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Germany and Merkel at Crossroads

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
Axel Schmidt/Pool Photo via AP

I became a fan when I first met Angela Merkel, then a back-bencher. Most German political leaders are gregarious, hale fellows well met. She was the antithesis: reserved, almost shy. A scientist by training she was the daughter of a pastor, raised in the New States (old East Germany). She was taught Russian in school and is fluent. Sensing that one day it might be useful, she taught herself English. Vladimir Putin speaks German. The two talk regularly on the phone. 

She is a remarkable person. The day after her election as Chancellor was finalized, she flew to Washington for meetings with high-level officials including President GW Bush. Landing at 6:00 p.m., she came directly from Andrews to the German Embassy for a Who’s Who dinner. I was fortunate enough to have been invited to that gathering. A number of heads of Washington news bureaus were also invited. 

We watched in awe as she gave an extemporaneous speech (in English) about her hopes for Germany and the relationship with the United States. Then she did something even more impressive. She opened the floor for questions. Bear in mind that by this time it was almost 4:00 a.m. back in Berlin. The DC press peppered her for 45 minutes with tough questions. Showing no fatigue, she calmly handled every one of their questions. It was an amazing performance. I remember thinking, could anyone imagine GW doing anything like that in Germany, especially in German?

For over 70 years we’ve treated Germany like one of our children. The Marshall plan helped Germans rebuild after the war. Our military might kept the Russian bear in check. When the Soviets tried to strangle Berlin, we launched the greatest airlift in history. Hundreds of tons of food, fuel and supplies were flown in to demonstrate our commitment to the German people. President Kennedy went to Berlin and proclaimed that he, like all free men of the world, were citizens of Berlin. President Reagan later threw down the gauntlet. He said that if President Gorbachev was serious about reducing tensions, he should come to Berlin and “tear down this wall!” Thanks largely to the Reagan doctrine, that wall came down. Germany was reunited and the capital was returned to Berlin. 

Subsequent American presidents looked the other way as Germans perennially shortchanged their defense spending obligations, preferring instead to spend their Deutsch Marks on social welfare programs and rebuilding the German industrial base. American taxpayers could continue borrowing from our grandchildren to underwrite their defense. We allowed this so we can’t really blame the Germans. 

President Donald Trump said nuts to that. He was elected to defend American interests and make America great again, not continuing to subsidize one of the strongest economies in the world. All while Ms. Merkel played cozy with Vladimir. Trump is now following through on his promise to close military bases in Germany. 

Putin (the former KGB officer) claims that he had nothing to do with the recent mysterious poisoning of Alexei Navalny, one of his chief political rivals. Merkel looked past the absorption of Crimea and the ongoing threats to Ukraine. Ignoring the poisoning is a horse of a different color. 

Russia has an abundance of natural gas. Its economy depends heavily on energy and it needs customers. Germany needs energy, especially clean natural gas. The two have been developing plans for the Nord Stream Pipeline to deliver that gas. President Trump and several EU leaders have warned that making Germany so dependent on the Russians is a very bad idea. The pipeline has political, economic and military implications. It will strengthen Putin’s hand and provide him with much needed cash to pursue his global ambitions. 

Angela Merkel is an accomplished negotiator. She has kept her coalition government together longer than most in Europe. But now even senior members of her party are raising questions about the pipeline. She faces the greatest test of her tenure. She can no longer play both sides against the middle. She must chose. Trump will no longer pamper Germany like a spoiled adult child. 

Chancellor Merkel has reached a critical crossroad. Will she turn toward the East and make a deal with her friend Vlad? Or will she work with the United States and other allies to secure the energy that Germany needs? The decision will have consequences for generations to come. This is much bigger than her continuing refusal to meet NATO spending obligations. The world awaits her decision. 

Gil Gutknecht served six terms in the U.S. House. Three of those as Chairman of the Congressional Study Group on Germany. 

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