Germany must deliver Leopard tanks to Ukraine

The story catches up with me. In my last two notes, I wrote variously about the tendency for some writers to use the opening line from Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities … ‘it was the best of times the worst of times’ and ChatGPT’s ability to write essays and speeches.

On Monday I dug up an old speech by Xi Jinping – and to my horror I found that it contained the phrase “the best of times the worst of times”, and it was written in such a balanced, anodyne way, with a obviously appeals to the western reader, that it must have been written by a ChatGPT engine – the Chinese are apparently years ahead thus here.

The speech in question is worth dwelling on. It was given at Davos in 2017, just a few days before Donald Trump was inaugurated. As America grappled with the reality of Trump’s election victory, Xi Jinping came to Davos to call for globalization for China and to place China at the forefront of the world order.

China is number one

After the speech, I watched the US CEO walk out of the meeting, partly in shock and mostly in recognition that China’s time had come. It should have been the beginning of an era for China, but instead it was the beginning of the end for globalization. Xi’s autocracy, China’s hunger for productivity-enhancing technologies and Trump’s outspoken, if infantile, rejection of China all opened a sharp divide between the world’s two largest economies.

The Davos crowd is still debating whether globalization has simply changed its spots or stripes, but I think the broader consensus view is that it is being replaced by a multipolar world order (of large regions ‘doing things’ increasingly differently).

What is much less of a consensus view is the intensity of the strategic competition between the US and China, and increasingly Europe. At the moment, Europe’s attitude reminds me of Iriving Kristol’s description of a neoliberal as “a liberal who was robbed of reality but has not pressed charges”. Europe is being robbed of the reality of strategic competition, but has not quite decided how to proceed.

Armed with this insight, I took my soapbox up the “magic mountain” last week. As always, Davos is a mix of James Bond and ‘The Pink Panther’ (á la Peter Sellers), with elegant safety combined with the rich and famous gliding around on the snow.

DAVOS

On Wednesday we had a very good discussion (thanks to Creative Dock and Roland Berger) around the implications of “strategic competition” for European companies. The audience consisted mostly of German and Swiss business people, so I, diplomatic as always, wasted no time wading into the subject of German politics (I was greatly outnumbered by experts on the subject).

Today, more than any other European country, Germany embodies the dilemma faced by many nations of being “forced to choose sides”. After spending decades managing and cultivating relations with European neighbors and countries such as Turkey and Russia, Germany must now choose.

It has to choose between being economically and politically close to the US, and commercially tied to China, more than it realizes. In various ways, it comes under pressure from the United States, and at the same time is exposed to a charm offensive from China.

Within German politics, there are also several distortions – the Greens agree to coal mining and the sale of weapons is an example, and traditional relations with the likes of France are cracking. Perhaps German politicians believed that its economic power would make it diplomatically influential, which it certainly was – but it has now become a liability.

The debate over the delivery of Leopard tanks to Ukraine undermines the credibility of Germany, and especially its leader Olaf Scholz. He appears to be the latest in a long line of generally impressive German leaders since the 1960s. If he believes that his indecision will create an environment in which negotiations become likely, then he is seriously mistaken – morally and strategically.

The indecision in Berlin is a fitting reminder of the lack of decisive policy during the eurozone crisis. I also do not expect, nor am I an expert here, that the German public realizes the extent to which the political mood has changed in the West and what other nations now expect from Germany.

Before I single Germany out too much, I also acknowledge that Ireland may also be on the brink of a similar geopolitical dilemma. On a per capita basis, it has one of the best and most effective diplomatic services in the world, and a very large store of soft power. However, it has ignored the creation of a proper defense and security policy, and compared to other small nations (such as Denmark), it actually has no hard defense capability. It is the opposite of Israel – lots of soft power and little hard power.

The cases of Germany and Ireland show how crises arise – broad policies are neglected for years (often for good reasons), and then a shift in world order makes demands on them that cannot be met.

We are now living the great geopolitical “assault”.

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