Europe’s indispensable power

Twenty-four years after reunification, Germany has become Europe’s indispensable power. Berlin has quietly moved into a leadership position in the EU, as became most obvious during the euro crisis.

The Ukraine crisis clarified that German leadership is not limited to internal EU affairs, where Germany has always been a powerful player. Berlin also speaks and acts increasingly on behalf of the EU in foreign affairs, at least when it comes to relations with the EU’s Eastern neighbors.

Ulrich Speck
Speck was a visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where his research focuses on the European Union’s foreign policy and Europe’s strategic role in a changing global environment.
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Global powers such as the United States and China acknowledge these developments by viewing Germany as their most important European interlocutor.

How did Germany get into this position? What makes the country the indispensable power in Europe today?

First, size and geography. With more than 80 million inhabitants, Germany is the most populous EU country. German reunification created a colossus in the middle of the continent.

Moreover, Germany’s position between Western Europe and Eastern Europe, between Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, makes the country the natural point of intersection of all kinds of streams: people, goods, information, ideas, mentalities.

Having been a frontier state during the Cold War, in the last twenty-five years Germany has become the economic and infrastructural center of Europe.

What was once Germany’s handicap―its geopolitical position―has turned into an advantage. From German unification in 1871 until World War II, fear of encirclement by a hostile alliance was a main driver for German foreign policy, with the well-known fatal consequences.

But as European states have moved, in the second half of the twentieth century, from a system of competition to one of cooperation and coordination, Germany now can benefit from its geographical location, as it connects and and reflects the continent’s diversity.

What made this paradigm change in intra-European relations possible was that America after 1945 decided to stay in Europe, instead of withdrawing as it had done after World War I.

Germany benefited from both the U.S. presence in Europe and European integration

America turned into an “empire by invitation” (Geir Lundestad), and relations among Western European states became to a certain extent depoliticized.

Traditional power politics―the balance of power and the struggle for hegemony―were ended by the presence of an overwhelming power, the United States.

Washington took over control of Western European geopolitics, to the relief of most Europeans, who were exhausted by war and conflict.

Under the U.S. umbrella, and pushed by the U.S., former enemies became deeply engaged with each other.

Instead of being obsessed again with borders and national grandeur, Western Europeans became part of the consumer society, focusing on economic well-being and fair redistribution.

European states started to integrate economically and politically. Old-style power politics and the harder elements of power were removed from intra-European relations.

Relieved of competition in terms of power and feeling relatively safe in the U.S.-led system of collective security, Germans and their European partners were able to develop a system probably unique in history.

While retaining large parts of their sovereignty, they started to meddle in their neighbors’ internal affairs, going far beyond traditionally international cooperation.

Incrementally, Europeans were replacing deep-seated fear of each other with equally deep-seated trust.

It was this geopolitical environment, shaped by the U.S. and increasingly also by autonomous European integration, that allowed Germany to recover from its self-inflicted wounds, to become successful as a state again, to finally unite again and overcome moments of deep unease among neighbors.

These achievements allow Germany today to take a leadership role in the European Union. Today, Germany is widely seen as the strongest in Europe.

In an environment that is largely defined by economic interaction—the European Union—German economic strength easily translates into power.

The current weakness of Germany’s traditional partner in Europe, France, makes Germany look even stronger. And the division of the eurozone into creditors and debtors as well strengthens Berlin’s hand in intra-European affairs.

The EU’s Eastern enlargement is another factor that has contributed to German power. “New Europe” now largely looks to Germany as a regional leader.

Poland, the Czech Republic, and others have entered into the value chain of German business, and increasingly, they also expect leadership from Berlin. In November 2011, Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said that he fears “German power less than German inactivity.”

In recent years, Warsaw has worked hard to become a core partner for Germany, a goal it has achieved to a large extent: in the coalition agreement of the current coalition, Poland has been acknowledged as Germany’s second most important partner, after France.

Then there is the Angela Merkel factor. The German chancellor is highly respected in Europe, the United States, Russia, China, and elsewhere. In office since 2005, she is generally seen as Europe’s most powerful and most successful leader today.

Germany’s moment at the top may not last, however. The country doesn’t invest enough in education and infrastructure, and its demography is highly problematic. France and Britain may reassert themselves on the European scene.

And a successor to Merkel in 2017 may turn out to be less skilled than she is at handling power.

Whether German leadership lasts or not, what Berlin should do with the power it enjoys is to invest in the stability of the system which is a precondition for its national success.

There are three systems that are vital for German freedom, security, and prosperity, systems into which German statehood is embedded: the existence of a rules-based global order, the transatlantic partnership, and the European Union.

All three systems were originally set up largely by the U.S., and they have been supported, to different degrees, by Washington for decades.

But all three systems have come under increasing stress in recent years.

Preserving EU is vital to Germany

The euro crisis has unveiled deep cracks in the common European house: an institutional mess, a lack of vision, growing fragmentation, and a dangerous centrifugal dynamic.

European nation-states are unwilling to make a great leap toward a more federalist design. And a possible British exit from the EU might shake the foundations of the system and would certainly diminish the EU’s international position.

What the EU lacks most is a redefinition of its role, a vision: should it still be guided by a federalist dream, should it be scaled down to a joint market, or should it become something new and different, a sui generis entity?

For decades, different views have co-existed. But with the euro crisis and Britain’s potential exit, those ideas are coming into open conflict; narratives have started to clash.

Germany, as the EU’s current strongest player, should take the initiative and should, with like-minded European partners, work out new concepts for a future EU.

Germany has a vital interest in keeping the EU strong and capable. A decline of the EU would not only put German prosperity at risk. It would also reopen the “German Question”―a dangerous insecurity about Germany’s place in Europe―with the risk of a return of competition and confrontation between European states.

