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The Return of the German Problem

How has the increased fluidity of European and transatlantic relations affected German political identity?

February 17, 2004

How has the increased fluidity of European and transatlantic relations affected German political identity?

The period between the summers of 2002 to 2003 has turned out to be a crucial one in the history of Germany's foreign policy: It has reopened what is often referred to as the German question.

There had been talk for some time about the changing political culture and leadership of the new "Berlin Republic."

What people mean with that reference is that many of the constants of the comfortable "Bonn Republic" — lasting from 1949 to 1990 when Germany by and large acted as a docile understudy of the United States — are gone.

The increasing fluidity of the international environment — and the trigger of the Iraq-WMD dispute brought this to the forefront.

Germans may cherish this new-found independence. But to paraphrase John Foster Dulles, the Berlin Republic faces an "agonizing reappraisal" of its foreign policy options.

Like it or not, the leaders of the Berlin Republic are back to a Bismarckian strategy of shifting coalitions. And they risk reopening the old German question about an unanchored Germany.

Throughout modern history, there have been three fundamental circles to German foreign policy — the Atlantic, the west European and the central European (or Mitteleuropa) circles.

The crisis over Iraq has clearly weakened greatly the centrality of the transatlantic link for the Berlin Republic.

That is why it is fair to say Germany changed in a fundamental way in 2002 and 2003.

What began as a temporary tactical shift of the German Chancellor toward Paris — and away from Washington — has now taken on a more strategic nature. The European priority, in fact, has taken precedence over the Atlantic imperative.

American power is now regarded with suspicion — and not simply as an opportunity. The legacy of Iraq for Germany is that the biggest world order problem of the early 21st century is the problem of American power.

A weakening of its Atlantic ties may raise renewed fears about a Germany unbound in Europe.

The American connection reassured Germany's European partners about the restraints on German power.

The growing distance between Berlin and Washington means that old concerns may return in "New Europe," especially in Poland.

As the German historian Michael Stürmer has written, "the German Question, put in its crudest form, has always been twofold: To whom Germany belongs, and to whom the Germans owe their allegiance.

"In 1990, it was in the fine print of the 'Two Plus Four' agreement that united Germany should continue to be firmly rooted in the European Union… and be the most loyal member of the Atlantic Alliance."

Now that the Atlantic pillar is weakened — if not crumbling — what will be the resilience of the European pillar of German policy? The European pillar for Germany really consists of the west and central European circles of German policy.

German policy since unification has attempted to reconcile these two circles by integrating the old Mitteleuropa into the west European pillar through EU integration and expansion of membership in NATO.

However, the "triple whammy" — that is, the Iraq crisis, the violation by Germany and France of the Stability Pact and the deadlock within the European convention — have raised the specter of a split Europe and a slowing or reversal of the trend toward ever greater European integration.

Added to this is the prospect of a weak and drifting Germany preoccupied with economic and demographic stagnation.

The inability of Germany to serve as Europe's paymaster will have serious implications for the Common Agricultural Policy, enlargement and regional development policies.

Combined with the parochialism of the current generation of German leaders, the danger signs are abundant that the German question is about to return to center stage in a new form in Europe.

The answer to the new German question rests, therefore, on whether the European construction can and will hold. There is little prospect of a revitalization of the closeness of the transatlantic relationship.

While the extensive economic relationship with the United States will remain strong — and may even grow — the strategic relationship was fundamentally weakened by the end of the division of Germany and the disappearance of the Soviet threat.

America and Germany now have diverging strategic interests and threat assessments — and the relationship's real foundation has been strategic.

Economics and values have buffered and even sustained ties across the ocean, but cannot provide a substitute for a sound strategic base. As Bismarck noted, nations have interests — not friends.

There have always been two dimensions to the German problem, one internal and the other external. The internal German problem was related to the failure of democracy.

As the historian Heinrich August Winkler concluded in his study of Germany's way to westernization, "It was not the solution of the question of national unity which stands at the beginning of the road to catastrophe, but the failure to settle the question of freedom."

This internal problem has been solved. Germany is a mature and stable democracy. However, the external dimension of the German problem has returned.

Being at the heart of Europe, Germans have never been able to cleanly separate foreign and domestic policies.

The external dimension of the German problem concerns the role of German power within the broader European system of balances and the inability of the major European powers to balance and contain the rising power of unified Germany.

Germany, therefore, faces a return to the Bismarckian dilemma, if it faces both a more fluid transatlantic and European milieu.

It has turned to France and the Franco-German pillar as a means of avoiding the isolation, which has come with German power since 1871.

But it remains uncertain whether this orientation will provide the foundation for stability in a larger and more fluid Europe.