Anyone who has ever studied international relations in the United States has been exposed to the so-called Melian dialogue. The Melian dialogue refers to an episode in the Peloponnesian War, pitting the representative of Melos, a small island, against the representatives of Athens. The Athenians, engaged in a war with Sparta, demanded that the Melians submit to their power, join their side and, in the process, get absorbed into the Athenian empire.
Learning Lessons in Ukraine and Beyond
In case the Melians refused, the Athenians threatened with complete destruction. The Melians did refuse, pointing out that justice was on their side. In response, the Athenians laid siege on the island, took its main city and, after its surrender, killed every surviving male and sold the women and children into slavery.
Exigencies of Defense
One of the central points of the Melian dialogue is the notion that might makes right, or, as the Athenians put it, “you know as well as we do that right, as the world goes, is only in question between equals in power, while the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.” It is a prime example of what in international relations theory is known as realism. Over the past few decades, realism has gone out of fashion, especially in Western Europe — and for good reason. Nobody is eager to live in a Hobbesian world where life is “nasty, brutish and short” — in Western Europe, nobody more so than the Germans.
This, of course, has had a lot to do with Berlin’s position during the Cold War, when Germany was, as the prominent German-American political scientist Peter Katzenstein put it, a semi-sovereign state. During the Cold War period, the Federal Republic of Germany pursued a number of strategies that marked a fundamental break with realism: toward its neighbors to the west, a process of economic integration; toward its neighbors to the east (particularly Poland) a policy of détente and reconciliation, which came to be known as Ostpolitik.
The idea behind Ostpolitik was that rapprochement would ultimately lead to change — Wandel durch Annäherung. When, in 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, it appeared that the policy had worked.
The fall of the Berlin Wall was soon followed by the crumbling of the Soviet Union and German unification, which meant that Germany had finally regained its sovereignty — somewhat of a troubling reality, and not only among Germany’s neighbors. In Germany, too, not a few people were worried. They shouldn’t have been. Germany was perfectly adapted to the new times where the “overwhelming exigencies of defence” appeared to have disappeared and where, as the then German minister of defense would put it in 1999, Germany, for the first time in its history, was “only surrounded by friends.”
The end of the Cold War appeared to have ushered in a fundamentally now global reality, informed by interdependence, globalization and the end of history. Here, Germany was poised to play a prominent role as the epitome of a “trading state” and a “civilian power.”
Civilian powers such as Germany rely on what the American international relations theorist Joseph Nye famously called soft power. Soft power comes from the appeal of consumer products (all those sleek BMWs and Mercedes Benzes) and popular culture (TV series like “Derrick” and Bundesliga clubs Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund with their millions of fans all over the world), rather than from the barrel of the gun.
Civilian powers scale down their military. After all, a country surrounded by friends has little use for a military that is up to the task of defending the country. Instead, they are tempted to follow the lead of the Danish Progress party whose late leader proposed in the early 1970s to replace the country’s ministry of defense with an answering machine with the recorded message of “We surrender” in Russian.
Mugged by Reality
On February 24, Germany got mugged by reality and was caught flat-footed. In the face of a Melian scenario, Germany is like the emperor with his new clothes. Over the recent days, a growing number of articles have appeared exposing the sorry state of the German military and lamenting its lack of preparedness. Some of the stories would make for great slapstick comedy were they not describing a pathetic reality.
The German soldiers stationed in Lithuania, for instance, not only lack warm jackets but even underwear, or so Germany’s defense ombudsperson has charged. At the same time, the commander of Germany’s army went public, stating that the military “stands more or less naked.” His remarks led France’s center-left daily Liberation to claim that “the generals of the Bundeswehr were ready to lay down the arms at the first Russian attack.” Another French newspaper charged that the German military, because of “deficient gear and the lack of flexibility of its soldiers,” was not in a position to efficiently support its allies in the face of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
None of this is new. It has all been known for years. In late 2018, for instance, Germany’s weekly Die Zeit raised alarm noting that only a third of the new tanks, fighter jets and helicopters the military had received were ready to use. Four years later, one of Germany’s major dailies, the Süddeutsche Zeitung, reported that the military continued to suffer from massive problems. The German navy, for instance, could count on less than 30% of its ships to be completely ready for action.
