Chris Bambery takes a detailed look at the huge shifts in global competition since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He finds that the world system is lurching towards further conflict, and that the US has re-asserted its dominance, to the cost of Europe.
Profound changes have gripped both the European Union and Germany since Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February of this year. It is a historic shift which has been ignored by many within Britain on either side of the Brexit dispute and with various opinions of the war.
The United States has effectively neutered Germany as an independent power and as the dominant force in the EU.
Signs of this development emerged quickly and were observable as early as March. In immediate response to Putin’s invasion the Social Democrat (SPD) Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, not only announced sanctions on Russia but also a fund of €100bn (£85bn) to boost the strength of the country’s armed forces. With his coalition partners, the ultra-militarist Greens, Scholz also made a clear commitment to the NATO military alliance. The US superpower was long frustrated by what it saw as low German military spending, and by a pragmatic openness to co-operation with China and Russia, against the growing mood of US belligerence and protectionism.
But the US has pressed its advantage far beyond these traditional concerns, and effectively shut down Germany’s operation as an independent force in the European continent it had come to dominate after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
As Wolfgang Streeck has argued: “Before one’s eyes, an apparently democratically governed mid-sized regional power is being turned, and is actively turning itself, into a transatlantic dependency of the Great American War Machines, from NATO to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Pentagon to the NSA, and the CIA to the National Security Council.”
Writing earlier Streeck concluded: “Europe… is led not by Germany or France but by the United States, and not just on the Eurasian continent but globally, particularly in relation to China… effectively the war in Ukraine has shifted Europe’s centre of gravity both to the East and, with it, to the West, toward the United States.”
The Rise before the Fall
Prior to February this year, Germany, Europe’s biggest economic force, could still be regarded as the overweening power in the European Union. Its situation as the determining economic and political centre meant a relatively independent orientation on other second tier states. China was an important export market for Germany, which in turn depended on Russia for its imports of low-priced gas and oil, plus metals such as aluminium, titanium and palladium.
Assumptions of the strength of Germany’s position were based on recent events. After the 2008 financial collapse and the subsequent debt crisis within the Eurozone, Germany re-ordered the EU in its own interests. The influence of Germany over the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the Council of Europe, all secretive and unaccountable institutions, became increasingly apparent from 2010 onward, as the mask of French-German binary power slipped, and Germany consolidated control.
As Joseph Halevi has pointed out, long before the re-organisation of the crisis years, there was a core zone of the EU centred on Germany, including Holland, Belgium, Switzerland, Sweden, Denmark and Austria, and a peripheral zone in Southern Europe: “The upshot of all these considerations is that Europe shows the existence of several divergent paths and multiple stratifications among the various countries belonging to it. There is a core/periphery relation between the German area on one hand and Spain, Portugal, and Greece on the other.”
Germany and the core zone increasingly located industrial production in a second Central and Eastern European periphery, benefitting from relative under-development and lower wages:
“Countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary appear rather as zones for the production of industrial inputs, as well as of big ticket items. Czechia and Slovakia are part of the German automobile and appliances industries. Hungary, which thanks to Germany has created an automotive industry that previously it did not have, is also a relocation area for production lines in appliances involving also Swedish multinationals.”
Of these new periphery countries, Poland has become the most important:
“….in the first five months of 2019, Poland surpassed the UK to become the sixth-biggest economic partner of Germany in the world, the Polish Economic Institute (PIE) said in a report. In 2018, Poland’s exports to Germany made up 28.2 percent of all Polish exports, while imports stood at 22.4 percent.
“Almost 16 years ago, Poland joined the EU and at the time was one of the least affluent countries in the bloc: GDP per capita was $16,000 in purchasing power parity, the second-lowest after Latvia. Unemployment was 19 percent. The average monthly salary was less than 2,300 zlotys (€510). Over the last decade and a half, the country has grown around 4 percent a year on average, more than three times the EU average of 1.2 percent. Polish GDP was 44 percent of the EU average in 2004, compared with 67 percent in 2018.”
