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To call Germany the new “leader of the free world” is nonsensical. But a great deal will turn on Berlin’s willingness to assert itself in a disintegrating West. A plea for a new German foreign policy.

© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Preparations have been underway for some time – for years, talk of Germany recognizing its “new responsibility” has been making the rounds. Yet now that the moment has finally arrived for Germany to supplement this recognition with a coherent foreign policy, it is greeted with shock and confusion. No one had expected things to change like this – not this quickly and not this thoroughly.

More Responsibility than Power

After six months of “America First,” not even the most committed atlanticists can deny the crisis at the heart of the transatlantic relationship. But this crisis is only part of the seismic event shaking the entire international order, which has unsettled no country more than Germany, a country reliant on foreign trade, positioned in the very center of Europe, with a foreign policy traditionally focused on balance and moderation.

Indeed, Germany stands at the center of these upheavals. No other country is as reliant on Russia for its energy, on China for its trade, on the United States for its defense – and simultaneously made the ultimate guarantor of the future of the European Union.

The nonsensical wish that Angela Merkel take the reins as “leader of the free world” contains a grain of truth: More than any other international actor, Germany depends on the continued existence of the liberal international order. This touches on the heart of the new German question: Once Germany was described as too big for Europe and too small for the world; now, it is too big to flourish without a stable international order and too small to defend it alone. German foreign policy will have to operate with this tension for the foreseeable future. As the previous guarantor of the liberal order has begun to shirk its responsibilities, the question of Germany’s contribution has become suddenly, and dramatically, much more relevant.

Strategic Unity

As difficult as it is to turn away from the daily soap opera of the Trump administration, the steady trickle of tweets, leaks, and rumors leads to a critical error in foreign policy thinking. One could come to the mistaken belief that the transatlantic crisis began with Trump and will end with his departure from office – all that is necessary in the West then is to hold out. Besides, isn’t the president surrounded by some responsible “adults”? Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and National Security Adviser R. H. McMaster might at least prevent the worst.

Yet President Obama had already expressed discomfort with the US role as guarantor of the international order. One can see how his thinking changed over his two terms in office by looking at two of the more memorable phrases he used to describe American leadership: After the Arab Spring, he advocated “leading from behind”; later, after the failed intervention in Libya, this rather unambitious approach was even more watered down to the maxim “Don’t do stupid shit” – and a desperate wish not to follow the “Washington playbook” in Syria at any price.

Trump, on the other hand, sees no need for Obama’s reluctance. When Trump says “America First,” he means strength without responsibility, power without mission, bombing without regret. Two of the supposed adults recently described what this means in foreign policy terms, with a May 31 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal by McMaster and economic adviser Gary Cohn contextualizing Trump’s first trip abroad in office.

This first presentation of the Trump Doctrine makes it clear that even the supposed moderates within his team support a radical break from 70 years of American post-war policy. McMaster and Cohn praised the “clarity” of the president, his recognition that the world is “not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.” And “rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.” The text is a shocking document, especially for the German government. One day after this announcement of a “strategic shift,” the president took to the White House Rose Garden to announce that the US would withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement.

Transatlanticism for Adults

The US government’s willingness to constantly put the foundations and principles of German foreign policy into question is an enormous intellectual and strategic challenge. It means that in the future Germany will have to pursue European integration, transatlantic partnership, multilateralism, support for human rights and democratic norms, and ruled-based globalization – along with countless other issues – without the US if need be, and possibly even against the wishes of the American government.

Two points must be made here: First, this fundamental conflict should not be played down as though it were only the usual differences between two countries, as once arose between Willy Brandt and Richard Nixon, Helmut Schmidt and Jimmy Carter, or Gerhard Schröder and George W. Bush. This is something different – no previous crisis touched fundamental questions of the world order. After World War 2, the US managed to create an international system with institutions, rules, and values that allowed member nations the chance to resolve conflicts peacefully, profit from free trade, and address problems (including, once, the proliferation of atomic weapons and climate change), which by definition exceed the abilities of any one nation. This order is now in jeopardy.

The fundamental calculus of the Pax Americana was that it would not just be the many nations of the international community that would profit from an international order – the hegemon at its heart would also benefit. In contrast, “America First” sees the world as a zero-sum game. International relationships are purely transactional. No amount of lip service about commitment to NATO will erase the impression that the US president thinks of the most successful multilateral defensive alliance as nothing more than a protection racket.

The beneficiaries of the world order the US has supported until now will have to decide for themselves what its continuation is really worth. It could yet have a chance – but that brings us to point two. Anti-Trumpism – which is, to a certain extent, an extension of a reflexive German (and European) resistance to the US president – hinders the formation of any independent strategy. The SPD candidate for chancellor, Martin Schulz, provided an example of the negative results of this knee-jerk opposition in an interview with Der Spiegel in early June. Contrary to what Trump may think, he said, Germany owes neither NATO nor the US any money. Schulz went on to criticize the military-industrial logic of the NATO two percent spending goal and called on voters to pick him if they felt the same.

It is both correct and trite to say that Germany owes Trump nothing – but German contributions to NATO are in its own interest, as the alliance forms the backbone of the Western multilateral alliance. Obama himself correctly criticized the “free rider” mentality of Europeans when it comes to defense. Instead of tearing our hair out over Trump’s ambivalence on Article 5, we should begin to discuss what transatlanticism for adults might look like. Schulz’s anti-Trumpism, just like the impulse of many Europeans to simply wait for new American leadership, does nothing to move in that direction. What should be done instead? First, cooperate more than ever with those in the US who still defend Western values, who share our view on trade and climate policy (in Congress, in the states, in nongovernmental organizations) – even if that only serves to limit the damage Trump can cause.

