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The Myth of a Mighty Germany

Berlin Isn't as Powerful as You Think

Balloons made by the 'ONE' campaign depicting leaders of the countries members of the G-7 are seen in front of the Frauenkirche cathedral, May 27, 2015. The balloons show Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (R), British Prime Minister David Cameron (5th L), French President Francois Hollande (2nd R), German Chancellor Angela Merkel (4th L), U.S. President Barack Obama (2nd L), Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (3rd L) and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper (L). Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters

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.
A picture of a soccer player is projected on a wall with graffiti and greetings by soccer fans in Dortmund, June 13, 2006. Andrea Comas / Reuters

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.

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