A new role for Germany?

Helmut Anheier reviews four new books on Germany's changing geopolitical role for Project Syndicate.

Across the West, policymakers are grappling with the implications of a rapidly changing world order and the deep uncertainties accompanying it. As four new books by leading German thinkers show, nowhere is the need for clarity and an honest self-reckoning more acute than in the land of Kant and Bismarck.

Sigmar Gabriel, Zeitenwende in der Weltpolitik: Mehr Verantwortung in ungewissen Zeiten (Epochal Change in World Politics: More Responsibility in Uncertain Times), Herder, 2018.

Wolfgang Ischinger, Welt in Gefahr: Deutschland und Europa in unsicheren Zeiten (The World in Danger: Germany and Europe in Uncertain Times), Econ, 2018.

Josef Joffe, Der gute Deutsche: Die Karriere einer moralischen Supermacht (The Good German: The Career of a Moral Superpower) C. Bertelsmann/Random House, 2018.

Andreas Rödder, Wer hat Angst vor Deutschland?: Geschichte eines europäischen Problems (Who’s Afraid of Germany?: The History of a European Problem), S. Fischer, 2018.

Last April, The Economist ran a cover story touting “Cool Germany” as a potential model for the rest of the West. What a difference two generations make. For most Germans who grew up in the post-1945 era, the country’s metamorphosis still comes as a complete surprise.

Germany consistently ranks high in international indexes. US News & World Report, for example, lists it as the world’s fourth most powerful country, ahead of the United Kingdom and France, and behind only the United States, Russia, and China. The University of Southern California’s Soft Power Index puts it at number three, after the UK and France, and ahead of the US. In terms of hard power, Germany falls to eighth place, after Japan and Turkey. But, given its aversion to militarization, Germany is in its comfort zone.

Because Germany could be more powerful if it wanted to be, experts and politicians in other countries increasingly expect it to contribute more to joint defense efforts. While Germany has long given US demands to increase its military spending lukewarm receptions at best, it has somewhat enlarged its active presence in conflict zones, yet on the whole, has shown little interest in moving up the hard-power ladder. Many in Germany recoil at the thought, arguing that it is better to remain less powerful than to risk one’s newfound likeability.

Germany’s preference, then, is to remain important while avoiding some of the unpleasant responsibilities that come with power, and to behave as though that its actions have less impact on its neighbors and allies than is actually the case. Despite 70 years of pro-European governments, consistent support for joint European initiatives, and a commitment to NATO, Germany has repeatedly acted unilaterally in its own national interest, while free-riding on matters of foreign and defense policy. Its Energiewende, or transition to low-carbon energy sources, and its response to the 2015 refugee crisis exemplify the former; its refusal to participate in interventions in Libya and Syria demonstrates the latter.

Viewed from abroad, Germany no doubt looks like a fair-weather friend of European integration. It has been happy to contribute a large – in fact, the largest – share of the European Union’s budget, provided that funds are spent on causes Germans find acceptable, and under the legitimizing auspices of the Franco-German alliance. At the same time, Germany’s widely accepted anti-militarism – rooted in its terrible past – has largely insulated it from having to participate in costly military interventions.

But this privileged arrangement is now being tested. The United Kingdom’s departure from the EU will mean the loss of one of the bloc’s major military powers. That, together with doubts about US President Donald Trump’s commitment to mutual defense, the pressure on Germany to increase its contribution to European security will mount. Moreover, French President Emmanuel Macron’s push for EU-level reforms indicates that intra-European politics are quickly changing. The question is whether Germany – where pacifism is something close to a civic religion and many attribute prosperity to the country’s long absence from geopolitical power games – is prepared to change, too.

Overcoming the Goldilocks problem

Germany’s uncertainty about its future role is a dominant theme in the four books under review. In Zeitenwende in der Weltpolitik: Mehr Verantwortung in ungewissen Zeiten, Sigmar Gabriel, a former German vice-chancellor and leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), surveys today’s geopolitical shifts and argues that Europe, and especially Germany, must shoulder more responsibility, or risk losing global influence.

Gabriel is highly critical of Trump and the neo-nationalists who have come to power in Central and Eastern European countries in recent years. And he abhors the political brinkmanship that led to Brexit and the weakening of the European project. But he also lays much of the blame for today’s upheavals at the feet of Russia and China. In the new world order of “multilateralism à la carte,” the US has withdrawn, the EU has proved incapable of filling the void, and Russia and China have increasingly pursued their geopolitical ambitions, despite domestic weaknesses.

Gabriel laments that Russia, China, and now the US evince such little interest in positive-sum outcomes. With the major powers increasingly pursuing narrow national interests, international relations are being driven by shallow opportunism. The result is that the world is becoming more fractured just when it needs to come together to confront challenges like climate change and migration.