A few days before the Russian invasion on February 24, the Ukrainian government asked the Germans for anti-tank missile systems. Berlin declined. The reason is simple: Even if it had wanted to, Germany would not be in a position to supply the weapons — they were not available.
No matter the outcome of the war in Ukraine, Germany will be collateral damage. For too long, the Germans have believed that interdependence and constructive engagement would fundamentally change international relations. This view, however, is based on theoretical constructs that ignore some of the fundamentals informing international relations: the legacy of history and, closely linked to it, emotions. Europe’s history abounds with grievances and resentment, more often than not triggering intense passions. The Balkan wars of the 1990s should have served as a reminder. Instead, they were dismissed as a remnant of a bygone era.
There is another lesson to be drawn from this disaster. A few years ago, two American political scientists coined the phrase “weaponizing interdependence.” The authors used network theory to explain how “coercing actors could exploit interdependence and why targeted actors would find it difficult to evade coercion attempts.” Germany is a textbook case. For decades now, it has increased its dependence on Russian inputs, particularly natural gas and oil.
The controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline is only the latest example of this. Dependence on Russian commodities was once again informed by the same belief in the power of interdependence to engage the other side in a way beneficial to both. But, once again, the whole thing is in shambles, and Germany is caught in the trap largely of its own making.
Time for a Change
But the times there are changing, and rapidly so. Over the weekend, Germany agreed to cut Russian banks off from the SWIFT payment system, announced it would deliver anti-tank missiles to Ukraine (leaving some observers wondering how they suddenly materialized) and sent a military contingent to be stationed in Slovakia.
What is much more significant, however, is the fundamental change in tone with regard to Russia, its assault on Ukraine and Germany’s response. The two parties that in the past have been most indulgent toward Vladimir Putin’s regime, the Social Democrats and the Left, have made a complete volte-face, condemning Moscow’s aggression.
At the same time, there has been growing recognition on the side of Germany’s left-wing intellectuals that the “times of illusion” are over, that the notion of “wehrhafte Demokratie” — a democracy that can defend itself — only has meaning if it is backed by real forces, and that this will require not only resources but a fundamental change of mindset. The reality is that Germany’s allies will no longer allow Germans to evoke the horrors of the Nazi regime as an explanation for their neglecting its defensive capabilities.
Given the new geostrategic realities, what Western Europe needs, and desperately so, is a strong German military. It must be relieved that on Sunday, Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced an allocation of €100 billion ($112 billion) toward the 2022 military budget, aiming to raise defense spending to over 2% of GDP set out in NATO guidelines going forward; last year, it stood at 1.53%.
Finally, it seems to dawn in Germany that Putin’s aggression is driven as much by historical revisionism and revanchism as by the boundless drive to snuff out and eradicate Ukraine’s civil society and democratic spirit, turning it into a second Belarus, a Russia en miniature. It is hardly a coincidence that the invasion of Ukraine started almost to the day of the anniversary of the end of Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Moscow regime in February 2014.
The only one who has remained steadfast in his Putinophilism is former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who has always prided himself in his close relationship with the Russian autocrat. Whereas Austria’s ex-chancellor, Christian Kern, and the former French premier, François Fillon, resigned from lucrative posts on the boards of Russian enterprises, Schröder refused to follow suit, much to the embarrassment of the German Social Democrats.
But then, Schröder belongs to the same generation as the Putins, Trumps and Xis of this world, old men living in an alternative reality who would like nothing more than to turn back the clock. In Germany, at least, dreams and illusions have given way to a new realism, one that is likely to have profound repercussions not only for Germany but for Europe in general.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.