When the U.S. government formally asked NATO partner Germany to join in freedom-of-navigation patrols in the Strait of Hormuz, where Iranian gunboats have seized other nations’ ships, detonated mines, and flouted international law, it did so with a fillip.
Tamara Sternberg-Greller, the spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Berlin, remarked: “Members of the German government have been clear that freedom of navigation should be protected. Our question is: Protected by whom?”
When German chancellor Angela Merkel’s government finally got around to answering that question a few days later, it replied in essence: Someone other than us.
German leaders said they feared joining the U.S.-led coalition could draw them into a bigger conflict, if for example President Trump were to attack Iranian facilities as he nearly did in June following the downing of a U.S. drone.
“We wouldn’t be able to pull out should the U.S. decide to escalate,” warned Nils Schmid of the Social Democrats (SPD) Party that is part of Merkel’s ruling coalition.
Germany’s decision not to participate in U.S.-led freedom of navigation exercises in the troubled Strait of Hormuz could have lingering impact on transatlantic relations, sources warn. Not joining the United States and the United Kingdom in protecting cargo ships that transport about a third of the world’s seaborne oil shipments daily — petroleum the United States no longer desperately needs as an emerging net exporter of oil — may signal the transatlantic ties between Germany and the United States are weakening.
As Forbes senior defense contributor Loren Thompson remarked earlier this year, “The [NATO] alliance’s most important European member often seems to be missing in action.”
James Phillips, senior research fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, writes, “The best way to deter further Iranian aggression, and avoid a possible war,” remarks “is to enlist European, Asian, and Arab allies to join a U.S-led diplomatic campaign to persuade Tehran that the only way to lift sanctions is through negotiations to resolve the nuclear issue.”
If Phillips is correct, that raises the prospect that a Tehran emboldened by Western disunity would be more likely to escalate, perhaps through a miscalculation over international resolve.
While there is some talk of a European coalition to monitor the Strait and possibly conduct reconnaissance, any German involvement would reportedly occur without the threat of military force. Germany, it should be noted, imports most of its energy from Russia, making it relatively independent from shipments that pass through the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran clearly has demonstrated its willingness to raise the stakes. Several cargo vessels have been struck by Iranian limpet mines, and Iran has captured and continues to hold the British tanker Stena Impero. It has also begun enriching uranium to higher levels.
Trump administration officials are doing everything they can to isolate Iran and force it back to the negotiating table to modify the deal negotiated by President Obama they say failed to provide for adequate limits or inspections.
“There’s little doubt that the United States is capable of securing the Strait of Hormuz without any help at all from Europe,” writes Bloomberg columnist Leonid Bershidsky. “But its difficulty in getting such help shows the hollowness at the heart of the transatlantic alliance.”
Taking a pass on patrolling the Gulf is just the latest example of what seems like a growing German indifference to partnering with the United States on key issues. Among them:
- In July, German officials announced they would not accede to American requests to put boots on the ground in northern Syria to help relieve the U.S. troops who have shouldered the global threat of fighting ISIS. SPD leader Thorsten Schafer-Gumbel tweeted, “There will be no German ground troops in Syria with U.S.”
- In March, after the United States, the U.K., and 12 other nations designated Hezbollah a terror organization, Germany refused. This was widely seen as a snub not only to the United States, but to the embattled community of Jews living in Germany. Dr. Josef Schuster, the president of the Central Council of Jews, remarked: “Hezbollah is heavily financed by Iran, and poses, in its entirety, a threat to the entire world.” The Jerusalem Post reports that in virtually every meeting with German officials, U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell emphasizes that Hezbollah must be completely outlawed.
- Germany continues to cooperate with Russia on the Russian-controlled Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline that will increase Europe’s dependence on Russian energy, irrespective of Vladimir Putin’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and the ongoing military activities in the Donbas region of Ukraine. German business interests appear more focused on short-term profits than in supporting the sanctions regime against Russia, which they often lay at the doorstep of President Trump.
- Of greatest long-term concern to U.S. officials: Germany’s willingness to renege on a NATO pledge to spend at least 2 percent of its GDP on defense. Its current plans call for reaching a miserly 1.5 percent of GDP in self-defense by 2024, prompting Forbes’ Thompson to comment: “The president has good reason to wonder whether Berlin cares as much about collective security as Washington does.” When Grenell urged Germany to live up to its NATO commitment, some German leftists went so far as to push to have him expelled from the country.
Whether Merkel’s Germany will continue to shrug its shoulders at transatlantic cooperation remains to be seen. German and American voters have sharply different views of their transatlantic relationship: A Pew Research poll in November revealed that 73 percent of Germans characterize their relationship with the United States as bad, while 70 percent of Americans think U.S.-German relations are good.
Grenell has tried every diplomatic angle — at times befriending and empathizing, at other times voicing the frank, unvarnished truth — to try to get German leaders to recognize that American-German alliance must be more of a two-way street.
On issues ranging from NATO funding to supporting Israel to the global decriminalization of sexual preference and expression, Grenell has been a staunch advocate on behalf of the Trump agenda. Like Trump himself, his biggest push has been to guarantee the NATO alliance is not allowed to devolve into paper-tiger status.
In an exclusive Newsmax interview in May, Grenell said “we’re really pushing the Germans,” adding, “As the largest economy in Europe, they have a responsibility to meet the NATO commitments.”
But he also noted that Trump’s elevation of the expenditure issue has already had an impact. “There’s [been] a $41 billion increase since 2016 on defense spending,” he said, a figure expected to increase to $100 billion by 2020.
The German media tend to view American policies as self-interested rather than altruistic: Bigger defense budgets mean more profit for U.S.-based defense firms, they say. And the cultural reticence of Germans to engage in military activity has deep historical roots in the devastation the country suffered from two world wars.
Germans and other Europeans like to joke that the Americans are oblivious to current affairs in Europe, and even have trouble locating their countries on a map.
While there may be some truth to that stereotype, Thompson, a keen observer of the alliance over many years, suggests that Germans may have their own cultural blind spot when it comes to understanding what motivates the United States.
“How many of them grasp that Washington is postured to put America’s survival at risk in support of their freedom in a future war?” he asks. “Much of America’s military planning and expenditure revolves around being able to defend German borders in an East-West conflict.
“If Berlin doesn’t start showing more concern for the risks its policies present to U.S combatants and noncombatants in a future conflict,” he adds, “it is inevitable that President Trump’s criticism will win a growing audience on this side of the ocean.”
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