One day, Germany will have had enough
By Mark Steyn
In the old days, the headline "Germans Go On Offensive" would have caused palpitations among Czechs, Poles, Belgians, etc. But, in the case of this weekend's AP headline, Germans going on the offensive refers not to sending German troops to foreign countries, but keeping foreign troops in Germany. And it's the Germans having the palpitations, after press reports that the Pentagon plans to pull out half its troops.
Right now, Germany plays host to 175,000 Americans - military personnel plus their families - and reducing that number to 80-90,000 would leave a big hole in an economy that's already looking like a Swiss cheese. See the recent story in Bild: "Can't We Do Anything Any More in Germany?" Also the cover of Der Spiegel: "Germany: A Joke."
The joke keeps getting better. Karl Peter Bruch, a state official in Rhineland-Palatinate who's lobbying the Americans to change their minds, put it this way: "We realised that our installations are in grave danger. And then came the question, what can we do to make us more attractive?"
"Our" installations? As Daffy Duck famously remarked after losing yet another verbal duel with Bugs Bunny and getting his bill shot off: "Hmm. Pronoun trouble." As to what Germany can do to make itself more attractive to the Yanks, how about this? Spend less time running around playing Mini-Me to Jacques Chirac's Doctor Evil. Just a thought. And it seems to have occurred, somewhat belatedly, to Gerhard Schröder.
Last March, there were plenty of takers for it. My Spectator colleague Matthew Parris indulged himself in one of his elegant scoffs about the Bush doctrine: "We should ask whether America does have the armies, the weaponry, the funds, the economic clout and the democratic staying power to carry all before her in the century ahead. How many wars on how many fronts could she sustain at once? How much fighting can she fund? How much does she need to export? Is she really unchallenged by any other economic bloc?"
My confrère was falling prey to theories of "imperial overstretch". But, as I wrote at the time in an article on "the death of Europe", "if you're not imperial, it's quite difficult to get overstretched. By comparison with 19th-century empires, the Americans travel light."
America's main "overstretch" lies not in Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa, but in its historically unprecedented generosity to its wealthiest allies. "The US picks up the defence tab for Europe, Japan, South Korea and Saudi Arabia, among others," I wrote. "If Bush wins a second term, the boys will be coming home from South Korea and Germany, and maybe Japan, too."
Well, the second term is not quite here. But America has already quit Saudi Arabia, and plans for South Korea and Germany are well advanced. When scholars come to write the final chapter in the history of the European continent, the six-decade US security guarantee will be seen as, on the whole, a mistake. Not for America, but the Continentals.
The so-called "free world" was, for most of its members, a free ride. Absolving wealthy nations of the need to maintain credible armies softens them: they decay, almost inevitably, into a semi-non-aligned status.
Even now, the likes of Mr Bruch see the US military presence in Europe in mainly economic terms - all those German supermarkets and German restaurants that depend on American custom. But, looked at in defence terms, if Don Rumsfeld wants a light, mobile 21st-century military, the last place to base it is the Continent: given that the term "ally" is now generally used in the post-modern meaning of "duplicitous obstructionist", it's not unlikely that any future Saddamesque scenario would see attempts to throw operational restraints around the use of US forces in Europe.
This weekend, for example, nearly 60 per cent of French electors voted Socialist, Communist, Fascist or Green. Most of the rest voted for the "ruling centre-Right" - ie, Chirac. Does that sound like an "ally" that's ever again likely to grant overflight rights to the USAF? Better a nice clean flight plan direct from Missouri or Diego Garcia.
What happens when a country becomes just as militant and aggressive about the virtues of "soft power" as it once was about old-fashioned hard power? Germany has a shrinking economy, an ageing and shrivelling population, and potentially catastrophic welfare liabilities. Yet the average German worker now puts in over 20 per cent fewer hours per year than his American counterpart, and no politician who wishes to remain electorally viable would propose closing the gap.
Germany, like much of Europe, has a psychological investment in longer holidays, free healthcare, early retirement, unsustainable welfare programmes, decrepit military: the fact that these policies spell national suicide is less important than that they distinguish Europe from the less enlightened Americans.
Where did all the money go? In a recent speech in Washington, the Oxford historian Niall Ferguson recalled German objections 80 years ago to their First World War reparations bill of $132 billion - why, such a sum would bankrupt the country!
Ferguson pointed out that Germany has paid $132 billion and then some to France, Belgium, Italy and co in net EU contributions. And, as predicted, bankruptcy looms. From Belgian steel to Italian agriculture to French colonial subventions, the entire European project has been financed by Germany.
Even a rare fellow contributor such as Britain owes its brief romance with the Common Market to German success: in stagnant pre-Thatcher Britain, the business community looked enviously across the Channel and figured that yoking the British economy to Europe would cut 'em a little piece of that rich German stollen.
But there's no stollen left to steal: Germany is the sick man of Europe, and too risk-averse to try any cure other than sugary placebos such as the dismal "Year of Innovation" Mr Schröder has declared 2004 to be. He has appointed an Innovation Council. The first sign of a genuinely innovative culture is that it's too busy innovating to have an Innovation Council. An Innovation Council is just more of the same-old same-old.
The Germans get 11 per cent of the votes in the Council of Ministers and pony up 67 per cent of the EU's net contributions. And sooner or later, they'll figure out that pandering to a pampered populace at home is one thing, subsidising it Continent-wide is quite another. Then they really will go on the offensive.