Arming Germany? ‘I think that’s a big gamble.’

DER SPIEGEL: Is Trump right when he insists that the Europeans finally have to stand on their own two feet 70 years after the end of World War II?

Kagan: Trump is only saying what every American president has said since John F. Kennedy, which is we want a greater burden sharing on the part of Europe. But I think that where Donald Trump is wrong, and where he’s different from other presidents, is that he wants to leave Europe by itself right now.

DER SPIEGEL: Why is he wrong?

Kagan: Over the course of decades, we told Germany: “We don’t want you to be a normal nation. We want you to focus on peaceful growth, on your social well-being. We don’t want you to spend 5 percent of your GDP on the military.” So, for the United States to say: “We do want you to be a military power,” well, I think that’s a big gamble. The American role in the world was a critical part of establishing a peaceful Europe after World War II. The United States established the international trading regime, which has been important to European economic success. This regime is really in question, and also the fate of democracy as a common European ideology. One of the most important elements of the European project after World War II has been the suppression and control of nationalism. And we now see nationalism returning…

DER SPIEGEL: In a recent essay, you wrote that the German question will return if the U.S. is no longer willing to continue its engagement in Europe. Do you really think there is a danger of Germany once again becoming a threat to its neighbors?

Kagan: Up to the end of World War II, Germany always had the problem that it’s too big for Europe. A key element of the European peace after World War II was the American security guarantee, which reassured all of Germany’s neighbors that whatever else was going to happen, Germany would not become a danger again. That allowed Germany to have this great economic success without unnerving and frightening its neighbors. Once Germany was unified, it became the largest economy in Europe, the largest territory in Europe and the largest population in Europe. With that, of course, comes the potential of being the largest military in Europe. So it’s not about the German character or anything.

DER SPIEGEL:But?

Kagan: There are certain objective conditions that bring back the German question. You can already see the jealousies of other countries about Germany’s dominance of the European economy and the resentment that that creates. If you pull the American engagement out of the equation, here’s the scenario that I worry about: The neighbors of Germany could become sort of unmoored from NATO and maybe even from the EU. They will begin to look at Germany nervously and begin to undertake economic policies that are designed to break free of German hegemony. That will, in turn, create resentments in Germany. How long before you have a perfectly respectable German position that says: “Wait a second. We’ve got to start looking out for ourselves. Everybody else around us is looking out for themselves. Who is looking out for us?”

DER SPIEGEL: So in your view, the Europeans are eternal teenagers who start fighting as soon as America turns away.

Kagan: Grow up! That’s fine! But I think you really have to be an unwavering optimist to believe that Europe will stay stable and peaceful without the support of the United States. You can’t compare the EU of the late 1990s to the EU of today. There is the United Kingdom’s departure from Europe. In the eastern parts of Europe, the once democratic governments of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia have entered various stages of decent into illiberalism. And France is only one election away from a nationalist electoral victory.

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