By 2019 some 6000 German firms were operating in Poland, providing investments worth some €40bn. In June 2021 Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki lauded the economic cooperation between Poland and Germany during a video conference with representatives of German business: “The Federal Republic of Germany is the leading economic partner of Poland and the undisputed number one when it comes to trade partnership…”
“Over the past 30 years, the Polish economy has changed significantly, and its development has been also driven by German companies that invested directly in Poland.”
Whatever the rhetoric from Warsaw, the truth is China has become Germany’s biggest trading partner in recent years: “The People’s Republic of China was Germany’s most important trading partner in 2021 for the sixth consecutive year. Based on provisional results, the Federal Statistical Office (Destatis) reports that goods to the value of €245.4 billion were traded between the two countries.”
After 10 years of severe Eurozone crisis, Germany had therefore emerged relatively stable and with developing economic relationships in growing economic sectors. Perceptive observers, like Oliver Nachtwey, could see that beneath the surface image of German power were deepening economic and class contradictions. But superficially, Germany still stood over its swelling fiefdom, with a degree of independent action few western countries could boast.
The United States resented Germany’s trade with China and its importation of Russian gas and oil, loudly demanding it cut back on both. Of particular focus became criticisms of low military spending and development of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, bringing natural gas from Russia. For years pressure mounted. Trump promised to cut military ties, then threatened and ultimately imposed sanctions on firms working on Nord Stream 2 (before him Obama and Bush Jnr had opposed Nord Stream 1). Germany’s long time centre right Chancellor, Angela Merkel, did not jump and neither, at first, did the coalition government that arrived in her wake.
But that was before the war. Since then, the US has moved decisively to reshape German foreign and trade policy. Threats and cajoles became irresistible facts of US power.
Within weeks of the Russian invasion, Scholz had announced the historic €100bn war-spending bung, a figure more than double 2021’s entire military budget, itself up on past years. In addition, the Bundeswher (German armed forces) will spend billions from its own coffers. So it was that Germany’s official post-WW2 mood of reluctance to military expansion finally collapsed. The costs will be carried by the German people. Health spending is being slashed, and German households and industries have been plunged into a new fuel scarcity.
The second, even more dramatic development sealed the fate of Nord Stream. In late September the gas pipelines, which had survived US sanctions and diplomatic pressure, were suddenly taken out of action. The destruction was an act of “gross sabotage” according to Mats Ljungqvist, the Swedish prosecutor investigating the explosion. Western countries have remained muted about who might carry out such an attack. But everyone concedes it is a blow to Russian soft power in Europe, and forces European countries to apply for US fuels as an alternative.
As Michael Hudson observed: “The Nord Stream pipeline’s destruction capsulizes the dynamics in a nutshell. For almost a decade a constant US demand has been for Germany to reject its reliance on Russian energy. These demands were opposed by Gerhardt Schroeder, Angela Merkel and German business leaders. They pointed to the obvious economic logic of mutual trade of German manufactures for Russian raw materials.”
Gloating, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stated: “…it’s a tremendous opportunity to once and for all remove the dependence on Russian energy and thus to take away from Vladimir Putin the weaponization of energy as a means of advancing his imperial designs.”
The importation of US Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) will be a heavy burden on German consumers. It is far more expensive and requires Germany to spend over $5 billion on port facilities to handle LNG tankers. So not only has Germany been cut off from Russian imports vital for its industries but its energy costs will rocket upwards.
The Nord Stream project was popular, not only with a large majority of the German public, but also, naturally, with large and small capitalist interests. The US’ strongarm tactics thus represent a remarkable extension of ‘transnational’ logics, with US power contravening state and capitalist interests as well as public opinion.
America Breaks Germany from China
Against this background, what is remarkable is how far the SPD, and even more so the Greens, have bought in to the American narrative of what’s at stake in the Ukraine.
Back in March of this year President Biden warned Americans to prepare for a long-term fight, with costs, in what he called “…the battle between democracy and autocracy.”
Of course, Biden is well aware that the democratic camp includes states like Saudi Arabia where there is not a shred of democracy. The autocracies include Russia, China and Iran. But much of the world, both autocracies and democracies, have chosen to remain aloof from US calls for a total embargo against Russia.
