Why Germany Won’t Be America’s New Geopolitical Partner

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U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to Berlin this week is many things.

On the one hand, it’s a long overdue investment in one of America’s most important bilateral relationships. It’s a thinly veiled gesture of support for German Chancellor Angela Merkel in her campaign for reelection this September. And it’s an attempt to restore some of the old magic with Europeans who feel betrayed by the man who dared to ignore them on Guantanamo, drone warfare, and climate change.

But, on the other hand, Obama’s trip is also a desperate effort to find a partner in Europe with whom the United States can finally talk serious geopolitics. America is starting to realize that, even in the age of the pivot to Asia, it still needs Europeans to get stuff done on a global scale.

The United States needs Europe to establish a transatlantic free trade area, the geopolitical goal of which is to preserve some of the West’s global preeminence. It needs Europe in the Middle East to resolve the Iran and Israel-Palestine questions, and to have some kind of consolidated approach to Syria. It needs Europeans to invest their fair share in the defense burden-sharing scheme called NATO, America’s only semifunctioning multilateral alliance. And it needs Europe to reinvent the institutions that govern the liberal world order: the G20, IMF, World Bank, and perhaps even the UN.

The problem is that America feels increasingly uneasy about its two traditional geopolitical counterparts in Europe, France and the UK. U.S. diplomats say this behind closed doors with shocking directness. France is well on the way to ruining itself economically, jettisoning any claim to geopolitical relevance. France’s largely irrelevant nuclear arms and UN veto power just don’t cut it any more as the country loses its panache.

The same goes for Britain, which is hemorrhaging military capabilities and is firmly in the grip of a Little England spasm that neuters the country’s otherwise magnificent strategic culture.

So Obama is left with Germany, the “reluctant hegemon.” That’s not a fun position to be in because it’s highly unlikely that Germany will turn into the kind of player that the United States wants and needs. As former German foreign minister Joschka Fischer stated last week with his trademark pessimism at the Wrocław Global Forum: “Don’t expect that strategic leadership will come from Germany. This is not only a problem of the present coalition. It would not change even if the opposition took over.”

The musings about why this is the case are plentiful. History, laziness, isolationism, provincialism, an allergy to all things military—all of these play a role and are well-documented. But there is one factor that is often overlooked, despite its huge importance in this context: the very nature of strategic decisionmaking, which runs counter to all postwar German instincts.

After World War II, Germans, for very good reasons, developed an insatiable desire to be on the right side of things. Nothing was more sought after than moral clarity on whatever issue might pop up. But in foreign policy—and especially on questions of war and peace—moral clarity is rarely to be had. In this policy field, decisionmakers must often choose between two (or more) deeply unsatisfactory paths of action. Just look at the current agonizing over whether to intervene in the Syrian civil war.

More than in any other country, German politicians have a profound uneasiness about making a judgment call on issues where staying “morally clean” isn’t an option. The outcome of this discomfort is avoidance—as demonstrated impressively during the UN Security Council vote on Libya, when Germany abstained.

This avoidance has become the key feature of the German foreign and security policy debate. German dodging has always been a nuisance in Europe. Now, with Germany as Europe’s indispensable nation—and with Europe’s erstwhile strategy champions lost in self-absorption—Germany’s evasion has become a geopolitical problem. More than that, it is a scandal. And it won’t end anytime soon. Germany, Europe’s swing state, prefers to continue its strategic slumber.

Obama will get his fair share of German avoidance this week. Europeans have fallen out of love with him, and not only because he continued some of the policies of his despised predecessor. It’s also because he is knee-deep in the morally unsatisfying mud of international politics. Observers are disappointed because he turned out to be Obama the president of the United States, not Obama the political redeemer. He was stained by the necessities of his job.

And so Europe’s drift continues. The big three member states are strategically absent, the EU’s own foreign policy institutions are weak, and the rest of the world is going into geopolitical hyperdrive. In short, Europe is falling behind. When even Russia, that faux giant, looks strong by comparison, you know it’s bad.

Obama is right to invest in Europe. He is right to devote special attention to Germany. But he should not expect any immediate return on his investment. If his speech in front of the Brandenburg Gate alerts just a few Germans to the dire state of global affairs, the president’s efforts will already have been a success.



Comments (13)

  • Marie
    "The problem is that America feels increasingly uneasy about its two traditional geopolitical counterparts in Europe, France and the UK. U.S. diplomats say this behind closed doors with shocking directness. France is well on the way to ruining itself economically, jettisoning any claim to geopolitical relevance. France’s largely irrelevant nuclear arms and UN veto power just don’t cut it any more as the country loses its panache."

