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

The Unready Hegemon


German foreign and security policy is not prepared for the new era of great power competition. To stand up for its convictions and values, the country needs to step up.

© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The thirty wonderful years—les trente glorieuses—was the name the French demographer Jean Fourastié gave to the years of economic boom France enjoyed between 1945 and 1975. The term could have been applied to West Germany during that time as well. But the description is far more applicable to the first three decades of the Berlin Republic. Between 1989 and 2019, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the two Germanies that had been nervously eyeing each other across the Cold War front lines became one flourishing European hegemon. Those historically unique gains in prosperity, power, and prestige are the real German post-war miracle.

But there are now plenty of signs that this miracle is coming to an end—perhaps even with a cyclical downturn of the global economy ahead—and that the Germans are entirely unprepared for it. What has happened? What does it mean for Germany? And what must be done?

Strained and At Risk

Europe—the continent that over the last 70 years has stood like no other for overcoming war and violence with the help of law and diplomacy—finds itself in 2019 a staging ground once more for the competition of the great powers. And this at a moment when the region is doing worse than it has in a long time. The crises of the last decade—from the global financial crisis (2008/09), which quickly became a eurozone crisis, to the Ukraine crisis (2014) to the refugee crisis (2015) and the Brexit referendum (2016)—have weakened and divided Europe. For the first time in post-war history, the fight over the future of the European project is not just about the “when” and “how” of deepening or expanding the European Union, but rather—at least for a few member states—about whether the clock of European integration ought not to be turned back altogether.

There are also alarming signs of paralysis and strain emerging within our seemingly sophisticated European nation-states. It is plausible to read Brexit as a failure of devolution in Britain; the rise of the gilets jaunes is rooted in part in the vast distance between France’s civil society and an overbearing executive branch driven by a technocratic elite; many Germans’ anger is sparked by an enormous backlog in infrastructure investment. Yet nothing bears more potential for conflict in Europe today than questions of identity. Who may call him- or herself a citizen—and who may not? Here the legacy of colonialism, the follow-on consequences of the fall of the Berlin Wall and reunification, and the unresolved issues of migration and the refugee crisis make for a toxic combination, worsened by fears of a new economic downturn.

All this is fertile soil for extremist populists who claim the exclusive right to represent the “silent majority” or “the people.” They say they want to take on both elites and outsiders, but their real enemies are the liberal values, secular modernity and representative democracy they revile as the “system.” They snare anxious voters with promises of “taking back control” and freedom of action (the key word here is “sovereignty”) by radically reducing complexity (“close the borders,” “Merkel must go”). They systematically attack institutions (courts, parliaments) and intermediary organizations (parties, the media) as well as the norms and taboos of our constitutional order, mobilizing the street just as aggressively and deftly as they do social media.

At the same time, populists are looking for a way to capture Europe’s institutions—with the goal of undermining them. They have had the greatest success in Budapest and Warsaw, where illiberal authoritarians are in power and working to cement their dominance through constitutional change. (In Poland at least, a strong civil society is making every effort to defend itself.) And as if that were not enough, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini have created a so-called “movement” of right-wing European parties, with which they want to storm the European Parliament at the elections in May in order to hollow out the EU from the inside.

A Hostile Environment

Europe’s neighborhood has also become more unstable. In Turkey, a NATO member, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is ruling with an ever harder hand. In eastern Ukraine, Russia is waging a war that has so far claimed more than 13,000 victims. In Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad is successfully fighting his own population, with Russian help. And in Moscow and Beijing, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping have consolidated their power. All across the world, authoritarians are questioning the leadership of the West and the rules of the international order.

Nevertheless, Europe cannot simply turn itself into a fortress and seal itself off from the world. That would be tantamount to suicide, as its prosperity and security are existentially dependent on the deep integration of European states with each other and with the global economy. Yet Russia and China have become adept at instrumentalizing the old and new elements of globalization—from physical infrastructure and trading hubs to cyberspace, mobile networks, and social media—against Europe, including through strategic asset investments and buyouts.

