Though no longer the chief delinquent of Europe—and though not much thought is given to its strategic position—Germany is still Europe's center of gravity, territorially contiguous to more nations than any state except Russia, with compact interior lines of communication, Western Europe's largest population, and Europe's leading economy.
Facts like these assert themselves through every kind of historical fluctuation, even if America now sees Germany, the way-stop for airlifters en route to Iraq and Afghanistan, as a kind of giant aircraft carrier with sausages. But Germany is no doubt the subject of far deeper consideration on the one hand by Russia and on the other by jihadists.
The line from Paris to Moscow, which has been traveled from west to east by the French, east to west by the Russians, and in both directions by the Germans, is a road that invariably attracts continental powers on the brink of military predominance whether in fact or the imagination. During the Cold War it was responsibly fortified and blocked, but no longer. Whereas in 1989 we kept in Europe 325,000 troops, 5,000 tanks, 25 operating air bases, and 1,000 combat aircraft, we now keep approximately a fifth of that. Whereas the West Germans in 1989 could field a half-million men and 5,000 tanks, they now can deploy less than half that number.
As the Soviet Union dissolved, much of its military capacity followed it into oblivion. But as Western Europe dismantles its militaries, Russia builds, encouraged as much by European pacifism as by the Russian view of America's struggle in Iraq as a parallel to the Soviets' fatal involvement in Afghanistan. Like Germany between the wars, Russia is now eager and determined to reconstitute its forces, and with its new-found oil wealth, it is doing so.
How fortuitous for it, then, that the United States is expending military capital without replenishment, and Europe has spiritually resigned from its own defense, with Germany, for example, now devoting only 1.4% of its GDP to the task. Having been deeply humiliated in recent years, Russia is sure to seek redress if not in action then at least in the power to act. Nations behave this way, it has always been so, and as the balance of power in Europe and the world is shifting, Germany, the strategic gate to Western Europe and by its nature and position that which stabilizes or disrupts the continent, sleeps and dreams unaware.
Germany must fascinate the jihadists, too—not for displacing America as the prime target, but as the richest target least defended. Though it will never happen, they believe that Islam will conquer the world, and so they try. Unlike the U.S., Europe is not removed from them by an ocean, and in it are 50 million of their co-religionists among whom they can disappear and find support. Perhaps out of habit, Europe is also kind to mass murderers, who if caught spend a few years in a comfortable prison sharpening their resolve before they are released to fight again. In July the French sentenced eight terrorists connected to the murder of 45 people to terms ranging from one year, suspended, to ten years. In Spain, with 191 dead and 1,800 wounded, the worst offender will spend no more than 40 years behind soft bars. Though in 2003 Germany found a September 11th facilitator guilty of 3,066 counts of accessory to murder and sentenced him to seven years (20 hours per person), he was recently retried and sentenced to 43 hours per person, not counting parole.
But more importantly, the variations in European attitudes and capabilities vis-à-vis responding to terrorism or nuclear blackmail are what make Germany such an attractive target. Unlike the U.S., France, and Britain, Germany is a major country with no independent expeditionary capability and no nuclear weapons, making it ideal for a terrorist nuclear strike or Iranian extortion if Iran is able to continue a very transparent nuclear policy to its logical conclusion. Though it is conceivable that after the shock of losing Washington or Chicago, the U.S.—or Britain after Birmingham, France after Lyons—would, even without an address certain, release a retaliatory strike, it is very unlikely that, even with an address certain, any nuclear power would launch in behalf of another nation, NATO ally or not, absent an explicit arrangement such as the dual-key structure during the Cold War.
Looking at Germany, then, Iran sees a country with nothing to counter the pressure of merely an implied nuclear threat. Jihadists see the linchpin of Europe, easy of access and inadvertently hospitable to operations, that will hardly punish those who fall into its hands, and that can neither accomplish on its own a flexible expeditionary response against a hostile base or sponsor, nor reply in kind to a nuclear strike. Thus the German government should be especially nervous about cargos trucked overland from the east.
What might be done? NATO could abandon the mistaken belief that Europe, having seen the end of history and the end of war, will always be in the clear. It could publicly make known to Russia that, for the purpose of maintaining the balance of power necessary to keep the gate to Western Europe closed and the prospects of war dim, it will judiciously and proportionally match Russian military expansion.
For its own protection, and thus that of Europe, Germany could more closely integrate and where appropriate reintegrate itself into the expeditionary and nuclear retaliatory structures of the U.S., Britain, and France, without moving nuclear weapons forward to German soil; end leniency for terrorists; step up defensive measures as if it is just about to be hit; and embrace limited missile defense against potentially nuclear-armed Iranian IRBMs rather than accept the Russian thesis that ten interceptors will perturb the nuclear equation.
What are the chances of this? Though the West comprises the richest grouping of nations the world has ever seen, it has somehow come to believe not only that it is not entitled to its customary defenses but that it cannot afford them. And looking ahead strategically so as to outmaneuver crisis and war has, unfortunately, long been out of fashion.