A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Greater Ambition, Please!

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Germany has a habit of coming to the rescue instead of taking the lead early. It is time to develop healthy foreign policy ambitions, rediscover self-respect, and establish “servant leadership.”

© REUTERS/Tobias Schwarz

The French general simply could not believe it: “All of that expense, all that effort – for nothing?” The discussion in Paris regarding European security had lasted a few hours, and, as usual, the conversation had finally turned to the matter of Germany. Despairing, the non-German participants asked what it was that Berlin actually wanted. The German contingent – equally desperate – attempted to explain to the others that the debate surrounding foreign policy in Germany entailed few ambitions, especially where security policy was concerned. This was too much for the general, who began to reel off a list of Germany’s assets: the Bundeswehr had first-class defense programs in the pipeline, its restructuring effort was progressing, the reserves system was exemplary, training likewise, and the German personnel actively serving were all highly professional. It simply could not be that Germany would take all these steps without a desire to effect more ambitious change. The absence of any larger political planning felt ridiculous.

At first, there was no way of telling which element of this statement was more alarming: this leading representative of the French military misjudging his German neighbors so profoundly, or his secret mistrust of Berlin’s intentions, unwilling as he was to accept claims of passivity and restraint.

This mistrust is perhaps the greatest loss caused by Germany’s lack of foreign policy ambitions. Those who are unfamiliar with the perpetual German ambivalence concerning power and interests smell a rat: A country as successful as Germany must surely be up to something! When a little digging produces nothing substantial, however, this quickly turns to recrimination or mistrust. Those closer to the country, such as the French and the Poles, are inclined toward the latter, while those at a greater distance, such as the Americans, complain that Germany is letting others do its dirty work.

Germany is not freeloading when it comes to matters of security policy, nor is it (contrary to frequent assertions) a particularly pacifist country. Yet where issues of foreign policy are concerned, Germany has a problem with political will. The fact that it no longer participates in the race for national prestige – once a significant driver of foreign policy ambitions – represents a step forward, not backwards. Nevertheless, the fact that it has no real concept of the order it would like to foster – for its neighborhood and for the global system at large – is increasingly problematic.

It’s All Reactive

Ultimately, this is why Angela Merkel has yet to become the leader of the free world. Despite her proven strengths in leadership, be it in the Ukraine crisis, the eurozone crisis, or on the issue of refugees, her response is always reactive. During the crisis in Ukraine, Berlin was late to intervene, taking the reins once it became clear that the usual powers could not or did not want to do so and the status quo ante was unlikely to be reinstated. It then did an exemplary job reassuring its Central and Eastern European allies, and demonstrated its power to lead in crafting both sanctions against Russia and the Normandy discussion format. But why did it not act sooner? Why not as early as the negotiations surrounding the association agreement between the EU and Ukraine – which triggered the Ukraine crisis – when geopolitical tact was needed rather than bureaucracy in Brussels?

The case was similar with the euro. The German political elite had long hoped that the crisis would blow over somehow; Germany only showed up when the problem had become a catastrophe. The same is true for the issue of refugees, with Germany initially hiding behind the EU, acting as if the crisis in Italy and Greece was not happening, and only taking a pan-European position when it ultimately best served German interests. Even in those cases where Germany has wanted to be ahead of the curve, such as its Energiewende, or energy transition, it took great domestic pressure (which increased following the meltdown at Fukushima) for things to truly get started.

However, to lead one must occasionally take the first step, rather than join at the last minute.

The question is why a country that relies on global stability, on the functioning of multilateral organizations, and on free trade and open markets would be so reluctant to take a stance on these issues, choosing instead to restrict itself solely to a reactive approach. Here, the notion of taking a stance is understood to mean both advancing concepts and using diplomatic and military means to protect them.

In August 2007, Karl Heinz Bohrer and Kurt Scheel published a special edition of Merkur magazine. Bearing the title “No Will to Power. Decadence,” the issue explored Germany’s curious lack of agenda. In his still breathtakingly clear-sighted introductory essay, Bohrer described the multifaceted complex which comprises the typically German concept of a “division of law and power,” a consideration of military matters from a clear perspective of “National Socialist preoccupation” and a reluctance “to want something, to represent something, to present something.” For Bohrer and Scheel, decadence is not the dwindling of a society’s vitality, nor is it a general moral decline; for them, decadence begins with a lack of self-respect.

This is where they hit the mark concerning the “state of Germany.” It is alarming how little Germany’s fundamental problem has changed since their analysis was published ten years ago, despite a groundbreaking speech from Joachim Gauck on this issue, as if it is now enough to whistle a little louder in the darkness and hope that all will be well.

Fundamental Weakness of the Ego

Germany’s lack of ambition is first and foremost a product of its fundamentally weak ego. A deeply traumatized country does not trust itself and its aims, because it cannot forgive itself the transgressions of the past. It favors the moralistic flash in the pan that an absence of self-confidence presents over the cold wind of obligations to its interests and responsibilities, and is surprised to find this leaves nobody feeling any warmer. It recoils at the hard work required of moral compromise, something entirely unavoidable in international politics – not, however, because risky actions may harm others, but because Germany itself would feel the pain should something go wrong. The pragmatic and moral compromise of realpolitik falls more lightly on nations which can tolerate a mistake or two, but strains Germany’s image of itself as the good guy – built so painstakingly after 1945 – to the brink of collapse. Germany’s top national interest is not freedom, nor is it peace, nor wellbeing; it is rather to remain morally spotless.