Moscow’s attempts to interfere have an especially destructive effect on the influence of the US in Europe and on the transformative effect of the EU beyond its borders. Beijing’s perspective is somewhat different: European coherence, at least in terms of a functioning trade and infrastructure area, is key to its long-term plans for worldwide economic expansion. But both have become active, even aggressive players in Europe. And both know very well how to crack European unity whenever it helps them achieve their goals.

The “America First” Dilemma

But Europe’s greatest dilemma in this new era is “America First:” Europe’s protector, and for many decades its closest friend and partner, has mutated under President Donald Trump into a “rogue superpower” (in Robert Kagan’s words), a power that is “active, powerful, and entirely out for itself.” The 2017 US National Security Strategy announced the end of the “global community” and coldly replaced it with the paradigm of great power competition. The trade war with the EU has been deferred, not cancelled; and the sanctions guillotine is still hanging in the air.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s very first Europe speech in December 2018 in Brussels finally made it clear (if confirmation was needed) that it is not just the president who sees the EU as an enemy. Pompeo asked if the EU was still serving the interests of its citizens, adding that international institutions that no longer serve their purpose should “be reformed or eliminated.” What’s more, this US administration has a noticeable weakness for Europe’s autocrats. Trump and his comrades-in-arms call that healthy national pride. But it’s more accurate to call it ethno-chauvinism.

Washington is entirely justified in asking its allies to take more responsibility for Europe’s security. It’s just that the US government’s foreign and security policy has now become a risk factor for our fragile continent even when it’s not specifically directed at Europe. The volatility and incoherence of Trump’s Middle East, Russia, and Asia policies, the threats to pull out of Syria and Afghanistan, the withdrawal from the Iran deal and the INF treaty, the hostility to multilateral institutions—all of this destabilizes Europe.

Admittedly, this administration has also demonstratively strengthened the eastern flank of NATO. Diplomats report that there is a still a lot of trust and cooperation at the working level. But how much is that really worth when Trump simultaneously courts Vladimir Putin and rarely misses an opportunity to question the principle of collective defensive enshrined in Article 5 of the NATO Treaty? In the meantime many high-ranking officials who value allies—including then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Assistant Secretary of State for Europe A. Wess Mitchell—have left the government. And given the government’s fixation on China, its perceived main adversary and nemesis, some in Washington are anxiously asking if Trump might not be capable of conceding to the Kremlin, as the price for its allegiance, a sphere of influence in Europe.

There are no signs that Europe has found a common answer to this new situation. London, Paris, and Berlin have, in a rare act of harmony, come together to throw their weight against the termination of the Iran deal, but without success. Berlin has managed to hold together the consensus about Russia sanctions, with some difficulty—but what is needed is a real European effort to push back against China and Russia’s energetic attempts to undermine and divide the continent. In the Middle East, in Africa, and in Asia, Europe is at best present in homeopathic doses.

Baffled and Bereft

The geostrategic shift from multilateral cooperation to great power competition affects Germany like no other country in Europe. After 1949, the Bonn Republic had attempted to answer the “German question” once and for all: through voluntary self-containment in multilateral frameworks (notably the United Nations, the EU, and NATO), as well as by anchoring itself to the West. Two factors made this possible: West Germany’s willingness to atone and America’s decision to take Europe under its nuclear umbrella and thereby guarantee its security. That, in turn, allowed Germany to concentrate on its economic transformation and the simultaneous development of a generous welfare state. In brief, Germany owes not only its security to the US, but also its social peace.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and in the course of EU and NATO expansion, a completely new trading sphere opened up for Germany in Eastern Europe. The new mobility of people, goods, and data created a deep interdependence of the German economy with its neighbors. In terms of its security, Germany found itself, for the first time in its recent history, “encircled by friends” (in the words of the former Defense Minister Volker Rühe). Yet this comfortable security buffer was created by exporting its geopolitical risks to the European periphery.

It is no surprise that in the fateful year of 1989, the thesis of the end of history won more acclaim in Germany than anywhere else. Germans celebrated the idea that the West had achieved victory through the worldwide convergence of systems toward democratic transformation and an increasingly rules-based international order. We were, after all, the champions of atonement. So we enjoyed the peace dividend to the fullest.

