Rethinking Europe

Merkel´s Bismarck Moment 2020/21

Will Germany learn to live up to the harder part of its global responsibilities?

Credit: 360b Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • November 18th, 2020 is a momentous day in the annals of German history.
  • What an opportunity for Germany to push her priorities: Multilateralism, the rule of law, European solidarity -- and more!
  • Will Germany learn to live up to the harder part of its global responsibilities?
  • Critics would point to a German government reflex to preferably see itself merely as the convener of conferences.
  • Due to a lack of colonial remnants, Germany is actaully better suited than others to help overcome the challenges which the global south is putting in Europe’s way.

November 18th, 2020 is a momentous day in the annals of German history. On that day, Germany will assume the Chair of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe.

A big moment

That doesn’t sound like much — until you add to that that the country also holds the Presidency of the Council of the European Union during the 2nd half of 2020.

In addition, Germany is a member of the UN Security Council (until December 31st). And, finally, it also has the Presidency of the (intergovernmental) Financial Action Task Force (FATF) for one year from July 1st, 2020 onward).

This coincidence makes for an international leadership role that Germany has arguably not enjoyed since the days of Bismarck. At the time, Bismarck successfully convened the Congress of Berlin in 1878 to end one of the many wars in the Balkans.

What an opportunity for Germany to push her priorities: Multi-lateralism, the rule of law, European solidarity — and more!

The big question today is: Can Germany live up to this role?

Wanted: A less timid Germany

For some years now, the German government has been under pressure from outside the country to assume more responsibility in international affairs.

Meanwhile, more often made references to Germany in international policy discussions describing it as “the reluctant hegemon” have not exactly helped things along.

Understandably, Germans and German policymakers remain very sensitive to any such notions because of their country’s disastrous history between 1914 and 1945.

One question that needs to be asked of Germans more insistently, however, is whether they carry around this argument as a shield to keep them from the risks involved in having to operate in dicier international environments — as the United States, the UK, France and others often (have to) do.

When acting responsibly meant acting timidly

After 1949, Germany prospered by gradually building a strong and resilient open society. At the same time, successive governments felt that the country should not make its voice in world affairs heard more than absolutely necessary.

Until the early 1990s, this was exactly what the world expected of the country that had lost the war and brought such misery and devastation on large parts of Europe.

To guard decisively against the re-occurrence of any mishaps, even far more limited ones, the (West) German constitution was carefully framed.

Still, when German armed forces were reintroduced in the 1950s as part of the Western alliance, that move faced considerable resistance at home and abroad.

A whole range of safeguarding measures was brought in to make absolutely sure that Germany would not be able to use them for political ends of its own. Importantly, all German troops were put under NATO command, unlike other members who kept parts of them in their own hands.

A legacy of geopolitical timidity

In actual fact, German governments never did develop ends of their own in a geopolitical sense.

In what with the benefit of hindsight is seen as a particular fortuitous moment of timing, when Germany was reunited in 1990, even Russia did not stand in the way.

It preferred to see NATO come nearer to its own border than have Germany develop strategic goals of its own.

None of this seems to hold today. This matters greatly because we live in a world that needs active management — and not just bystanders.

Germany: A latter-day Austria?

Accordingly, in what manner precisely Germany’s global responsibility (“Deutschlands Verantwortung in der Welt”) should be exercised has been a catchword in the international debate for some years now.

Critics would point to a German government reflex to preferably see itself merely as the convener of conferences — sort of a latter-day version of the role that Austria played between East and West during the years of the Cold War.

The only difference being that Germany’s Maitre D role is not limited to European conflict lines — but is exercised globally.

Changed calculus

The way in which Brexit does have a very direct impact on Germany does not lie, as many Germans think and British negotiators like to suggest, in a significantly reduced potential for car exports to the British Isles.

Rather, with the UK leaving the European Union, prime responsibility for developing the EU’s global role now rests with France and Germany.

And, for Germany, that means becoming geopolitically active, which is risky, but unavoidable for its own national self-interest — and certainly for the EU’s collective self-interest.

A country that has always put such emphasis on “stability” simply cannot continue to limit the support mechanisms for such stability to economic policy and central bank operations.

This is all the more inevitable, as European defense is no longer able to rely on U.S. support to anywhere near the same degree as in decades past — even under President Joe Biden, who is a big fan of the transatlantic alliance.

A good 70-year record to build on

Living up to this expanded — and, yes, riskier — form of responsibility should be eminently doable. After all, Germany regained its new-found respectability and political maneuvering space over the past seven decades not by the use of arms and political arm-twisting.

Rather, it regained it by never forgetting what had happened before 1945, by peacefully reuniting according to the will of its people in 1990 and by admitting large numbers of desperate refugees and migrants in 2015.

Germans today are acknowledged for caring for the world’s destitute and homeless, as much as for their global business interests. This should provide the basis for taking on increased responsibility.

Back to Bismarck in 1878

Bismarck, in 1878, was respected as an honest broker, and respectability was what he was trying to achieve for the newly united Germany.

Today, Germany has no Bismarck. At times, the outgoing German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has tried herself in that role.

But what really matters as a core building bloc is that Germany’s civil society in particular is well connected globally, respected for its achievements and trusted by citizens more than the state is.

Due to a lack of colonial remnants, Germany is actually better suited than others to help overcome the challenges which the global south is putting in Europeans way.

By working together closely — and on a level playing field — European governments, businesses and civil society are called upon to devise a new and appropriate governance model for the 21st century — and beyond.

Conclusion

To be sure, that is a “battlefield” which today’s and tomorrow’s Germans — by drawing on the potential on offer — can responsibly contribute, both to shaping the future of Europe — and to remodeling Europe’s outreach to the world.

It is largely these activities that will define Germany’s increased responsibility.

Germany should not solely raise its defense budget to reassure its allies — and let foes know that it is responding to the call.

It has more assets than that at its disposal to put its weight into constructing a new global, open and multilateral order to replace the one that has come to its end.

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About Rupert Strachwitz

Rupert Strachwitz is a political scientist and historian.

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