They called it the German “question” but in truth, it was more of a German problem.
Where Germany stands today in its place there was once the Holy Roman Empire — a loose collection of states, principalities, duchies, and territories that was, according to French writer and philosopher Voltaire:
“In no way holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.”
The emperor was elected and the so-called “King of the Germans” held sway over a vast multicultural region. Its people — all 15 million of them by 1500 — spoke a variety of languages; German dominated but was hardly ubiquitous.
The 19th century saw a slide towards integration. A customs union created in 1834 led, in 1871 (after a rather nasty scuffle with neighboring France, to the creation of the modern German state.
And therein lay the problem.
The complexities of modern international relations theories stand in stark contrast with the simplicity of the discipline’s origins. For five centuries –starting around 1500 AD — Europe arose as the dominant global power. It first eclipsed and then subjugated anyone and everything that got in its way.
Why Europe achieved such hegemony is a complicated subject but questions surrounding how European nation states managed the rapid expansion of its power base are easily digested.
The near continual warfare of this period was centred on a single political premise known as the Balance of Power taken from a broader theory of international relations known as Realism.
The idea was simple. Each actor sought to prevent any nation-state from achieving dominance over any other. Any national windfall that stood to increase the power of one state over the others would be beaten down by a coalition of often unlikely allies desperate to maintain equilibrium.
The system, though bloody, worked, and there was no reason to believe it would ever stop working.
Until Germany unified that is.
The map of Europe is revealing.
The eye is so often drawn to Germany.
Although only the seventh largest country in Europe, it is the second most populous. Blessed with a wealth of natural resources it is the country’s geographic centrality that is the true source of its successes.
Indeed, in the absence of a Russia governed by a coherent political elite, Germany is the obvious master of Europe.
Back in 1871 the question was, what to do about it?
Answers were not immediately forthcoming.
In part, this was because the idea that the age-old adherence to realism should be rejected was anathema to the political elite of the time. With little compelling reason to deviate from accepted norms tensions rose. Coal production in the Ruhr valley soared. A foolish and costly naval race began. Plans were drawn up and secret alliances were concocted in smoke-filled rooms far from the public eye.
At the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, the solution to the Germany “question” was inelegant, foolish, and doomed to failure. They denuded her of economic prosperity, stripped her of national dignity, and laid that blame for the war solely at her feet.
The deprivation that ensued helped radicalize politics to the point where just 14 years later a dangerous demagogue was able to seize the reigns of power amidst promises he would forge a new national destiny.
His name was Adolf Hitler.
The second response to the German “question” was simply to split her in half. The Soviet Union took control of the eastern portion whilst the Allied powers took control of the west.
Even as this ‘solution’ was implemented the seeds of its destruction were already in place.
To begin with the power base of Europe was broken anyway.
It had twice fought itself to near exhaustion thanks to the dictates of Realism and although the U.K. entered WWI as the richest and most powerful country in the world it exited WWII as a bankrupt and broken shadow of its former self.
It never fully recovered.
What was worse was that the creation of nuclear and later thermonuclear weapons suggested that the next world war would be even more devastating than the last.
Realism was dead.
A new doctrine that had been growing in prominence since the end of WWI suddenly found itself ascendant. Liberalism as a theory of international relations argued that states could and indeed should work together to maximize prosperity and minimize conflict. Thus by the time Germany re-unified in 1990 its position as the natural leader of Europe was no longer seen as a threat.
It became instead the champion of the Liberal cause standing shoulder to shoulder with the other great economies of the world.
Then along came President Donald Trump.
The president’s thought processes are the product of a second-rate mind and as such, he is painfully easy to read.
Take his attitude to war.
For Trump, Realism never truly went away. Might is right, to the victors the spoils; he who snoozes looses.
All that crap.
Such decade-old lines of thought ignores the reality of the modern world. It was abandoned on pragmatic grounds; it just wasn’t working anymore.
And it’s going to continue not working now matter how many times Trump tries to give it a big ol’ shake.
His much longed for holy war against Iran will cost the USA trillions of dollars. It will kill horrendous numbers of people, further diminish the U.S. reputation in the eyes of the world, and help radicalize the Islamic world.
Trump has abandoned the principles that have governed U.S. diplomatic thought for the past 71 years. Oh, there have been wars and conflict through the years but the response has been measured and has never been directed at nations with the power to really fight back.
Still if the U.S. is no longer committed to the principles of Liberal Democracy then who the hell is going to carry the torch? Who is going to oppose the return to bully boy tactics?
Die Deutsche Lösung
Oh, irony of ironies.
That we must look now to Germany.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is not only the leader of the 4th largest economy in the world. She’s also one of the few guiding lights on Europe with the power and influence to aggressively pursue the cause of Liberalism.
Her vision is as far removed from Trump’s America First policy as it possibly could be. Hers is a pro-immigration platform of strength via a unity that crosses borders. For Dr. Merkel, there can be no return to the broken strategies of the past. In today’s world, where facts are ignored in lieu of opinion — where reality is governed by the gut rather than by the world around us — it’s a thankless, dirty task we’ve draped across her shoulders.
Let’s hope she can bear the strain. Let’s hope she can reign Trump in.
Because the tension of their first meeting was palpable. After, all she represents everything that Trump despises. She is intelligent, thoughtful, erudite and steadfast; she offers a vibrant vision of modernity.
One that makes Trump look like the fossil he is.
Watch the German media’s reaction to Trump’s meeting of Angela Merkel