were, also part thereof, periphery states. At some point he continued, in all said civilizations, the core or a periphery would try to conquer the whole and one or the other would prevail. It was persuasively written. Germany tried twice to conquer and was defeated by the US a periphery state. This would fit the pattern, a third attempt? Anyway a fun idea to kick around.

    Why would Germany look east; they get a lot of their energy from Russia in the form of natural gas. Unlike oil which can be received from many sources natural gas requires a large complex infrastructure that is singly focused. What’s more Russia is in a demographic death spiral. Why wouldn’t “living space” not come to Teutonic minds? While Russia, watching their demographic power plunging, must cast a wary eye on hundreds of millions of Chinese ferociously hungry for the natural resources just north with no intervening oceans. Surely Russia would consider an “accommodation”.

    Germany selling arms to China, perhaps. But a Bismarckian view might be to wait a couple of generations and have it all.

  • Charles Eaton

    Fifth Reigh?
    “We taught them a lesson in nineteen-eighteen and they’ve hardly bothered us since then. – TomLehrer

  • http://rantburg.com Steve White

    American taxpayers would thus continue to provide for the defense of the “civilianized” Germans (who spend only 1.3 percent of their GDP on defense) while Germany would be making money selling advanced military technology to America’s peer competitor.

    There’s an easy fix to that: the United States could withdraw from the military wing of NATO. We’d still be a member of the political wing, much as France was for a couple decades, but we certainly could (behind the scenes) point out that the U.S. isn’t going to foot Europe’s defense bill any longer.

    This might precipitate more fractures in the EU as the larger powers figure out how much defense they need and how they’re going to pay for it within the context of an imploding financial system. The smaller powers remain smaller powers.

    It might also cause a union of Germany and France, not just financially but also militarily, as they (and Belgium, the mini-Me of France) decide to foot the bill for a military counterweight. That would be fine as it would free up the U.S. to look to handle security concerns in Africa, Asia and the Pacific, leaving Europe (and perhaps the Med) to the Franco-Germans. Russia becomes a wild card here: yes, they have the hungry Chinese to the east and downward demography. But the Bear still roars, and it would be interesting to see if Russia would ally itself with the Franco-Germans or instead oppose it.

  • ez

    All this hand wringing because some governments don’t want to reduce spending on anything… I think the real question of this article should be what has this world come to!

  • The Man From K Street

    What’s more Russia is in a demographic death spiral. Why wouldn’t “living space” not come to Teutonic minds?

    Hey, it’s not like Germany’s TFR is particularly healthy these days either, or likely to improve much anytime in the near future.

    The adventuresome Germanies of 1914 or 1940 were full of young people. Germany has been increasingly gray for some time. It’s hard to imagine such a country jockeying for Eurasian domination.

  • Georgiaboy61

    The article is entitled “The Rise of the Fifth Reich?” but this is a preposterous notion, given that the single most important force affecting Europe’s geopolitical future is that exerted by waves of Muslims settling in Germany and elsewhere. In short, strategic thinkers ought to be more worried about a Erabian caliphate, not another German Reich.

  • elkh1

    Since we are no longer a dependable and capable ally, it’s understandable that Merkel looked somewhere else. If the Euros are so chummy with Putinland, who are we spending all those borrowed money to defend them from? Why don’t we get rid of NATO?

  • P38a

    Good point K. Though when you weight the two cultures one is industrious and willful and the other is corrupt and vodka sodden.

    I was surprised to read the other day that “replacement” numbers for France were already a topic of concern at the end of the 19th century.

    Still looking on the brighter side it might be a third opportunity to pick up a battlefield Luger.

  • ErisGuy

    I suppose we can hope that Corn is right. If Germany aligns the EU with Russia, especially Russia after Putin, then the EUropeans will get what they wish for, want, and deserve.

    The USA rescued the EUropeans three times from their own folly: WW1, WW2, and the Cold War. If the EUropeans haven’t learned by now that authoritianian (the Kaiser) or totalitarian (the EUSSR) socieities are, well, bad, then they never will. Let EUrope be EUrope.

  • Snorri Godhi

    A rapprochement between EUrope, Russia, and China was to be expected: after the election of Obama, it will not have escaped the attention of EUropean leaders that the Pax Americana cannot be taken for granted in the medium to long term. New arrangements are needed.

    Besides, EUrope, Russia, and China all face Islamist threats. (Although they have been objectively pro-Islamists with limits in time and space, for their own strategic purposes; as indeed was the US, e.g. in Afghanistan in the 1980s.)

    Hopefully a 5th Reich will be more like the 1st and 2nd than like the 3rd; but I don’t understand: which one is the 4th? The EU up to 2011?

  • Snorri Godhi

    Hortinon makes some good points in comment #9 above — even though, as a realist, I have no use for language such as “Germany is absolutely right” or “they’re perfectly justified in doing so”.

