At first glance, Germany’s upcoming national election in late September looks much like those of past years. So far, the issues that will shape the contest appear to be standard fare, and thus overwhelmingly domestic: the German economy, security, migration, and jobs. The leading mainstream parties, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD), aren’t that far apart from each other on any of those topics, nor are they on foreign policy. All signs point to a resumption of the ruling CDU–SPD grand coalition, led by Angela Merkel as fourth-term chancellor.
Yet much more is at stake in the German vote—and in the campaign—than initially meets the eye. The politicking will transpire against the background of a European Union sinking further into its deepest crisis since its founding. The wounds of the eurocrisis remain raw. Unpredictable, autocratic leaders in Russia and Turkey are stoking conflicts on Europe’s periphery and, in the case of Russian President Vladimir Putin, attempting to sabotage the EU. Exacerbating it all, Donald Trump, the new U.S. president, is shaking the foundations of the Atlantic alliance and has poured fuel on the fire of European right-wing populism.
Germany isn’t prepared to take over the leadership of the Atlantic alliance from the United States, much less that of the broader international order that Washington has historically underwritten. But Europe’s biggest economy is nevertheless holding the continent together: Berlin, not Brussels, has become the EU’s true capital and the guarantor of its stability. Germany’s policies reverberate far beyond its borders, and Germany, where the lessons of Nazi rule and World War II are inscribed in the public imagination, remains a bulwark against the illiberal forces tearing Europe apart. With Euroskeptics gaining ground in France and the United Kingdom tied up with Brexit, Germany now stands alone as the guardian of European values—a role it did not seek nor, in many ways, that it is suited