Empires are continually confronted with the prospect of rebellions: that is one of the occupational hazards of imperialism. The Romans had to contend with those contentious Judeans, whose revolt arguably gave rise to one of the word’s great religions. The British lost control of their American colonies to a motley crew of libertarians. And now the Americans, in turn, are struggling with … well, something quite different.
The historical pattern follows the old Roman/British tradition: the imperial power launches a campaign to acquire territory, it conquers its enemies, and occupies the vanquished nation(s). The goal is not only to take new lands and spread the authority of the State beyond its traditional boundaries, but also to extract wealth from the defeated in the form of taxes, raw goods, and markets closed to competitors.
In the case of the American Empire, however, things have been turned on their heads, and nothing dramatizes this bizarre inversion more than the conflict now playing out between the US and, principally, Germany over the future of the NATO alliance.
When President Donald Trump, on his first overseas tour, lectured the assembled NATO-crats on their failure to pay their “fair share” of the alliance’s costs, the looks on their faces were a study in contemptuous annoyance. When he failed to reassert Washington’s commitment to Article Five of the NATO treaty, it was as if the Pope had refuted the divinity of Christ. The failure to reach accord on trade and “climate change” exacerbated the split in the Western alliance, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel was quick to respond.
“Speaking in a packed beer tent in Munich on Sunday, after a Group of Seven summit in Sicily and a NATO meeting in Brussels – both dominated by tensions with Trump – Merkel spoke with surprising frankness.
"’The times when we could fully count on others are over to a certain extent. I have experienced this in the last few days,’ Merkel said.
"’We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States, in friendship with Great Britain, with other neighbors wherever possible, also with Russia,’ she continued.
"’But we must know that we need to fight for our future ourselves, as Europeans, for our destiny.’"
Merkel’s contention that the US – and, secondarily, Britain – cannot be “counted on” raises the question: counted on to do what? Since Germany has failed to fulfill its obligation to increase military spending to at least 2 percent of GDP, Merkel’s complaint opens her up to the charge of hypocrisy. Aside from that, however, one has to launch a more fundamental inquiry: isn’t the destiny of a nation always in the hands of its own citizens?
Well, no, it isn’t always so. A conquered nation, one that has been defeated in battle and subsumed by a foreign occupier, has lost control of its destiny – and that was certainly the case for Germany after World War II, when it was divided into zones of occupation by the victorious Allied powers, and only half reunited during the long cold war with the Soviet Union.
The fall of Soviet communism, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, and the reunification of Germany ushered in a new era, one that is only now starting to be reflected in the geopolitical arrangements of post-cold war Europe. It took a while – politicians always lag far behind changing realities – but history has now caught up with the NATO-crats, who find that the rationale for their existence has evaporated under their feet.
Despite the barrage of Atlanticist propaganda disgorged daily from the media,the thinktanks and the special interests that fund them, there is no possibility that the Russians are about to march into Paris – or even Warsaw. The Russian “threat” is a bogeyman, and not a very convincing one at that. When John McCain opines that Putin is a bigger threat to the West than ISIS, one wonders if the families of those killed and maimed in Manchester – or any of the other dozens of European cities hit by terrorists – would agree with him.
The original foundations of the NATO alliance were built on alleged military necessity: now that this argument is no longer viable, the NATO-crats are struggling to build new foundations that are fundamentally political – the creation of a European super-state. Of course, these two concepts are historically linked: the European project – aided and in large part originated by the US – was born as a adjunct to and in support of NATO as a bulwark against the spread of Soviet influence. Yet the campaign to create a European “patriotism,” a sense of nationality out of the disparate peoples of the continent, was always buttressed by the one factor that all nations depend on: fear. Fear, that is, of conquest by outsiders, aliens who would ride roughshod over their lands and traditions.
With the disappearance of the Soviet Union, this fear has largely dissipated. After all, the Russians are arguably half-European, at the very least: they are less alien than, say, the Turks, who enjoy NATO membership. During the cold war, the prospect of being assimilated into the Soviet borg conjured visions of the cultural transformation – and ruin – of ancient societies. Absent the ideological other-ness of “Putinism,” whatever that may be, no one imagines that Russian soldiers are about to rampage across Europe, burning non-Orthodox churches and forcing everyone to memorize Putin’s favorite aphorisms.
And so the European project is now reduced to a cold abstraction: the effort to create a sense of “European-ness” over and above the traditional national identities. This campaign was decisively defeated in Britain: Brexit buried it, and populist insurgencies from Catalonia to Hungary threaten to upend it once and for all. In Britain, the London-based elites marched with EU flags, but this abstruse allegiance was rejected by ordinary people, i.e. the working class, and the same pattern is persistent throughout Europe.
Merkel’s reassertion of Germany’s “destiny” as the product of its own exertions may make her European neighbors nervous: after all, such invocations conjure unfortunate historical allusions that may, in themselves, lead to the further deterioration of the European project. Aside from that, however, her remarks illustrate the trade-off that Atlanticism, so-called, involved: the Europeans placed their destiny in Washington’s hands in return for what they imagined to be military and economic security.
What this meant, in concrete terms, was the presence of American troops on German soil – at a cost of billions, paid for by us – in exchange for Berlin luxuriating under the US nuclear umbrella. The terms of this rather lopsided bargain allowed them to pour resources into an extensive welfare state that is now taking in hundreds of thousands of refugees from America’s wars in the Middle East. It also meant favorable – i.e. one-sided – trade agreements with Washington, which allowed, say, German cars to flood the US market while keeping their tariff and regulatory walls high enough to keep out American competitors.
Similar arrangements were created in Eastasia, where the Asian “tigers” – South Korea, Japan, Taiwan – traded their separate destinies for one-way “free trade” and security guarantees.
This reversed the historical pattern followed by empires of the past: instead of looting our conquered provinces, they looted us. Rather than exploiting our conquests, we were exploited by them. It was a Bizarro World version of imperialism, in which everything went out and nothing came in. In the process, dozens of tripwires were erected, any one of which could set off another world war.
This was rationalized during the cold war era as the only alternative to subjugation by Moscow, but today – despite the best efforts of the Democratic party and John McCain to resurrect the cold war – that rhetoric rings hollow. The “empire of the bottomless purse,” as the writer Garet Garrett dubbed our postwar imperium, has reached the end of its supposedly limitless generosity: the purse is empty, and the empire is facing foreclosure.
So I say: let Germany have its destiny back. It was never ours to begin with. And let us take our own destiny back from the hands of our shiftless, lazy, back-stabbing “allies.” The lesson of this chapter in our history – which is coming to a close, despite Merkel’s tears and those of our Atlanticists – is that empires oppress not only the conquered, but also the conquerors.
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NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.