    Irrelevant nuclear arms for you, not for the French, otherwise you wouldn't have a soft diplomacy with France, we would be treated like the "lazy" Greeks.

    But some say that Germany's economic good results aren't an insurance, Germans are leaving the country too.


    A bet, Obama will tell Merkel to not stalemate within the euro crisis.
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    • above replies...
      France is becoming irrelevant whether you like it or not.
  • Matt
    1 - France seems to be permanently criticized (for decades) for its continuous "decadence" and, to be honest, I am not so sure. Some real elaboration on this, beyond just the usual "Economist" vision of reality would be helpful.
    2 - I understand and agree with how the "German question" in Foreign and Security Policy is explained. But at the same time, I am really surprised about calling Germany "morally clean". When has Germany been morally clean AT ALL?
    3 - I would recommend to distinguish clearly between Foreign Policy and global affairs since many analysts talk about them as if they were closely connected. In fact they have never been as distant as they are today.
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  • MissErinTaylor
    "When even Russia, that faux giant, looks strong by comparison, you know it’s bad."

    Maybe this article should focus on the US's unwillingness to work with Russia, as opposed to Germany's substantial risk in opening further trade with them. As we've learned from the German Wirtschaftswunder (Economic Miracle) following WW2, with greater risk in investment comes greater reward.
    The German government may be 'morally unclean' from getting their hands dirty in Cold War hostilities, but they are actually making moves. The US is a sitting duck.
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  • Eberhard Rhein, Brussels
    I can only endorse Jan`s analysis. Germany has abandoned what remained of strategic thinking within political elites. And this is not likely to change in the future whatever the government   in power.
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  • Borderline
    Once we dig ourselves out of this economic hole the US will be stronger than ever, and Germany will come nocking our door. Pres Obama should let them be.
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  • Selim Ibraimi
    A great analysis and a lot information about the future of Europe and global affairs.
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  • César De Lucas Ivorra
    I believe Germany has to be good international relations with USA.Firstly, Germany begins to have economical problems, it´s not a great conuntry at this momento.USA is doing meetings with China, for instance in Camp David.But on another hand it´s important a mmeting with president Obama in Berlin to stop NRU political movement or small groups related to the Antique Complex Bader-Mein Hoff.These groups with a great potential could be very dangerous, like an illuminati group without control.
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  • Hugh in Berlin
    Good piece by Jan: he's certainly right about the dwindling relevance of the Brits and the French - which has only served to expose (even more) the weakness in strategic thinking in Germany (code for leadership in a nasty and unpredictable world where decision-taking is often formidably difficult).

    Probably the last successful strategic German thinker was Karl von Clausewitz: 'On War' should be required reading for all aspiring foreign policy leaders today, as it recognises the self-evident link between force and diplomacy. It's ironic if unsurprising that Britain and France (and of course the US) have always understood this better than Germany...

    Size matters in life - in international affairs as in every other aspect of human endeavour. To remedy the deficiency Jan identifies, now is the time for Germany, France and the UK to really pull together to shape and influence European foreign and security policy: that would create the sort of critical mass in terms of strategic leadership that the three individually can't deliver. The fact that this won't happen doesn't make it less true!
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  • pc
    In my opinion, this analysis focus too much on external issues (what is wrong with other countries) and too little on the intrinsic (real or perceived) economic weakness of the US. Has anyone considered that the Germans are not playing ball because the US is fast becoming a welfare state, a process that cannot be sustained for ever?
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    • Robert Chapman replies...
      PC offers an absurd and one might say, stupid, perspective.

      The EU is not a country and Germany cannot act without EU comity.

      The idea of a Germany assertive in the military or diplomatic sphere remains problematic.

      The Germans are simply too big in their own pond to move about freely and too small in the world pond to have much impact.

      Ms. Merkel is busy building the EU as a manageable and effective governing entity.

      The frictional restraints against her doing so, in Germany and in the other EU countries, are too great for her to succeed.

      But Ms. Merkel is laying the right sort of foundation for pan-Europeanism and with any sort of luck, the EU will remain in the first rank of powers as the world moves toward multi-polarism.
  • Asmatullah Asmi
    what do you know by this " When even Russia, that faux giant, looks strong by comparison, you know it’s bad."
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  • Michael Topp
    Jan Techau thinks in an old fashion way. He still believes that worldwide military interventions are a proof of strategic cleverness. They are not. Korea, Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya were/are all political failures. These interventions made the West weaker not stronger. German elites believe in the strengthening of the European Union. A strong European Union would be something that really counts. Obama may intervene in Syria or may attack Iran, but by doing this he will further weaken the West like almost all his predecessors.
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