The real challenge, however, is elsewhere. If Germany wants to give its understanding of mulitlateralism – and its embodiment in Article 5 – more credibility, it has to invest significantly more in collective defense. Instead of making the national election a referendum on a supposedly dangerous military-industrial policy, a new logic of German security should be explained to German voters: we must be willing to pay more for defense not because of Trump but in spite of him, not because he has demanded it but because we want to push back against his nonsensical policies. For that to succeed, it will be necessary to reform Europe’s insane acquisition system, with its 178 weapons systems (compared to 30 in the US) and 17 types of tanks (versus one in the US).

Three Rings of Uncertainty

German diplomats today have a tendency to refer to three “rings of uncertainty” that have plagued Germany for years.

The first “ring” concerns the EU itself: the fragility of the euro, attacks on the rule of law in Poland and Hungary, the flourishing of populism in the shadow of Germany’s economic and political strength, and mass immigration. Within the EU, Germany enjoys a great deal of influence, but with a significant risk of backlash when it exerts its power outright, especially when it has made significant decisions unilaterally like the Energiewende or its 2015 refugee policy shift.

The second “ring” is an arc stretching from Rabat to Donetsk, from Morocco (which is less stable than hoped) and Mali (stabilized for the time being by French soldiers) over Tunisia (relatively stable, but exporting jihadists) and Libya (as unstable as it looks) to Egypt (ultra-stable thanks to brutal repression, and thus highly fragile); and further over the Saudi anti-Iran coalition and its new enemy of choice, Qatar (thanks, President Trump!); over the demolition in Yemen, obliterated Syria, and untamed Iran; and finally over Turkey (a prisoner of its failed regional politics, and now hardly a real NATO partner), all the way to a divided Ukraine (where Russia’s aggression has likely frozen Western expansion policies). In this area, Germany has no direct influence anywhere, and can only contribute to multilateral solutions, as the Bundeswehr’s operations in Mali, the Minsk Agreements, the nuclear deal with Iran, and the EU refugee agreement with Turkey have shown.

The third ring, which is still hardly acknowledged, runs between the islands in the South China Sea (through which German goods are shipped, too) to North Korea, where the young leader is busy building rockets that threaten not only friendly democracies like South Korea and Japan but as of recently the US as well – and thus we are back to Article 5. Though Germany is hardly capable of contributing directly to any resolution of the conflict, it can help indirectly, for example by strengthening NATO and working with China and India to keep the Paris Agreement alive.

Three rings of instability, each with less room for German influence than the last. If one wanted to express the challenge facing German foreign policy in the summer of 2017 with a single word, it would be “stabilization.” That means a break with the current era, the era of post-Berlin Wall, EU expansion, NATO extension, color revolutions, green movement in Iran, and Arab revolts elsewhere. It may once have seemed like a movement toward open, liberal societies was inevitable – but that era is over, and with it the European policy of association and expansion, which reached its end in the division of Ukraine and the rejection of Turkey. The arc of history that had seemed to bent irrevocably toward freedom was nothing but a beautiful illusion.

Expanding Options

That is a setback, but also a chance – an opportunity to rethink circumstances. And Germany has new tools to bring to bear: Over the past few years, it has gained significant influence and expanded its palette of options commensurately, exercising its new capacities in the bailout programs for its struggling neighbors, in sanctions to limit Russian aggression, and in the once-taboo delivery of weapons to conflict areas (particularly the Kurds in Iraq).

Whatever one may think of each of these steps individually, together they represent a significant shift. In January 2014 then-President Joachim Gauck encouraged Germany to take on “more responsibility for the international order” at the Munich Security Conference. Horst Köhler, president from 2004-10, had explained nothing less in an interview he gave in May 2010, which led to his stepping down: “A country oriented toward international trade,” he said, “must sometimes be willing to secure its interests including free trade and regional stability with military means if necessary.” He had surely believed that German society, by and large, was ready to defend an order that is in its own vital interest. He was wrong back then:  He, who had done more than any previous German president to increase German engagement in Africa, was denounced as a warmonger. Shortly after that interview, he left office deeply embittered by the aggressive attacks against him.

How things have changed. Today it is commonly accepted that Germany must do more to preserve the international order from which it profits so much, and not only through “paying more and shooting more” (as Gauck put it). Thanks to Brexit and Trump, it has become painfully clear that today, as pathetic as it may be, a rapidly disintegrating West is dependent on Germany’s willingness to assert itself.

But that being said, a vague consensus is not a strategy. An incomplete list of Germany’s foreign policy priorities could begin with supporting France as an equal partner, managing Brexit without attempting to punish the United Kingdom, limiting the damage Trump can do to the West, decisively warding off Russian aggression, keeping Turkey aligned with Europe, and reducing the “pull factors” drawing people from Africa to Europe through a mix of development assistance, managed immigration, and effective border control.

German foreign policy will have to accomplish things that at first glance seem to be mutually exclusive. For example, Germany will have to be much more generous with money for (and in) Europe, while simultaneously combating the blurring of liberal norms in Eastern European member states. It will have to create more opportunities for Africans to come to Europe legally, while at the same time protecting the EU’s external borders better. It must take a clearer position against the authoritarian turn in Ankara, while pursuing an active Turkey policy (and one without illusions about Turkey’s joining the EU immediately after Recep Tayyip Erdoğan leaves office).

Germany will not be able to reach any of these goals alone, even if it is now Europe’s “indispensable nation.” German foreign policy has been presented with challenges it will have a difficult time meeting – striking a new balance between firmness and generosity.