Perhaps some explanation for Germany’s passivity, beyond the trauma of Nazism, lies in the country’s postwar success. No other middle power was as successful in achieving its strategic aims after 1945 as Germany, writes Stephan De Spiegeleire, security policy analyst at the Hague Center for Strategic Studies. And he’s right: the country has been rehabilitated, has regained its sovereignty, and has reunified; it is an economic giant, integrated in all relevant alliances, has avoided a war on its own territory, and is, geographically speaking, surrounded exclusively by friendly nations. And it has achieved all of this without needing to practice brutal power politics or pay the price with the lives of its citizens. Who could read this summary and conclude that any other way was possible?

The problem with this view is that all of this was indeed achieved by the Germans, but only with the aid of a crucial strategic subsidy: the American security guarantee, which protected the country, trained it in military assistance, and kept it as far as possible from the heavy lifting and the moral abyss of international governance during the Cold War.

Now Germany is paying for its success. For one thing, Germans are now being credited with an almost sinister skill for achieving their hegemonic aims in secret, something they do not actually possess (neither the skill nor the aims). The French general quoted at the start of this article exemplifies this attitude.

At the same time, Germany’s partners and neighbors have noticed the country’s performance and now promote its involvement in all the things from which it has kept its distance for so long. The country has become a victim of its own success: it is now required to gradually give up precisely that which was the original source of its strength. Thus, Germany participates, but only as far as is required, grumbling to itself all the while.

“A lack of ambition is normal,” says German scholar Ulrich Speck, one of the most vocal critics of Germany’s passivity for many years. “What’s more is the fact that Germany is not a project state, in contrast to France and the United States, with an understanding of itself that is strongly shaped by a normative idea.” But the normality ends, says Speck, when a lack of ambition clashes with the realities of a globalized world.

The aforementioned clash has hardly ever been as dramatic and as sudden as in the past three or four years. The euro requires a form of political integration which will far exceed anything that has gone before. The strategic inexperience of the American president means Europeans have a new task concerning security policy, which they will have to go to great pains to achieve. The strategic positions of the EU’s neighbors (Russia, Ukraine, the Balkans, Turkey, the Middle East, the Gulf region, Egypt, Libya, sub-Saharan Africa) are more dramatic than they have ever been since the end of the Cold War.

Fortunately, the topic of Europe is once again in vogue after a long period of malaise, thanks in part to the election victory of the talented Emmanuel Macron. In light of the present challenges, a cry has gone up, quite rightly, for more European intervention, even in foreign policy. Yet is it clear to these enthusiastic pro-Europeans, especially those in Germany, that a stronger Europe must include a will to power? The time for integrating more deeply while neglecting to ask questions about the continent’s basic interests and the means for implementing them is over. A strong, independent Europe will not be achieved by dreams of apolitical, uncontaminated integration, and not without hard realpolitik riddled with compromise. And it will be obliged to fall back on German resources as the means for this power.

No Megalomania, No Denial of Reality

Germany needs healthy ambitions where foreign policy is concerned – ambitions based on neither megalomania or a denial of reality. The former is not necessarily anything to worry about, but the latter is the national consensus. Where, then, will these ambitions emerge from? How can Germans know what it is they are permitted to want and what they must be capable of?

Two elements must come together. The first is an insight into the realities of international operations, where classic power-political rules apply. The rules are easy and eternal: interests are what fuels international politics. They arise from necessities of the will to survive, from the need for material and physical security. And they arise from ideology, from questions of meaning and identity. Interests, therefore, are unavoidable and lead – equally unavoidably – to conflicts with the interests of others. Conflicts are not always resolved with violence, but they often are. In order to curb violence as far as possible, to secure peace, it is as necessary to establish incentives for good behavior as it is to be ready, in case of emergency, for violence. If a fundamental understanding of this were to be restored in Germany, much could be achieved as regards the development of healthy ambitions.

The second element is the recovery of the country’s self-respect and the confidence of the German people in themselves. The country must forgive itself, just as others have forgiven it already. It sounds transcendental, as if it has very little to do with politics, and that is true to a certain extent. This form of self-granted absolution – which is not a clean break, but something which, in contrast, feeds off the triumph of coming to terms with the past successfully – requires faith, primarily a faith in oneself. The other step Germany must take is recovering its trust in its own positive aims. This only succeeds if the limits of one’s comfort zone – where foreign policy is concerned – are gradually shifted toward reality. Germany has recently been doing more of this: the arming and training of the Peshmerga in Iraqi Kurdistan in the fight against the so-called Islamic State is testament to this, as is the open confrontation with Russia following the annexation of Crimea. Germany can and must trust itself more on such matters. Small, baby steps can develop into an upright, confident stride. The danger of backsliding into disgrace is practically zero. Germany and its neighbors attend to one another much too well, and their democracies and institutions are much too stable, for this to be a genuine risk.

And then there is a third, secret element. Germany’s ambitions must ultimately be a little different from those of other countries. This has to do in part with the past, but much less than one would assume. It is due primarily to the country’s strength and its economic power, its central geographical location, the fact that all of its neighbors are smaller than itself, and it is also due to the fact that the country needs to be embedded in a circle of other countries in order to be able to live in peace with itself.

For all these reasons, German ambitions are not simply a matter of leadership, but one of “servant leadership,” a concept which Germany can employ to square the circle between its own trauma and the external pressure to act. Servant leadership enables Germans to fulfill their fateful task of leading in Europe without constantly fearing their leader. The same can be said for others: the Servant Leader builds trust by always yielding a little sooner in the knowledge of their strength and responsibility and always paying a little more than the others, aware that this investment will ultimately yield a larger profit than insisting on a small, short-term benefit. As a mighty servant, the Servant Leader retreats behind their partners but, when the occasion arises, stands before them and protects them. Forcefully, they develop, advertise, and take a stand for the ideas that serve the common cause. This gives rise to a true greatness, one which considers ambition worthwhile and which grants inner – and outer – peace.