Small World: Learning our lessons from others

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht

BN Columnist

Last week, I attended a lecture on the challenges facing Germany delivered by a ranking officer of that embassy. Her remarks easily led to reflection — despite the distractions of spring with flowers bursting forth on trees, bushes and bulbs. Much easier to doze off, coaxed by sweet breezes. But no rest when a lesson or two beckon.

My first reflection was, “My, how times and countries can change.” I am old enough to remember how Germany was the deservedly hated enemy in World War II. And my father could remember how — somewhat less deservedly — a bitter enemy in World War I. Now, lacking that fierce war-making power and a leadership of fanatics replaced by sensible and future-sensing women and men, Germany is the most responsible of nations.

The officer remarked that some of the many refugees from Afghanistan, who are being taken in by Germany are being accommodated in barracks vacated by troops sent as part of the NATO mission to make war on the Taliban — a war which is causing misery for the Afghan people. Ironic. Germany has a small, limited mission in Afghanistan; it has given a large, only recently restrained welcome to that nation’s refugees. More recently it has bargained with Turkey to hold back the flood of refugees from Syria in exchange for cash and privileges awarded to Ankara.

Restraint, diplomacy and pragmatism are the command words for German policy nowadays. There is also sensitivity to the dimly lit future — especially the unintended consequences that might be hidden there. Our speaker discussed the “youth bulge” that lies ahead in the world’s south — the growth of population in lands ill-equipped to give jobs, housing, welfare to so many millions of young people. Thus, the flood of refugees from these burdened lands will not end soon. Germans have better prepared themselves for dealing with their own youth (who are in short supply). The government sponsors apprentice programs for all who don’t take the college route.

I asked the speaker about the challenge of Russia and its aggression against Ukraine. Chancellor Merkel knows those two countries well, having grown up in communist-controlled East Germany before unification. Those days she traveled often in the lands to the east. The West may not like Russia’s Putin but there is no figure waiting in the Moscow’s wings to take his place. Too much pressure on Russia via sanctions and military bluster could lead to internal collapse and then what? Probably chaos — and yet another surging tsunami of refugees.

Another challenge very much on the minds of official Germans — if not discussed publicly — comes from the American elections. While a new President Clinton would presumably follow the well-trod path of past policies and NATO, Mr. Trump in the White House would certainly require rethinking and adjustments in Berlin. Too skilled a diplomat to speculate on that future, our speaker probably has no better idea than we Americans as to what might lie ahead.

And so, before your attention span snaps, what lessons are to be drawn from the German experience? Of course, the comparison is flawed: Germany is a regional power. The United States exercises global responsibilities. Germany is preoccupied with the problems at home and in Europe. We worry about every continent and seek to manage them all. One lesson that we should have mastered in recent decades is that we aren’t equipped by history or skills or public backing to take on the problems of distant worlds. In my view, we have enough problems on our home continent to keep us occupied for quite awhile.

This is a lesson we should — and some did — learn after Vietnam. Then, there was post-grad work in Afghanistan and Iraq. Failed lessons, alas, for we remain tangled in Syria, Yemen and Libya. We aren’t, make no mistake, simply a continental power, but we need to be more selective in choosing and taking on problems beyond our reach and ken. We can’t always shape the future, as we would like. Some times, we can’t even see it clearly.

Germany learned its lessons the hard — very hard — way. All we need is reflection, debate and sensible leaders (and an understanding and supportive public).

Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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