Rethinking Europe, Globalist Perspective

Germany: Reluctant Leader and Indispensable Power

What will a reluctant leader mean for the resolution of such issues as the eurozone crisis, future military missions and data privacy?

German Chancellor Angela Merkel


  • German Chancellor Angel Merkel is the reluctant leader of the indispensible European power.
  • Germany, the reluctant leader, is charged with bringing the euro zone debt crisis to an end.
  • The revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall avoided a German civil war. Not all nations can be so lucky.
  • All the United States seeks to do in the world can be better accomplished by working with Germany in Europe.
  • A sober-minded, cooperative Berlin must be ready to shoulder burdens, especially to resolve the Eurozone crisis.

German Chancellor Angel Merkel, reluctant leader of the indispensible European power, will likely, but not certainly, be re-elected chancellor in the German parliamentary election on September 22. Social Democrat Peer Steinbrück (SPD) is challenging Christian Democrat Chancellor Merkel (CDU) to become head of government.

The CDU and its partner, the Free Democrats (FDP) combined are polling consistently 46%, while the SPD and the Greens together are trailing at 39%.

Germans elect parties, not individuals and even though the poll numbers are steady, the German election is actually still open. Some recent data suggest a narrowing of the gap. The German political landscape has seen splits over the years leading to the emergence of the Greens, Left Party, Alternative for Germany (AfD), Pirates and a group of fringe parties. This inflated party constellation threatens the current coalition and offers the electorate a CDU-SPD “Grand Coalition” as the only realistic alternative.

If Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the euro-skeptic party protesting against the Chancellor’s management of the Eurozone crisis, manages to pull votes from the current coalition (CDU-FDP), it could deny Chancellor Merkel’s government a majority.

European leaders are keeping policy plans on hold, waiting for whoever wins. Until Germany has a new government, the hold will remain at the forefront of nearly every EU decision. What will a reluctant leader mean for the resolution of such issues as the eurozone crisis, future military missions and data privacy?

Eurozone crisis and the global economy

Foreign policy may play only a small role in this election, but the continuing eurozone crisis will shape the future of Europe and impact the United States as well as the global economy.

Much will depend on German plans, though austerity will be the likely economic policy if the current CDU-FDP government is re-elected. Social unrest and nationalism, especially in Greece and Spain, may be risked. The crisis leaves European integration in peril and Europe could seriously damage prospects for the global economy if it ambles along the path toward EU political union.

The German economy is at present strong, but it is heavily export dependent. The imbalances from trade surpluses keep financial assets abroad, at the expense of repairing and replacing domestic infrastructure and education. These two areas are critical to guarantee long term German economic success.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) negotiations come at a time when the United States and the European Union need to achieve two counterbalancing objectives at the same time: both to promote economic growth and to fight growing deficits, without government spending.

Foreign policy

The Syrian civil war threatens to spread to the region and directly threatens NATO ally Turkey. Germany was reluctant in forging consensus to confront the chemical weapons threat, likely because nearly two-thirds of Germans oppose a German military intervention in Syria even if there is a UN mandate. After Germany decided not to participate in the NATO Libya mission, its role in such missions is still uncertain.

The post-2014 Afghanistan mission hovers around the debate, and NATO’s ISAF mission, which provided the common purpose for NATOs out-of-area/global deployment, will need a new Bundestag/parliamentary mandate if any forces remain after 2014.

In the wake of the NSA leaks, memories of Nazi and Stasi spying arose and threatened to disrupt the U.S.-German relationship. Steinbrück, the SPD candidate for chancellor, criticized Merkel’s strategy in the allegations of NSA eavesdropping. The chancellor, for her part, sought to clarify the extent of the surveillance and limit the fallout through new EU regulations on data protection. The issue is now deflected, but has sown seeds of mistrust of America.

Everything the United States seeks to do in the world can be better accomplished by working with Germany in Europe. This applies whether combating the Taliban in Afghanistan, responding to the civil war in Syria, mitigating humanitarian disasters in North Africa and the Middle East, promoting innovative approaches to tackle climate change and enhance energy security or countering Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Germany, the reluctant leader, is charged with bringing the euro zone debt crisis to an end. It must also shoulder its burdens as NATO’s reliable partner.

Leading Germany and Europe

The challenge for the reluctant leader — whoever it might be — is to take Germany, with its reawakened constitutional identity, and guide its partners through the stormy weather ahead.

Germans must be clear with and acknowledge one key fact: The revolution that brought down the Berlin Wall, avoided a German civil war and elected a democratic government, which validated the West German constitution for all of Germany, was a series of lucky strikes indeed. But not all nations can be so lucky (and the Germans themselves for a long time had been anything but lucky).

A sober-minded, cooperative Berlin must therefore recognize that it will have its crosses to bear. This mostly means to step up to the plate to resolve the eurozone crisis. Absent that, some core tenets of the German post-war agenda — strengthened commitment to EU integration, democratic values and support for the rule of law — are in great danger in vital parts of Europe.

On September 22, 2013 the Germans will choose a leader for Germany and the future of Europe. The world is watching.

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About J.D. Bindenagel

J.D. Bindenagel is a former U.S. Ambassador and is currently Senior Professor and founding Henry Kissinger Chair at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategy and Integration Studies, Bonn University.

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