Behind this façade of civilisational war lies the interests of US power – the dollar, the burgeoning rivalry with China (a much more serious threat to US dominance than Russia), and, importantly, Europe itself.
Concerns about China increasingly shape US ruling elite views of developments in various quadrants of the world system. Biden’s National Security Strategy states that the People’s Republic of China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to do it”.
According to Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO: “…his view of today’s world isn’t of a multipolar one. Instead, he sees a China determined to overhaul the rules-based international order…that’s why he believes strategic competition is now the driving force of international politics.”
In the wake of the Russian invasion, Biden accelerated his anti-China policy. On 7 October the US stepped up Trump’s (and Obama’s) economic war, as Marco d’Eramo explains:
“That day, the Biden administration launched a technological offensive against China, placing stringent limits and extensive controls on the export not only of integrated circuits, but also their designs, the machines used to ‘write’ them on silicon and the tools these machines produce. Henceforth, if a Chinese factory requires any of these components to produce goods – like Apple’s mobile phones, or GM’s cars – other firms must request a special licence to export them…
“China uses more than 70 percent of the world’s semiconductor products, although contrary to common perception it only produces 15 percent. In fact, this latter figure is misleading, as China doesn’t produce any of the latest chips, those used in artificial intelligence or advanced weapons systems.
“You can’t get anywhere without this technology.”
The Financial Times’s Martin Wolf described the step in similarly stark terms:
“Indeed, the recently announced controls on US exports of semiconductors and associated technologies to China looks a decisive step. Certainly, this is far more threatening to Beijing than anything Donald Trump did. The aim is clearly to slow China’s economic development. That is an act of economic warfare. One might agree with it. But it will have huge geopolitical consequences.”
Just as the ‘hot war’ with Russia has legitimised US actions against China, so it has provided the opportunity to wrench Sino-German relations apart. China has, in recent years, been a crucial export market for German machine tools and high-tech exports: “Since the turn of the millennium, China has gone from accounting for just over 1 percent of German exports to commanding a 7.5 percent share of sales abroad, putting it second to the US. In 2021, more than €100bn worth of German goods were sold there.”
It’s difficult to see this relationship being maintained by Beijing. The same Financial Times piece quotes German exporters as saying the market is drying up, in part because China now produces much of what it previously imported.
Daalder claims great advances for US lobbying in this direction by the US: “Fortunately, more and more officials in Europe and, increasingly, in Germany now understand the need to shift away from the longstanding view of China as a gigantic market, seeing it instead as the strategic competitor it is. There are even loud voices within the German government urging a change — and we can only hope their voices will prevail.”
The pivot away from Chinese markets comes in tandem with a military pivot against China. Buying into Biden’s long-war means Berlin showing preparedness to back the US in the Pacific theatre.
In August the German government dutifully sent six Eurofighter jets along with four transport aircraft and three air-to-air refuelling tankers to Australia for joint manoeuvres with the host country, South Korea and New Zealand. The frigate Bayern was dispatched east, the first time a German warship has been in the Indo-Pacific regions in 20 years. Inspector General Eberhard Zorn explained: “We don’t want to provoke anyone with our presence, but we also want to send a clear signal of solidarity to our value partners.”
The Australian Defence Minister, Richard Marles, toured Germany in August and in an opinion piece in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung spoke of the “growing resolve of German-Australian cooperation on security issues in the region.” German troops will be going down under for further military exercises.
The gravitational pull that has yanked Germany toward this radicalising defence of US power, has naturally drawn Germany’s fiefdom with it. The Financial Times reports that the US channelled the EU into discussions about countering China:
“Two officials said the US and EU had begun talks about how to prepare for a possible conflict over Taiwan. The Financial Times earlier this year reported that the US had held contingency planning talks with the UK for the first time.”
US Interests Reorder the EU
There is also a re-ordering of relations within the EU. Those with longer memories will recall France and Germany standing back from the 2003 war against Iraq. George Bush and Tony Blair whipped themselves into ideological paroxysms, conjuring up a muscular, interventionist “new Europe” supportive of the invasion. Its stars were Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Jose Mara Aznar of Spain.
