BERLIN — As the world reeled from Donald Trump’s victory in the United States four years ago, a series of headlines in American and British media outlined a new argument: If America abandoned its traditional responsibilities on the international stage, as some feared the incoming US president would do, Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel could be a logical choice to fill the vacuum. Merkel, some wrote, was the de facto “new leader of the free world” or “the liberal West’s last defender.”
Politicians and policymakers in Berlin scoffed at such declarations with, under the surface, a twinge of unease. Of course Germany couldn’t fill the role the United States would leave behind, many said; no one country could do that. Still, they knew Trump’s election would make long-standing calls for Germany to take on greater leadership even more urgent, meaning its leaders would have a harder time resisting the growing pressure to step up.
These discussions resurrected a central question: What part should Germany—to which Henry Kissinger famously referred as “too big for Europe, too small for the world”—actually play in Europe and on the global stage? To the rest of the world, speculation about the country’s becoming a leading global power in its own right seemed natural: Germany is an economic and political powerhouse within Europe, after all. The fact that its government has been steadily helmed for the last 15 years by Merkel, an ardent believer in the post-Cold War liberal world order, helped cement a certain image of the country.
But the way the world sees Germany is not the way Germany, often referred to as a “reluctant hegemon,” has typically seen itself. That reluctance comes, understandably, from its history: Everyone remembers what happened the last time Germans had ambitions of leading the world, and the scars of the Nazi era still run deep here. Politicians and foreign policy experts—not to mention the public—have typically approached their role with trepidation, focusing foreign policy on multilateralism and shying away from military conflict.
But things are changing, sped by the Trump administration’s “America First” policy and withdrawal from the United States’ leadership role. The sudden unpredictability and unreliability of Germany’s most important international partner have forced officials to recognize the liberal world order is shifting both within Europe and around the globe, meaning Germany needs to do more. Even when a Biden administration enters the White House, calls for greater European sovereignty with Germany at the helm are unlikely to die down.
“The last four years were a wake-up call,” said Peter Beyer, a member of the Bundestag from Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and Germany’s transatlantic coordinator. “For the first time in the last decades, Germany and at least part of the European Union needs to deliver for their own interests and to secure their own way of living because the Americans will play a diminishing role and are heavily bound domestically.”
What remains to be seen is what exactly “delivering” means—and how well Germany can and will balance its own national interests with those of the European Union.
As with so many things in Germany, the country’s ambivalent attitude toward its leadership is rooted in history. Less than a century ago, Germany under the Nazis was responsible for untold death and suffering. If that’s what happens when the country leads, how can it be trusted to take on such power again?
In the years since, “historic responsibility” has been at the core of Germany’s approach to foreign policy. Its leaders have embraced an approach rooted in multilateralism, advocating consensus-building and international collaboration.
That attitude has had a broad effect on foreign policy, but especially in military and security issues. When it comes to taking part in combat operations, for example, most Germans fall somewhere along the spectrum of deeply uncomfortable to viscerally opposed. The country also has a complicated relationship with the state of and pride in a national military: Germany’s Bundeswehr lacks basic supplies, and military planes carrying even high-level politicians break down so often that it’s become something of a running joke. And on the issue of defense spending, Germany’s amounted to around 1.3 percent of GDP last year, well below the 2 percent called for by NATO.
James Bindenagel, a former US ambassador to Germany who now teaches at the Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-University in Bonn, said reunification in 1990 represented a natural turning point: With democratic elections in the east, a culture of grassroots support for human rights and freedoms and the sovereignty Germany regained, the newly reunified country theoretically reached a point where the traditional excuses about history stopped holding weight. What’s more, Germany has taken great pains to critically examine its Nazi past, building protections against such a political force into its constitution and political culture.
But Bindenagel, who recently wrote a book about Germany’s role in the world, said its leaders have become complacent since the fall of the Berlin Wall and haven’t fully recognized their role needs to change. “I call it the banality of good times,” he told me. “They’ve had 30 years of good times… everything was fine, so why change?”
Others have also argued that Germany has reached a point where its history is more of an excuse than a legitimate reason for avoiding the international political spotlight. All this, combined with the shifting role of the United States, has only contributed to the growing expectation over the last decade that Germany do more on the international stage. As Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s then-foreign minister, said in 2011: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.”
The election of Donald Trump in November 2016—and his subsequent decision not just to pull back from America’s leadership role on the international stage but actively treat much of Europe (and Germany in particular) as a foe—did indeed intensify calls for European solidarity and German leadership, although it took a while for German policymakers to accept them.
