Germany’s responsibility in Europe is to become the continent’s servant leader. In 1970, Robert Greenleaf, an American business manager and scholar with a keen interest in the art of leadership, framed the famous principle of servant leadership. He claimed that “the first and most important choice a leader makes is the choice to serve, without which one’s capacity to lead is severely limited.” Germany now faces a similar choice. The decision that it will make will have grave consequences for the future of European integration, stability on the continent, and the transatlantic relationship.
Two things stand in the way of Germany becoming the enlightened conductor of European affairs. First, the country operates in the 21st century with a 1950s strategic culture. While timidity, pacifism and the avoidance of strategic discourse served a morally and economically bankrupt nation well after WW2, they keep today’s Germany from realizing how important and powerful it is. They keep Germans from understanding that, in the words of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, theirs is Europe’s indispensable nation.
Second, during the nearly five decades of being under Allied custodianship, Germans were relieved of the need to fend for their own survival. This bred a culture of irresponsibility for themselves and for others. Today, the absence of felt responsibility for the world surrounding Germany is the most worrisome feature of the country’s foreign policy. Examples of that absence of felt responsibility can be found everywhere: abstaining on Libya; caveats in Afghanistan; sleepwalking through the euro crisis; putting the brakes on EU foreign policy; and refusing to contribute to the development of NATO.
However, in marked contrast to earlier phases in its history, Germany harbours no desire to dominate its neighbours, or to rule the continent by some informal diktat from Berlin. Quite the contrary: there is nothing for which Germans have a greater preference than being left unbothered by the demanding political realities around them. Instead, they wish that they could simply reimmerse themselves in the comfortable, apolitical world of Biedermeier – cushioned by ever-increasing demand for their high-quality industrial export products.
But the demand for leadership in Europe is immense. Naturally, European leaders look to the largest, strongest and most centrally located country for guidance. They desire an internationally minded Germany that is aware of its strength, solidaire, protective and engaged. They do not fear German tank divisions, but rather German self-centeredness and endless soul-searching.