From a German perspective, the EU is vital. It provides the country with a ring of friends. And it allows Berlin to multiply its own international weight, to the extent it can win support for its position among partners in the EU.

Transatlantic security under stress

The transatlantic security system is under stress as well. America today is much less of a European power than it was during the Cold War.

Whether the United States is on the verge of a broader retreat from Europe, or even from world affairs in general, is difficult to say.

Certainly, U.S. citizens have become much less willing to take responsibility for an extensive definition of American interests, and the role of global policeman certainly looks unattractive for most Americans today.

Despite the appearance of a momentary U.S. comeback in Europe in the Ukraine crisis, Europeans must be prepared for the likelihood that Americans are going to be less and less willing to underwrite European security.

In June 2011, outgoing U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates warned: “Future U.S. political leaders―those for whom the Cold War was not the formative experience that it was for me―may not consider the return on America’s investment in NATO worth the cost.”

For years Europeans have been discussing the need to fill the gap resulting from U.S. disengagement by doing more to keep their neighborhood stable.

But this talk has only partly been followed up by action; in the Balkans, the EU indeed became a key player.

But in Europe’s Southern neighborhood (including the Middle East), the EU today is largely absent. In the Ukraine crisis, Germany has taken the lead, but only after years of neglect of the Eastern neighborhood in favor of relations with Russia.

And in the Ukraine crisis as well, Washington has remained an important player, especially on the side of hard power, by taking measures to reassure NATO members in Central and Eastern Europe.

Germany and the use of force

That points to an important handicap on Germany’s ability to play a larger foreign policy role, in particular when it comes to managing crises: the unwillingness to consider military means as a tool of foreign policy.

If the use of force is always a priori excluded, if measures such as military reassurance and deterrence and the build-up of military capabilities in other countries aren’t part of the toolbox, foreign policy is very much constrained in its capability and efficiency. And the side that is ready to use force has a significant advantage.

A deep aversion to the use of military power has characterized Germany since the end of the Second World War. Germans rearmed in the 1950s only under huge U.S. pressure.

In the 1990s, after German reunification, there was a lot of talk about “normalization,” or Germany becoming more like Britain and France, including the readiness to use military force as a tool of last resort.

And indeed, under the red-green coalition of Gerhard Schröder and Joschka Fischer, Germany participated in two wars, in Kosovo and Afghanistan.

But in recent years, Germans have moved back into their comfort zone. The Iraq War and the war in Afghanistan are widely seen as a confirmation of the view that war can’t be an instrument of foreign policy.

Germany’s decision in 2011 not to support its allies in a military intervention in Libya wasn’t an accident, it was an expression of a broad consensus in Germany.

At the same time, and somewhat paradoxically, Germans know deep inside that they are vulnerable and that their country relies on the United States as their ultimate security guarantor.

Even for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the Social Democrats―a party that is usually more critical of military power than Merkel’s Christian Democrats are―the transatlantic alliance remains “the backbone” of German security.

But that foundation of German security can’t be taken for granted. NATO will only remain relevant if major members invest in the alliance.

Germany should be much more aware of that risk and become the driver of a new commitment to NATO; it should work on building a much stronger European core inside the alliance.

If NATO is Germany’s ultimate life insurance, Berlin must invest in it. Within the alliance, Germany should partner with Eastern neighbors who are committed to keeping the alliance strong, as a credible deterrence against Russian aggression. Making Central and Eastern Europe safe is in Berlin’s interest, as it also makes Germany safe.

But there is much more to the transatlantic alliance than a security guarantee for Europe. The United States, Canada, and the EU remain the core of the liberal West, together with like-minded partners in Asia and elsewhere.

These liberal democracies share a double interest: first, to remain safe, prosperous, and free at home, and second, to build a global order that is complementary—to make the world safe for liberal democracy and market economy.

Securing and enlarging the sphere of liberal order, defending it against attacks by autocratic regimes and by forces of disorder are a major challenge for liberal democracies.

Russia’s attack on Ukraine is one of the test cases for the EU’s preparedness to stand up for that order, the civil war in Syria another.

China presents a further major challenge, as it is slowly but surely changing the status quo in the seas to its south and east, thereby destabilizing a region on which European prosperity increasingly relies.

Germany as a stabilizing power

Germany, as a deeply globalized country, has huge stakes in this order. Germany’s economic success relies on the ability to send goods, people, and information safely around the globe.

That requires the existence of a physical global infrastructure, but also a normative web of rules, institutions, and like-minded partners. Liberal democracies are the natural partners in that enterprise.

In a Hobbesian world, by contrast, Germany would have bad cards. Its power is not based on autonomy or autarky but on deep interconnectedness with neighbors and partners.

If the currency of global competition were military strength, Germany would either have to change its identity fundamentally or be fully at the mercy of other, much more ruthless players.

If Germany wants to remain a largely “civilian power” and continue to benefit from being embedded in a European, transatlantic, and global system that has brought the country the best decades in its history, then Germany needs to do more to stabilize the existing order.

It has the means to do so, as the country today plays in the league of the top five most influential states.

The biggest handicap on a more active foreign policy is probably domestic. Germans are largely in denial about their country’s global role.

They feel very comfortable staying on the sidelines. There is no ambition to lead―quite the opposite. And Germany’s foreign policy culture has remained rather weak and remains institutionally weak, despite the country’s growing international role.

In the past decades, Germany has been lucky that others were shaping an international environment which allowed the country to become free, safe, and rich.

Now its protector, America, is partly retiring from its former role, and Germany has the means to take on more responsibility for stabilizing this environment itself. It has every interest to do so.

This article was originally published in the print-version of Nomos & Khaos on November 3, 2014.