Fabrizio Bensch / Reuters 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).

The Myth of a Mighty Germany

Berlin Isn't as Powerful as You Think

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.

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.”

The country’s influence is strongest within Europe, but even there it may find itself powerless to prevent Greece or the United Kingdom from leaving the EU. Germany has thus largely succeeded in boosting its international image as a benign and competent country, but it is difficult to see how its soft power has led to actual outcomes. For one, all of this exchange has not necessarily increased interest in the country’s language or culture—over the past 15 years (since 2000), there has been a 25 percent drop in the number of German-language learners worldwide.

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 new Gestaltungsmächte (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.

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.

Germany has intermittently proposed reform of the United Nations Security Council with Brazil and India but pulls back when its risks antagonizing the veto powers. Merkel has condemned Russian actions in Crimea as “criminal” and chastised China for not settling its claims in the seas around its borders through international arbitration but generally prefers the status quo in its broader bilateral relationship with both countries. The country’s influence is strongest within Europe, but even there it may find itself powerless to prevent Greece or the United Kingdom from leaving the EU. 

REAL POWER

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.

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.

She may have to wait a while. A majority of the German public for the first time favors an “independent approach” from the United States. Yet besides spending more on foreign aid, most prefer to “continue to exercise restraint” in dealing with international crises, and there is a deep ambivalence about the use of military force or sanctions. Although it is true that Germany remains constrained by its past, its recent success may have also instilled in it a sense of complacency.  

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.

In the short term, the best Germany can do is follow the advice of its own president, who challenged his countrymen last year to “do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it for decades.” Similarly, prior to Edward Snowden’s revelations and the uproar over the National Security Agency’s data collection, the German government quietly decided to move the Bundesnachrichtendienst (Federal Intelligence Service) from its sleepy environs in Bavaria to a shiny complex for 4,000 employees near the Chancellery in Berlin. The public is still sour about spying, but Germany’s leaders seem to have belatedly realized their need for better “eyes and ears.” A new building close to policymakers will matter little if they don’t take intelligence seriously or exercise the oversight secret services require.      

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.

POWER TOOLS

In the short term, the best Germany can do is follow the advice of its own president, who challenged his countrymen last year to “do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it for decades.” For the G7 summit, Berlin has set an ambitious agenda, with security and energy policy at the top of the list owing to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and use of oil as a political tool. It will have to show how summitry and proclamations can be translated into action.

In the longer term, Germany must recognize that it can no longer simply remain a convening power and rely on the initiative of other “shaping powers,” the European Union, or the United States. It will have to better articulate and publicly defend its foreign interests. Meekly reflecting on its limitations is an excuse to avoid responsibility and take concrete steps when international rules are ignored. If Germany wants to forge a stronger Europe and a peaceful world order, it needs to ignore the hype about its power and think more courageously about how to use it.

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