“The forces at play within Europe and then the specter that the United States is not playing the role that it used to play is somewhat a reality now in people’s heads here,” Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the German Marshall Fund’s Berlin office, told me. “Although Biden will certainly restore America’s traditional alliance system, there is also a clear expectation that Germany and Europe also have to do more in terms of being a partner on the global stage in terms of confronting common challenges.”
Moving to Germany in 2017 and reporting on transatlantic relations has given me the opportunity to watch these shifts happen in real time. Back in the days leading to Trump’s 2017 inauguration, I asked Norbert Röttgen, head of the Bundestag’s foreign relations committee and a candidate to replace Merkel, about those headlines naming her the new leader of the free world. What did he think should happen if the US really did pull back from its traditional role on the world stage?
“This is not Realpolitik that Germany could step in,” Röttgen told me then. “It’s really far, far beyond any realistic expectation for what Germany could do.” Noting that his country is “experiencing a new responsibility” on the global stage since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014 and was adjusting to that newfound expectation of leadership, he said even the EU as a whole couldn’t fill America’s role on the global stage. “So I explicitly reject the possibility of a plan B,” he said. “There cannot be a plan B for a withdrawal of the United States so my position is we must not let this happen, we must not and cannot accept any kind of withdrawal… there is no substitute for this approach.”
A reflection of a policymaker’s signaling as much as heartfelt conviction, perhaps, but two years later, in an interview in his office in Berlin, Röttgen struck a different tone. He told me Trump had provided a huge jolt to German policymakers, many of whom (himself included) were slow to react to the ramifications of an “America First” foreign policy. “Today we see much more clearly than we did two years ago: Trump represents a turning point in transatlantic, German-American relations,” he said. “In his thinking, the postwar conception of alliances and systems, and the claim of the US to lead and spread these alliances internationally, does not really matter.” He likened the relationship between the United States and Germany to a semi-abusive parent questioning its love for its child, saying it was time for Germany to step out of its subservient role: “When the parents act that way, then the children need to grow up. We need to grow up.”
Since that interview in 2019, Röttgen’s comments have more or less become the conventional wisdom among leading politicians and diplomats: Most have embraced the idea that the country should take on greater responsibility within Europe and help ensure the EU is capable of action in its own right. Views among the European populace seem to reflect that shift as well: Nearly half of respondents in a 2019 Pew Research Center study, conducted in 10 European countries, said Germany plays a more important role in foreign affairs today than it did a decade ago. (In contrast, respondents said both France’s and the UK’s roles are in decline.)
In her first remarks after Biden’s projected victory, Merkel nodded to the need for a stronger role for Germany and Europe even with a Biden administration at the helm. “We Germans and we Europeans know that in this partnership in the 21st century we need to take on more responsibility,” Merkel said. “America is and remains our most important partner. But rightly so, it expects stronger efforts on our part to ensure our security and stand up for our convictions in the world. And we Europeans have finally started down this path.”
A lot of Germans realize that Germany will have to do more, but they have a tough time agreeing on what ‘more’ is supposed to be exactly.
The only problem with this now widely accepted push toward greater German responsibility is that no one seems to have a good answer for what exactly it would entail. Greater engagement in leading Europe, sure, but what does that mean tangibly?
“A lot of Germans realize that Germany will have to do more, but they have a tough time agreeing on what ‘more’ is supposed to be, exactly,” said Marcel Dirsus, a political scientist and nonresident fellow at the University of Kiel’s Institute for Security Policy.
Most people I spoke with said a newly reimagined German leadership role should center around ensuring the European Union is strong—and stays united—so it can better advocate for itself on the global stage and help confront major international challenges. “When one says Germany needs to take on more responsibility in the world, that means Germany should contribute more within the EU so that the EU—and also Germany—can take on more responsibility,” Nils Schmid, the foreign policy spokesman for the center-left Social Democrats and a member of the Bundestag, told me recently.
Germany has indeed begun stepping up to that challenge in certain ways, something that’s been on display as the EU has responded to the pandemic. Earlier this year, as EU leaders debated a coronavirus recovery fund, German leadership—and Germany’s willingness to embrace a mutual debt-based plan, contrary to its highly controversial stance during the euro crisis—was crucial for getting the deal passed. That the country happens to hold the six-month rotating EU presidency in the second half of 2020 felt fitting.