Drawing on his deep experience in politics and government, Gabriel offers a number of concrete suggestions for how Europe and Germany can manage the new age of uncertainty. For starters, he calls on Germany to build new diplomatic bridges, and to repair old ones, particularly with Russia. His ideal model is West Germany’s policy of Ostpolitik (détente) in the 1960s and 1970s, when small, strategic acts of engagement with East Germany led to larger change. He reminds us that there is more to Russia than its president, Vladimir Putin. The EU need only open its eyes to the opportunities for engagement both within and apart from the Kremlin.

With respect to China, Gabriel believes the EU should seek to contain its influence within the bloc. Of particular concern is China’s purchase of strategically important European companies. Rather than becoming overly reliant on others, Europe, he argues, should present itself as the great civic power of the twenty-first century. It should act as a counterweight not just to China and Russia, but also to autocracies everywhere.

Specifically, Gabriel envisages a modernized social model based on classical liberal principles and the rule of law, but with distinct social-democratic features. He hastens to add that such a model must include stronger borders and stricter migration controls. But is Gabriel – or Germany – prepared to secure Europe’s external borders with hard power if that’s what it takes? Unfortunately, he doesn’t say.

Accepting reality … and responsibility

For his part, Wolfgang Ischinger, a doyen of Germany’s foreign service and chair of the Munich Security Conference, has written an engaging and insightful analysis of the emerging world order Gabriel describes. As the title makes clear, Welt in Gefahr: Deutschland und Europa in unsicheren Zeiten (The World in Danger: Germany and Europe in Uncertain Times) channels deep concerns about current international developments.

Like Gabriel, Ischinger is adamant that Germany must recognize itself as a grown-up country with a duty to assume more responsibility on the world stage. Outsourcing its defense to the US will no longer do. Yes, the postwar American security guarantee allowed Germany to grow into the successful medium-size power that it is today; indeed, few countries have profited more from Pax Americana and globalization. But, as Ischinger makes clear, that world no longer exists.

Unlike Gabriel, Russia and China, Ischinger argues, should be viewed strictly as strategic competitors, and he calls on Germany’s leaders to deepen the country’s ties with the US. To that end, he acknowledges German free-riding on security matters and argues for higher military spending. Moreover, he points out that neither Trump nor Trumpism will last forever. In the meantime, Europeans should be reaching out to other parts of the US political and civil-society establishments, in order to prepare for an eventual return to multilateralism.

Ischinger is more critical than Gabriel of Germany’s hesitant response to Macron’s overtures. What good is Germany’s consistently balanced budget (the schwarze Null, or “black zero”) do if the rest of the EU disintegrates? Europe, he observes, needs investment, and Germany has a responsibility to contribute disproportionately to such outlays, for the simple reason that it benefits disproportionately from EU membership.

In other words, the European project will cost more. But, according to Ischinger, those costs will pay off in the form of improved security and greater prosperity. More than simply spending more, though, Germany must collaborate with France in developing a strategic culture centered on shared values, not just economic interests. Here, Germany needs to come to terms with reality: without military power, Franco-German and European strategic objectives will remain merely aspirational.

Finally, Ischinger urges Germany to show more interest in how others view its policies and decisions. It is neither practical nor reasonable for Germans to insist that the Greek government adhere to strict austerity measures while Germany nonchalantly shirks its own defense-spending obligations. In Ischinger’s view, German leaders have consistently underestimated the extent to which such double standards undermine EU policies, to say nothing of Germany’s own credibility as a regional power.

Struggling toward wisdom

Josef Joffe, an editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and a senior fellow at Stanford University, would probably agree with Ischinger on the need for more strategic realism. In Der gute Deutsche: Die Karriere einer moralischen Supermacht (The Good German: The Career of a Moral Superpower), he argues that Europe can protect itself only when Germany does its part.

The implication is that Germany must defy its own civic religion and abandon its role as a moral, civic power for that of a “normal” power with military might at its disposal. But is Germany even capable of such a voluntary self-transformation? Joffe suspects not, and predicts that the country will continue to stress soft over hard power. No doubt, that will come as a reassurance to anyone who has suffered at the hands of a very different Germany in the past.

Joffe, whose writing is never short on wit and irony, knows that it is risky to portray any country as a moral power – and especially one that many saw as the embodiment of evil not so long ago. Following in the Atlanticist tradition of German politicians like Kurt Biedenkopf and Friedrich Merz, Joffe describes Germany’s development as a Bildungsroman. As in the coming-of-age novels by Goethe and Dickens, Germany is like a young person who has had to confront difficult challenges and tests of character on the way to maturity and wisdom.