Once again, the US and its closest European allies are seeking to design new blocs and strategic faultiness across the continent. At their heart, a new pressure on Germany through the increasingly close relationship between the USA and Poland. In November 2022 the Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki presented his nation with a choice: “We can either fall victim to Russian domination and captivity or we can build up our defence potential quickly, together with our closest allies such as the USA, Great Britain and other NATO countries.”
As William Nattrass has elaborated: “Morawiecki framed Poland’s extraordinarily ambitious military expansion plans as a ‘duty’, which would see it increase defence spending from the current 2.4 percent of GDP to a final target of 5 percent, already going up to 3 percent next year. This would involve doubled troop numbers and massive investments in armaments.”
Prior to Putin’s invasion, Poland’s authoritarian government was subject to official condemnation by the EU establishment. But now it is a front-line state and a favoured ally of the US. A 15 November communication from the US Airforce HQ at Ramstein announced: “…an extensive bilateral effort between the U.S. Government and the Republic of Poland to increase U.S. troop presence in Poland, which was formalized in 2020 under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The agreement provides the legal means to support U.S. forces operating in Poland and defines 113 construction projects to build future infrastructure that could potentially accommodate up to 20,000 U.S. troops in Poland.”
That month a delegation of Polish infrastructure planners visited Ramstein, also home to NATO Allied Air Command. Ramstein is the United States’ most important hub in the European theatre. The Poles discussed the need to develop a “Ramstein East” capability, that will “allow US Army and Air Force movements to deploy directly to Poland”, and “showcase how the US projects power across the globe”.
This is only one of the projects being developed as part of the new, US-led military architecture of Europe. As Anna Mulrine has recorded:
“During a major NATO meeting in Madrid on June 29, President Biden announced that the U.S. will be sending warships to Spain, fighter jet squadrons to Great Britain, troops to Romania and the Baltics, and air defense systems to Germany and Italy.
“Temporary deployments of thousands of American troops to central and Eastern Europe following the Russian invasion of Ukraine brought the U.S. force levels on the continent to roughly 100,000, up from 80,000 before February.”
This should not be understood simply as a one-way process of US ‘colonisation’ of the European theatre. In the style of transnational organisations, European state elites – some more openly client in character to the US, and some more independent – are active participants in this process of massive re-militarisation.
As an analysis for the Foreign Policy Research Institute describes:
“With Sweden and Finland joining the alliance, numerous European nations increasing their defence expenditures, and Eastern Europeans upgrading from Soviet-era equipment as they donate the latter to Ukraine, a larger, more modernized NATO Eastern front is taking shape…
“Currently, there are about 40,000 troops under direct NATO command as part of the NATO Response Force, a multinational rapid reaction land, sea, and special operations force. US deployments consist of approximately 100,000 troops under Operation Atlantic Resolve. This means, according to the Congressional Research Service, that the United States deployed an additional 15,000 troops since February 2022. NATO members also increased their naval and air presence in Eastern Europe with over 130 allied fighter jets on high alert and more than 200 allied ships in the seas. Once Sweden and Finland join, their ground and air capabilities will boost NATO’s Nordic and Baltic posture substantially.”
Who will supply the demands created by increased military spending? For Poland and other Eastern European states it will be the USA.
In April this year Poland signed a deal worth about $4.75 billion to buy 250 M1A2 Abrams SEPv3 combat assault tanks from the United States. In September Poland requested 96 Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopters to be deployed in support of its 18th Mechanized Division.
Mariusz Błaszczak, who is both Deputy Prime Minister and the Polish Defence Minister, explained why Poland wanted to buy the helicopters: “This is because the 18th Division will be equipped with the Abrams tanks. These helicopters work great with Abrams tanks. Together, they constitute an enormous force.”
And it’s not just weapons. In October 2022 the Polish government announced it had chosen the U.S. government and Westinghouse to build its first nuclear power plant, at a cost of $40 billion. Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki explained: “A strong Poland-U.S. alliance guarantees the success of our joint initiatives.”
