Berlin’s New Pragmatism: Will It Be Enough After Trump’s Election?

By Stefan Fröhlich
German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Armin Linnartz [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

From Russia to refugees, from the eurozone to TTIP, from Brexit to President-elect Donald Trump – at a time of radical uncertainties and a fast-changing European and global environment, Germany knows that it cannot escape from more responsibility. At the same time, Berlin is overwhelmed by expectations which it cannot fulfill alone. After Trump’s election, it is time that the debate among Berlin’s European and transatlantic partners about Germany’s future role in Europe and in the world reaches beyond stereotypes and a conception of Germany as the European Union’s central power. A clearer and more objective understanding of the goals and limits of German leadership is needed.

There are two competing points of view on the direction of Germany’s role. The first view, which has representatives on both sides of the Atlantic but is particularly strong in the United Kingdom and United States, expects Berlin to maintain its “strategic complacency,” or avoidance of big issues and leadership. While neighbors and partners clamor for more German leadership, Berlin will focus instead on successfully managing domestic political conflicts.

The alternative view sees Berlin accepting the burden of responsibility that follows from its relative economic strength and assuming the role of the “pre-eminent” power in Europe, pro-actively shaping developments in the Middle East and some aspects of the transatlantic relationship.

Though Germany led the way in the Greek crisis and played a key role in the Ukrainian crisis, the first view maintains that it will remain the “reluctant power” or “unwilling hegemon,” never becoming the United States’ new “geopolitical partner.” In the second view, Germany either has the willingness to incrementally take greater responsibility or has already assumed a larger role in shaping Europe and preserving the liberal world order by using its “geo-economic and structural power” to extend its influence and advance its interests.

In fact, there is ample evidence that there has been a shift toward a greater international role for Germany, and Berlin is about to overcome the traditional tendency towards complacency. Even those analysts and policymakers who praised Germany’s “culture of restraint” in the past are now talking about “leading from the center” and necessary investments in all dimensions of power – with considerable implications for Europe and the integration process, as well as for transatlantic relations. So the second view of a Berlin more ready to lead is right. That does not mean, however, that the country is undergoing a complete overhaul of its strategic culture and foreign policy identity.

The current multi-faceted role of Germany in Europe and in the world is still driven by a high degree of flexibility and pragmatism. Berlin is still struggling with being catapulted into the position of Europe’s central power by Germany’s strength relative to the weakness of others in Europe. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s pragmatism is the consequence of Germany’s dilemma: no matter what kind of leadership Berlin offers and how creatively analysts describe Germany’s new role, German strength is seen as a risk rather than an asset to the EU. This produces arguments about the paradox of the “semi-hegemon,” which can impose its will on its partners on economic policy, but lacks the resources to be a true European hegemon (with “only” 28 percent of the eurozone’s GDP).

Given that the EU as an organization was not designed for unilateral or coercive leadership, Germany has developed a rather flexible and nuanced role as the leader of Europe. Berlin has indeed assumed the role of the central geo-economic power in the governance of Europe and above all in its macroeconomic management, but has also had to make compromises; though it had to give more of a bailout than it wanted, the government still managed to avoid a “transfer union” model. Germany has become the chief facilitator on the Ukrainian crisis, and for the first time, it has showed the readiness to play a strategic role in the world of foreign affairs. But, it will never be able to tame any East-West tensions in Europe and rein in Russia’s territorial ambitions on its own. Finally, Berlin tried to play the role of benign hegemon on refugees, agreeing to shoulder on a heavy burden itself in order to facilitate a common solution, but it was rejected by its EU partners.

In all of these crises, Germany pursued its policies not in isolation, but in cooperation with other partners and institutions. This is not a politics of forging ad hoc-coalitions “from the center” for defensive purposes, but rather an attempt to realize a vision of a unified Europe based on the concept of transnational security policy.

Skeptics can be reassured that Germany is taking on leadership. But expectations should be also realistic. The hard truth is foreign and security politics in this fragile world are largely about chronic crisis management, in which leaders are forced to reach for relatively little gain at great effort. Another truth is that Germany’s role in defending the liberal international order may have become even more crucial after the unthinkable happened in the United States (as Merkel’s immediate reaction of cooperation conditional on common Western values proved), but Berlin will certainly not replace the United States to become the new beacon of that order as it simply lacks the resources. This is not the moment for triumphalism about Germany’s new influence (“suddenly Europe is speaking German”), but it is the time for more German leadership. Berlin, provided the current coalition government survives the sea change currently underway in domestic politics in next year’s federal elections, as is highly likely, will steadily increase its degree of involvement in international security affairs – with all the obstacles and setbacks inherent to any leadership.

This article was originally published on November 10, 2016 as part of the German Marshall Fund's Transatlantic Take Series.

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