Robert Kagan’s thought-provoking essay (“The New German Question,” May/June 2019) addresses the important issue of how a collapse of the European Union and the liberal international order might affect Germany and its role within Europe. He concludes that such a breakdown would bring back the pre–World War II “German question,” which European integration and the Atlantic alliance were in part meant to resolve.
But Kagan underestimates the deep cultural change that has occurred in Germany since World War II. It is hard to imagine any circumstances in which Germany would revert to militarism; the commitment of ordinary Germans to peace is simply too strong. If the United States were to withdraw its security guarantee to Europe, or even if the liberal international order were to collapse, Germany would likely defy the expectations of realist international relations theorists and simply choose to be insecure rather than abandon its identity as a Friedensmacht, or “force for peace.”
At the same time, Kagan underestimates how problematic today’s “democratic and peace-loving” Germany is in the European context. Germany’s semi-hegemonic position within the EU is one of the main reasons Europe has struggled to solve the series of problems that began with the euro crisis in 2010. On the one hand, Germany lacks the resources to solve problems in the way a hegemon would. On the other, it is powerful enough that it does not feel the need to make concessions to other EU member states, and in particular to France, as it used to. As a result, the EU has become dysfunctional.
Moreover, postwar Germany has not acted quite as selflessly as Kagan suggests. Although (or perhaps because) Germans abandoned militarism, they found new sources of national pride—in particular, a kind of economic nationalism based on the country’s success as an exporter. German economic policy is often described, with some justification, as mercantilist, and even before U.S. President Donald Trump singled out Germany for its large current account surplus,
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