Looking to Germany

What Berlin Can and Can't Do for the Liberal Order

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at Bellevue Castle in Berlin, Germany, January 27, 2017. Axel Schmidt / Reuters

With U.S. President Donald Trump poised to pull the United States back from global leadership and with the United Kingdom mired in a messy withdrawal from the European Union, Germany has emerged as the central economic and political power in Europe. Since German President Joachim Gauck’s much-lauded speech at the Munich Security Conference in 2014—“Let us thus not turn a blind eye,” he intoned, “not run from threats, but instead stand firm”—the country has shown its commitment to ensuring its own security and the continent’s. It has agreed to gradually increase its defense spending to reach NATO’s target of two percent of GDP and to create a credible European defense system. It made a unilateral decision in early 2015, for example, to send the Bundeswehr on a training mission to the north of Iraq and to join the military campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) after France invoked the mutual defense clause of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty following the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. Berlin has continued to help manage the crisis on Europe’s southern periphery, in Syria and Iraq, becoming a reliable partner to Washington at a time when the United States had significantly retrenched under former President Barack Obama.

The hope among many anxious Europeans and Americans, worried about the fate of the liberal order and the transatlantic relationship, is that Germany will take the United States’ place as leader of the liberal order. But that is wishful thinking.

Germany is already overwhelmed by crises at home and on its borders. And it cannot replace the United States as the world’s liberal hegemon for the simple reason that it isn’t one. In 2015, it had a defense budget that was one-twentieth the size of the United States’, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is not a nuclear power and has comparatively smaller ambitions to provide for the common good on the global stage than the

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