“Not only diplomatically and foreign policy-wise but also in response to the coronavirus crisis—the Next Generation EU Recovery Plan, corona bonds and such things—Germany has shown a different reaction than it did after the 2010 financial crisis,” Schmid said. “Germany has taken on greater economic responsibility within the EU during the coronavirus crisis.”
But keeping the EU together is a tall task in a time when the bloc faces major threats from both within and without. Inside the EU, fundamental debates about protecting the rule of law—and whether and how to punish member states like Hungary and Poland that challenge those values domestically—are raging more strongly than ever. And the range of global challenges, from the coronavirus pandemic to the climate crisis to China’s growing influence, require urgent action.
In other ways, German leadership within Europe and its stated commitment to multilateralism clashes with decisions made in Germany’s national interest—some of which threaten, at least symbolically, the European cohesion leaders here believe it’s their role to foster.
Chief among them is Nord Stream 2, an 800-mile pipeline project set to transport gas directly from Russia to Germany via the Baltic Sea. Controversial since its inception, the project faced even more scrutiny this summer after the poisoning of the Russian opposition leader Alexander Navalny. Although Russian President Vladimir Putin denies government involvement in the poisoning, many have called on Merkel to put a moratorium on the project or cancel it outright. The issue highlights the line Germany is trying to walk by maintaining good relations with Russia—and the contradictions inherent in some German leaders’ belief that trade and economic issues can remain separate from political ones.
Issues such as Nord Stream 2 undermine Germany’s efforts to foster European cohesion and are counterproductive in securing the goodwill necessary to lead effectively within the bloc, said Omid Nouripour, a member of the Bundestag for the Greens and the party’s spokesman on foreign policy issues.
“If we can show that we are ready to give up nationalism and a national egoism for the sake of this bigger goal [of keeping the EU together], I think people in the other countries want to see us taking on more responsibility and more leadership,” said Nouripour, whose Greens are widely seen as a potential coalition partner after next fall’s federal elections. “But therefore it’s obviously necessary to be credible and not drive projects which undermine this trust, like Nord Stream 2, which is exactly the European divider driven by Germany.”
Domestic politics within Germany, too, sometimes threaten the country’s coherent leadership within Europe, a dynamic that will likely only worsen in the lead-up to the elections. A fresh debate this month over approving the military’s use of armed drones—Merkel’s CDU backs the policy while its coalition partner, the SPD, withheld support—showcased the extent to which some questions of German security and military policy remain unresolved.
“In many other countries these things are common-sense. It’s only in Germany, really, that you have to keep arguing about these fundamentals,” Dirsus, of the University of Kiel, said. “That’s why so many of these foreign policy debates are so unproductive: We have to keep re-litigating these basics.”
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The coming years will be crucial for renewing and redefining the transatlantic relationship, an integral factor in understanding and shaping Germany’s international role. What makes it all the more difficult is that opinions within Europe about how best to engage with—and whether to rely on—the United States differ starkly. With the German elections on the horizon next September, and a contentious presidential race in France in spring 2022, these issues will also continue to be in flux.
Just last month, a public spat between French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer laid bare the extent to which these questions are very much unsettled in Europe. Macron suggested that despite the incoming Biden administration, Europe needs to develop its own “strategic autonomy” from the United States because Washington has become an unreliable partner. Kramp-Karrenbauer, for her part, argued that decoupling from the United States is exactly the wrong decision: “Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider,” she wrote in a Politico Europe op-ed.
The incoming Biden administration will certainly make some things easier for its European counterparts: Everyone I spoke with was relieved that, come January, they’ll be dealing with an administration that offers a basic level of shared values and doesn’t treat them as a foe. Policymakers here weren’t prepared for the untold amount of damage another four years of Trump would have done to transatlantic relations and institutions like NATO.
But some of the expectations for greater European efforts that Trump so loudly demanded, such as the 2-percent contributions to NATO and criticism of Nord Stream 2, won’t go away—they’ll just be worded more kindly. That will also make them harder to ignore. As a result, the new occupant of the White House won’t derail calls for greater European autonomy on security issues and greater European initiative in tackling global challenges.
“I’m not a fan of the 2 percent [NATO defense spending commitment], but of course we have to do much more,” Nouripour said. “We have to take care of our own neighborhood and not just wait for the American cavalry to come—because it won’t come anymore. We see that every day.”
Top photo: World leaders gather in Hamburg for the G20 summit in 2017 (www.kremlin.ru)