    But what I object to, is not the language of “rights” and “justifications”. My objections to “fiscal union” are as follows:
    * Based on historical experience, this “fiscal union” will be ruled by the French at least as much as by the Germans.
    * Also based on historical experience, this “union” will achieve the opposite of what was intended.
    * Germany and France have debt/GDP ratios of about 80%. The following countries have lower debt/GDP ratios:
    Austria
    Cyprus
    Estonia
    Finland
    Luxembourg
    Malta
    Netherlands
    Slovakia
    Slovenia
    Spain (!!)
    Why should these countries surrender power to the spendthrift, irresponsible Franco-German ruling classes?

  • teapartydoc

    The conceit of the EU/Reich now is the same as it was under Bismarck and subsequent manifestations. It is that the state can be organized and planned in all aspects. Hayek and others have picked up on this fact. The Germans as a people and their philosophical followers in the West have shown an astounding ability to go through life and history with an absence of self examination of their infatuation with this assumption, which is the same basic conceit of Socialists, National Socialists, Fabian Socialists, Communists, and Liberals. It springs from another assumption. That of the superiority of analytical thinking (Ratio), as opposed to non-analytical thinking (Intellectus). If you have ever wondered what the basic difference is between conventional and Austrian economics, Scholastic and modern scientific thinking, religious thought and atheism, imagination and manipulative art, this is it. The conscious or unconscious blocking out of an entire category of living thought results in a dehumanized approach to life and an aberrant rather than organic form of society.

  • Russ

    “You can always tell a German, but you can’t tell him much.”

    The whole notion falls down on several counts:

    1. Greece has no incentive to avoid default.
    2. East-Central Europe is building up regional alliances to specifically counter the move.
    3. What does “Zaire with permafrost” have to offer Germany? An actual market for its exports?
    4. NATO is relevant? Since when?

  • Wifman

    I’m aghast at the kind of uninformed comments posted here. But first:

    5th Realm? Where’s number 4? We are a republic right now, not a realm, FYI.

    Secondly, you should not underestimate the power Russia has at the moment over Germany. Before the traitor Schröder was “bought by Gazprom”, he sold Germany to it, so he can live out his old age in wealth. Just after the election of Merkel over Schröder, Russia played a little with this new muscle: Cutting off our gas supply for a few weeks – oh wait, no, it was some “terrorists” in the Ukraine, hacking away at the gas-pipes. Just took a bit to repair it. In the middle of winter, too.

    Thirdly, someone wrote something about “living space”. Dude, your geopolitical information is in dire need of an update. 70 years ago is not now, and the Germany from Steven Spielberg’s movies doesn’t exist any more. At 1.6 children per woman, there are hardly enough young people to staff Germany in the next 60 years, let alone any space outside Germany.

    And lastly, Germany never wanted the Euro. Our politicians bought the reunification with agreeing to it, so that our occupiers, first and foremost amongst them France, would let us do it without a war. To be frank, we are in over our heads with debt (not as bad as you in the US, but that doesn’t mean it looks good), that my generation and my children will not be able to pay back, looking at the fact that Western economic power is declining in favour of the former third world countries.
    In the long run this is a good thing, as it will mean more wealth everywhere, but in the short run, meaning me and my children, it will be tough!

    So as we already have our own debts to pay (I think at the moment this is something like €36000 for every man, woman, and baby), why would we want to be in an economic union with states doing even worse than us? The people certainly didn’t see the point. Had you done a referendum as other countries did – Germany would have voted a resounding NO! to the Euro.

    Germany has enough problems of its own. We certainly don’t need other people’s, as well. I say cancel the Euro and reform the EU, before it goes down in resentment and ancient fears.

  • richard40

    Because the Germans refuse to provide endless bailouts, and refuse to hyper inflate the Euro, and insist that those countries getting bailed out actually take definite measures to balance their budgets, the Germans are guilty of militarism, and forming some sort of fascist 5th reich. What idiotic socialist drivel.

    A far more likely result is what other commenters here have said, the euro countries with responsible budgets, like Germany and the Scandinavian countries, will get fed up, and pull out of the Euro, and form a Northern Euro. This will leave the rest of the European socialist spendthrifts to fend for themselves, and hyperinflate the Southern Euro to their hearts content. I would not blame the Germans one bit. Refusing to be the patsy for Greece, Italy, Spain, etc, and deciding to not let southern Europe drag them into bankruptcy, is not being either militaristic or fascist, it is being sensible.

  • Hmm

    With Germany about to hit a demographic brick wall, I find this unlikely. France and the UK are both expected to be larger than it within a few decades, removing much of its current advantage. If the economic reforms are correct (I have my doubts), then it’s also likely to lose any economic advnatage it has.
    Militarily and in international diplomacy it’s already a fairly distant third behind the pair of France and the UK.