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Red Herring & Black Swan: Is the German Question Back?


As the transatlantic relationship frays, thereʼs renewed talk of a return to German dominance in Europe. In fact, US withdrawal could have the opposite effect, as Franceʼs military strength could become more important.

The German question seems to be back yet again. With speculation about the end of the Atlantic alliance and the liberal international order, there are renewed fears of German dominance at the heart of Europe.

German power now takes a different form than in the past. While before 1945, the German question was geopolitical, the current German question is geo-economic, as I outlined in my book The Paradox of German Power. But things have changed since it was published in 2015—in particular with the election of Donald Trump as president of the United States. In a recent thought-provoking essay in Foreign Affairs, Robert Kagan suggests that we should now be less certain that Germany will remain “benign” in geopolitical terms. In other words, for Kagan, the old German question is back.

However, this underestimates the deep cultural change in Germany since World War II. It’s hard to imagine any circumstances that would lead to the country reverting to an old-fashioned kind of German nationalism and militarism. The commitment of ordinary Germans to the idea of peace is simply too strong. For better or worse, this is the lesson that Germans have drawn from their experience in the 20th century.

Moreover, focusing on a remilitarization of Germany actually obscures a more likely—and interesting—possibility. If the United States were to actually withdraw its security guarantee to Europe, or if the liberal international order were to completely collapse, Germany might 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.” In other words, even in this worst-case scenario, Germany might in effect do nothing rather than either develop its own military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, or exchange dependence on the US for its security for a new dependence on France.

How Germany Harms the EU

Meanwhile, those, particularly Americans, who warn about the danger of the return of the old German question underestimate how problematic today’s Germany already is in the European context. Germany’s semi-hegemonic position within Europe is one of the main reasons why the EU has struggled to solve the series of crises 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 no longer feels the need to make concessions to other EU member states, and in particular to France. As a result, the EU has become dysfunctional.

It’s important not to idealize post-war Germany as acting selflessly. German politicians certainly look out for German interests in Europe. In fact, since the beginning of the euro crisis, much of the debate about Germany’s role in Europe has centered on exactly this question of the relationship between Germany’s national interest and the wider European interest. From economic policy and the management of the single currency itself to the refugee crisis and the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, Germany has again and again been accused of putting its own national interest ahead of the interests of Europe as a whole.

Nor has Germany exactly rejected nationalism altogether. Although—or perhaps because—Germans rejected militarism, they found new sources of national pride. In particular, a kind of economic nationalism developed in Germany and increasingly focused on Germany’s success as an exporter—what I have called “export nationalism.” During the Obama administration—long before Trump “targeted” Germany, as Kagan puts it, for its huge, persistent current account surplus—the US treasury had already put Germany on a currency-manipulation monitoring list.

Restoring the Franco-German Balance

Today, the dire state of trans-Atlantic relations and the threat of the withdrawal of the US security guarantee have raised concerns about how Germany might respond. Historically, American power has pacified Europe—that is, it “muted old conflicts in Europe and created the conditions for cooperation,” as Josef Joffe wrote in 1984. There are therefore good reasons to worry that a withdrawal of the security guarantee could lead to European disintegration and even the reactivation of security dilemmas. Yet a US withdrawal could also help to resolve the German question in its current, geoeconomic form—without necessarily re-opening the classical, geopolitical German question.

This is because Germany’s semi-hegemonic position in Europe is dependent on the configuration of the US-led liberal international order, and the particular form it took in Europe, that allowed Germany to “free ride.” In particular, the US security guarantee meant that Germany didn’t need France’s military capabilities and therefore had little incentive to make concessions to France on other issues like the euro. Whatever Trump’s intentions, his threat to withdraw the US security guarantee has given France greater leverage over Germany and thus gone some way to restoring what Harvard’s Stanley Hoffman called “the balance of imbalances” between the two countries. If the United States were actually to withdraw its security guarantee, it would further restore this balance and could mean the end of German semi-hegemony.

Power Politics Persists

In particular, increased German dependence on France for security might—and I emphasize might—force Germany to make concessions to France on other issues like economic policy and the euro, which would be good not just for France, but for Europe as a whole. In this way the removal of the US security guarantee could potentially enable Europe to finally deal with the crisis that began in 2010. The crucial question, however, is whether even this dramatic scenario would be enough to force Germany to rethink its approach to economic policy and the euro. It’s also perfectly possible that Germans would still not feel sufficiently threatened to make concessions to France on these issues as a quid pro quo for a more explicit or extensive French commitment to German or European security.

There is a tendency at the moment to view the world in extraordinarily binary terms. But the situation in Europe today is much more complex. While commentators like Kagan worry that a collapse of the current order would lead to a return of power politics within Europe, in reality power politics never really went away, even if it was no longer pursued using military tools. Within the peaceful, institutionalized context of the EU, member states continued to pursue their own national interests. In short, Europe may not have been quite the Kantian paradise that Kagan famously suggested it was in Of Paradise and Power.

Similarly, since the beginning of the euro crisis, it has become apparent that the Atlantic alliance and European integration did not resolve the German question quite as conclusively as was once thought. Given the ongoing reality of power politics within the EU, the unequal distribution of power among member states continued to matter, though that power was largely economic rather than military. After reunification and enlargement increased German power within Europe, a familiar dynamic emerged—though it only really became apparent after the beginning of the euro crisis. In other words, in resolving one version of the German question, the EU and the United States may have simply created another.