A Glum Perplexity

All this has turned the Berlin Republic into a de-facto “shaping power” over the past thirty years. In other words, within the fragile European ecosystem, Germany is what Americans call “an 800-pound gorilla”—the animal that makes the trees tremble just by rolling over in its sleep. From the point of view of most of its neighbors, Germans are, well, the Americans of Europe—urgently needed, but also feared for their inconsiderateness, including the inability to recognize the need to be considerate.

And it’s not clear that we are even aware just how much we have benefited from the US and Europe, or that we would be willing to acknowledge that fact and draw appropriate conclusions. We sing the praises of normative universalism but are absolutely ready to swerve away from our convictions in pursuit of our national interest. We see ourselves as the engine of European integration, but when it comes down to it, German governments regularly hit the brakes. And we persistently refuse to acknowledge that German decisions—in the controversy over the gas pipeline Nord Stream 2, in the eurozone or refugee crises—have consequences (and costs) well beyond our borders.

In 2014, in the aftermath of the financial crisis and under the impression of Russian aggression in Ukraine, there was an attempt to engage more with the world and make German foreign and security policy “faster, more decisive, and more substantial,” as then-president Joachim Gauck promised. Five years later, this energetic optimism seems to have given way to glum perplexity. The problem is that for the West’s challengers—the enemies of a rules-based world order and the European project, those who scorn representative democracy and open society—Germany is the main foe, precisely because it is the fulcrum and linchpin of European stability. Unfortunately, the US president seems to share this antipathy.

What Needs to Be Done

Germany’s options in this significantly darker strategic environment are limited. A retreat behind walls is unrealistic for a country that borders two seas and nine countries. The temptations of the “Greater Switzerland” model—a Berlin Republic which does business with all sides from an equidistant middle location and fastidiously avoids spoiling its relationship with any greater power—are on display daily in German debates over sanctions, gas pipelines, and mobile networks. But that, too, would be a dead end for Germany. Its fate is existentially bound up with Europe’s; to support and protect it is in Germany’s own best interest.

This means, first, that Germany needs to get its own house in order. For—and this is the lesson of the populist wave—without an effective and legitimate domestic order, there is no effective and legitimate foreign and security policy.

Second, Germany’s power requires us to take on greater responsibility for Europe. Our neighbors’ criticism (and yes, that of the US) of our budget surpluses, our defense spending, and our energy policy may be motivated by self-interest; but that makes it no less justified. In all three (and other) cases there are pragmatic compromise solutions. Our government could reduce its budget surpluses by spending more on infrastructure; it could spend its defense euros more effectively with greater European cooperation in armaments production; and it could address many of its neighbors’ deep concerns about Nord Stream 2 by fully applying EU competition law to the project and finally modernizing Ukrainian transit pipelines. To keep acting as if there are no alternatives will only further isolate us.

Third, a policy of diplomatic dialogue is greatly enhanced by the ability to enforce one’s interests if necessary. That includes the ability to apply military force. Even Germany’s closest friends think its hard-power prudery is sanctimonious. But deterrence is so much more than a credible threat of force. It also, crucially, means never taking issues off the table preemptively, neither sanctions, nor the expansion of the EU or of NATO. It requires the ability to ward off Russian and Chinese interference and defend liberal democracies against their enemies.

Fourth, how to deal with America? Germany’s policy vis-à-vis the United States will have to be schizophrenic for the foreseeable future. It will have to be based on two contradictory insights: that Trumpism goes beyond Trump; and that America is, as the midterm elections showed, more than Trump. So Europe and Germany must become stronger and more independent; but European “strategic autonomy” from the US is an illusion. Europe continues to need America by its side, not least when it comes to responding to the Chinese challenge. But the US needs Europe, too. If the EU wants to be taken seriously by America, it has to put up resistance where necessary—and cooperate where possible. Perhaps Europe can learn from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi here?

The fact that Berlin became a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council on January 1, 2019, will put its foreign and security policy in the spotlight. A “new Ostpolitik” that takes into account Eastern European sensibilities is all to the good—but what if it is counteracted by our energy policy? How much is Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’s “alliance of multilateralists” worth if we don’t stand by Canada and protest the hostage-taking of its citizens in China, or if we ignore the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi? In the end, legitimacy—that is, the willingness to stand up for one’s values and convictions—is the most precious power resource a democracy has.

NB. A longer version of this article is available on the Brookings website.