German re-armament is also being driven by US military manufactures, including for tactical nuclear war – an eventually really being considered in the Pentagon. Streeck again:
“The German air force maintains a fleet of Tornado bombers devoted to ‘nuclear participation’. The planes are said to be outdated, however, and during the coalition negotiations it was a non-negotiable demand of the incoming foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, that the Tornados be replaced as soon as possible with thirty-five American F35 stealth bombers. These are now being ordered and will likely be delivered in about five years, at a price of 8 billion euros, to the dismay of the French who had hoped to be cut into the deal. Maintenance and repairs are estimated to cost two or three times that during the lifetime of the planes.”
The militarisation of the EU also continues apace, and shares this feature of US influence. NATO’s 2022 Strategic Concept and the EU’s 2022 Strategic Compass laid out a concrete framework for strengthened EU-NATO cooperation, and key to this was homogenising European states’ weapons and war material, currently fragmented between countries. NATO’s Strategic Concepts demands: “… policy initiatives to increase defence spending and develop coherent, mutually reinforcing capabilities while avoiding unnecessary duplications.”
The duplication of hardware is a constant US concern – which demands increased military spending by EU states but insists this must be rationalised to reduce the multitude of different weaponry. This harmonisation would centrally involve the US’ favourite Europeans, the UK. The British state is one of the world’s leading arms manufacturers, and this special capacity is playing an important role in its re-convergence with the EU after Brexit. But America would still supply European states with things such as “air-to-air refuelling, strategic airlift, and reconnaissance and intelligence capacities.”
By pulling Germany closer to the heart of NATO and getting it to increase its military spending, Washington has effectively scuppered any plans for a European military force. NATO, under US hegemony, is the only game in town.
The notion that the EU can be a “third force” in a multi-polar world, even the broker between Washington and Beijing, is now dead. We are entering a bi-polar world (with one pole – the US – very much stronger) with the choice between two camps. To various degrees of enthusiasm European states have enrolled in Biden’s camp. NATO’s Strategic Concept also signs up European states to any potential conflict with China.
This is a consequence of the US’ sudden and simultaneous pivot against Russia and China. But it is also the culmination of a much longer process of European states decanting sovereignty to transnational organisations, and to the central US power, severing links with their own populations and civil societies in the process.
“After fifty years of sapped sovereignty, European states lack the material and imaginative resources for a counter-hegemonic project. Germany in particular has been further shackled to Atlanticism with each new crisis: Yugoslavia, the financial crash, Ukraine. ‘Sleepwalkers’ was the indelible term coined by Christopher Clark for the descent of the great powers into World War One. In the 2020s, the Europeans are wide awake, smiling and cheering, exulting in their ‘strategic autonomy’ as they are frogmarched towards the next global conflict for us primacy.”
A weakened UK clings ever more to Washington’s coat tails and, while the “special relationship” is not so special for Washington, it is important. The UK led the way in Europe in joining the US led military build-up in the South China Sea and the UK-US-Australian tie up to provide Canberra with nuclear submarines. Brexit was a blow both to the British establishment and to the US. Both view militarism as a road back to the status quo.
In Scotland the SNP-Green government has followed the prevailing Atlanticism which pervades Europe, and desperately pleads how an independent Scotland would be a great NATO ally of Washington.
We are witnessing an historic global re-alignment of force. The principal winner, so far, is the United States. After Russia, whose invasion of Ukraine was clearly misjudged and has issued in several setbacks, the western European powers are the big losers. Germany, the heart of the EU and the wider project to construct a third pole between the hegemonic US and a rising China, has ceded much to the re-assertion of US dominance.
History might record the war in Ukraine, the economic war and this wider re-alignment as a grand prequel to the US pivot towards China. Conflict with Russia, a declining power, has acted as an accelerant towards this looming conflict. Flashpoints between rivals are multiplying around the world, and Europe is being drawn increasingly towards the showdown in the south China sea and elsewhere. Britain will play a key role in this pivot. In the process, it will seek to re-integrate with its European allies, overcoming some of the post-Brexit ruptures from the transnationalist status quo.
The outlook is, therefore, a grim one. A global remilitarisation, led by the world’s hegemonic power, drawing its allies, patrons and clients into the vortex of geostrategic competition. Resistance to this war-drive is essential.