In Joffe’s telling, Germany has already undergone the difficult process of deciding who it wants to be. He describes the integration with – and partial submission to – Western allies in the 1950s as a youthful learning period. Then came the wandering adolescent years, when Germany faced up to its past through the Frankfurt Auschwitz trials of the 1960s, explored the possibilities of Ostpolitik in the 1970s, and implemented unpopular NATO policies in the 1980s. Finally, with the peaceful reunification of the 1990s, Germany reached adulthood.

To arrive at its current point, Germany has stood history on its head. Bismarck had to fight three wars before Germany was recognized as a major European power, and Wilhelm II and Hitler visited death and misery on millions in failed efforts to achieve hegemony. Yet now, Germany finds itself in a de facto leadership position without having fired a single shot. For Joffe, the heroes of German history are not its warriors, but rather the sober, steady leaders of the pacified postwar Federal Republic.

Us vs. us

The question now is whether Germany’s fortuitous position vis-à-vis Europe represents too much of a good thing. Andreas Rödder, a historian and professor at Johannes Gutenberg University in Mainz, would probably contend that it does. Germany’s lucky break in achieving prosperity and respectability, he suggests, does not make it a moral superpower, because its virtue is so lacking in virtuosity.

Germany, after all, has as many petty quibbles with its neighbors as they do with it. From Immanuel Kant’s peaceful world order to Bismarck’s power politics, its reputation abroad has been mixed at best. At the same time, Germany’s view of its neighbors has long oscillated between a sense of victimhood and an equally ingrained sense of superiority. For example, while Germany plays the victim when confronted with Polish and Greek demands for World War II reparations, many Germans believe that Europe would be better off if Italians and Greeks behaved more like Germans

In Wer hat Angst vor Deutschland?: Geschichte eines europäischen Problem (Who’s Afraid of Germany?: The History of a European Problem), Rödder highlights a deep disconnect between Europe and Germany. In his telling, the views of Germany and its neighbors are aligned neither with one another nor with reality. As with France, Germany’s relationship with Poland is vital; Poles are the largest immigrant group in Germany. But Germany has invested little in strengthening its ties with Poland, few Germans learn Polish, and the German public’s knowledge of Poland is limited, even though Berlin is a mere 40 miles (70 kilometers) from the border.

Rödder uses the German-Polish disconnect to underscore his main point: throughout modern history, Europeans’ perceptions of one another have frequently been manipulated for domestic political gain. Since the seventeenth century, prejudices have tended to be constructed to serve a small cohort of political elites in Germany, Poland, France, England, and Italy. In a work that is as much sociology as it is history, Rödder shows that in-groups and out-groups often intentionally misperceive the other. Such willful misreading has facilitated many of the calamities of European history.

But how can Europeans overcome their deeply ingrained views of “the French,” “the English,” and “the Germans”? Are unfavorable stereotypes of others necessary to establish one’s own identity? Rödder suggests several ways forward. First, European countries need to discard their self-serving narratives. Germany, for example, should abandon its perception of itself as the “paymaster of Europe.” Greece should stop blaming others for its problems. Poland should stop framing its position between Russia and Germany as a source of perpetual disadvantage. And the UK must accept the fact that no empire lasts forever.

Similarly, all Europeans need to identify and eliminate double standards with respect to shared responsibilities. Here, Rödder evokes Bismarck, who in 1876 observed that politicians tend to lean on the idea of Europe when demanding from others what they would dare not demand from their own domestic constituents. This rings just as true today as it did then.

Making Europe work 

In light of Brexit and the emergence of “illiberal democracies” in Central and Eastern Europe, Rödder wants Europeans to dispense with the idea that the EU is a “monopolist” that must crowd out other institutions and forms of cooperation. Accordingly, he envisions Europe as a system of flexible alliances.

For example, a security alliance between France, Germany, and the UK – and perhaps Poland, Italy, and Spain – could facilitate military integration, even after the UK leaves. Likewise, there could be smaller “eurozones” comprising countries at similar stages of development (so, in answer to the Hanseatic League, there might be a Mediterranean Union).

In short, Rödder is advocating Europe à la carte – an idea that has long been supported by the UK and opposed by Germany and France, usually for the wrong reasons. Despite these long-held positions, a shift toward a multi-speed, multi-level Europe now seems more likely today than it did a decade ago, and might well define the next chapter of European history.

Needless to say, such a change would require a stronger, more assertive Germany, operating both at the EU core and within various alliances. Rather than a German Europe, we would have a European Germany serving as a predictable power capable of ensuring peace, just as Kant would have liked.

This review was originally published on Project Syndicate.

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