By Parke Nicholson
This June, the G-7 will meet in an opulent castle near Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. It was initially built, according to the host’s website, for an “egocentric zealot” who sought to convert Jews to Christianity. Schloss Elmau has since become a spa and cultural center, but the lofty location seems somehow like an appropriate reflection of the inflated discussion in recent years about Germany’s role in the world.
Many observers have rushed to proclaim Germany’s rise to prominence. U.S. academic Walter Russell Mead recently ranked Germany as the second most powerful member of the G-7. A survey by the British magazine Monocle determined that Germany’s “soft power” rivals that of the United States. Most recently, Germany’s own renewable energy transition has prompted columnist Tom Friedman to praise the country as the world’s first “green superpower.”
It is indeed a good time to be a Germanophile. The country remains Europe’s largest market and now exports as many goods as the United States. Berlin has played the key role in managing Europe’s financial crisis as well as its security crisis with Russia. Germany’s national soccer team is also the reigning world champion (no small matter to most countries outside of North America). Chancellor Angela Merkel is regarded as the top-performing democratic leader in the world.
A picture of a soccer player is projected on a wall with graffiti and greetings by soccer fans in Dortmund, June 13, 2006.
Yet Germany’s recent success has led to unrealistic expectations about its power. Its strong economic ties with Russia and China have done little to hinder those countries’ authoritarian turns and military assertiveness. Its energy transition toward renewables (Energiewende) has remained popular at home, but by itself, it has not fundamentally transformed international energy markets or convinced other countries to abandon nuclear power. Nor can Germany truly shape, let alone protect, open markets for its goods without the backbone of U.S. military power.
GERMANY’S SOFTER SIDE
Germany has excelled for decades at developing its soft power. It is known for its luxury automobiles, chemical products, and high-tech machinery. But its “softer” exports—such as its approach to education, energy, finance, law, and scientific research—have won it fans as well. Funding for cultural, academic, and technical exchanges boosts its popularity and also complements German commercial interests.
In pursuit of these ends, the country has established a wide range of official dialogues with countries outside Europe. Besides its “special relationships” with Israel, France, and the United States, Germany has looked beyond the G-7 to establish nine so-called strategic partnerships with other powerful economies (Australia, Brazil, China, India, Indonesia, Russia, South Africa, the United Arab Emirates, and Vietnam).
It isn’t surprising, then, that U.S. President Barack Obama referred to Germany’s skilled work force in his 2013 State of the Union address. Chinese President Xi Jinping obliquely lauded Germany last year for helping his country narrow the quality gap between “Made in Germany” and “Made in China.” At a recent New York meeting of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, former World Bank President Robert Zoellick stated that Germany is “on the frontier of contending ideas about the future of the world.”
More seriously, the government’s most recent foreign policy doctrine states the relatively grand aim of adapting the existing global order to the interests of newGestaltungsmächte (shaping powers). Dialogue with these regional powers will eventually convince them of European values, to “crave a sense of Ordnung[orderliness],” and lead to a convergence of interests.
Yet the strategy says little about how to persuade, let alone force the participation of, actors with limited interest in a Western-led order. Neither Russia nor China seems particularly keen to uphold the carefully built institutions and norms established after World War II, especially when those norms conflict with their regional interests. Middle Eastern states are fixated on their own internal conflicts and maintaining a regional balance of power. In these contexts, international institutions must be continually shaped to meet new realities.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras leave after addressing a news conference following talks at the Chancellery in Berlin March 23, 2015.
Explanations for German foreign policy vary. A cynical view would suggest that German leaders are captive to the country’s business lobby, which will lead it to simply bow to the preferences of important export markets. The country’s self-perception as “Europe’s chief facilitator” also means that it tries to be perceived as not dominating the EU’s 28 member states (but ask a Greek about Germany’s success in that regard). Germany naturally protects its business interests and prefers “leading from the middle,” but its caution in responding to crises reflects a leadership that is simply unprepared to take the risks needed to address them.
Given the difficulties of prioritizing crises in a chaotic international environment and the limitations of traditional German foreign policy, it is little wonder that the leadership defaults to a reactive posture. In a much-discussed speech last year, President Joachim Gauck tried to explain to his countrymen why sitting on the sidelines of world crises should be an “exception” rather than a default:
"Let us thus not turn a blind eye, not run from threats, but instead stand firm, not forget, neglect or betray universal values, but instead uphold these values together with our friends and partners. Let us be seen to be living by them, let us defend them.”
Speeches by others in the German cabinet, however, have focused more on simply living up to “what others expect of us” rather than setting out the country’s priorities. Merkel has characteristically let others do the talking and, even after a decade in office, has not offered a wide-ranging foreign policy speech. Although Merkel may have taken on the role as the West’s interlocutor with Russian President Vladimir Putin, she is likely waiting to see if the public will accept much more.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel and leader of the Christian Democratic Union party CDU stands in front of her election campaign tour bus before a CDU board meeting in Berlin September 16, 2013.
For example, Germany is often singled out for its meager defense spending. Although Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently announced a six percent increase in defense spending over the next five years, much of this will replace aging equipment and infrastructure, and overall spending will remain small relative to the country’s size. More frustrating to American observers, however, is the government’s reluctance to openly discuss security challenges and commit to planning for future contingencies. This is odd given that Germany provided the third-largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan and well over 200,000 soldiers to international peacekeeping missions since 1993.
Better intelligence and “smarter” defense don’t amount to much, however, if responsibility for foreign policy remains scattered across the government. The government has long relied on the division of labor between a minority coalition partner in the Foreign Ministry and only a few dozen people coordinating foreign issues in the Chancellery. This consensus structure is meant to safeguard against abuse of power but can also lead to policy drift on contentious issues ranging from arms sales to developing countries, Turkish membership in the EU, and the use of the military to respond to international crises.
There were hopes that a recent review of German foreign policy by Social Democratic Party leader and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier would address this structural deficiency. Unfortunately, Merkel herself wasn’t deeply involved with the project, which proposed little beyond reforming a few office procedures anyway. It is unlikely that Germany will ever develop its own equivalent of the U.S. National Security Council, but relying instead on ad hoc crisis management will leave the country sitting on the sidelines.
peromaneste: Centrul nu pare satisfacut de evolutia Germaniei in concertul liberal-democratiilor. Ce mai poate face acum, la mai bine de 2 decade dupa reunificarea germana facuta in pofida parerilor franco-britanice? Mai ales in conditiile disiparii legitimitatii centrului in conflicte fara victorie si sfarsit si ale unei economii de sistem in degringolada. Bucurestiul nu exista la nivelul asta decat cel mult ca un pion sacrificabil pe una din multiplele directii ale jocului.
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