A Love Affair with the Status Quo Time to Wake Up, Germany

China is booming, the Arab world is in tumult and the Internet is fundamentally changing the way we live -- and what is Germany doing? Instead of taking an active role in shaping the future, politicians are in standby mode. Worse yet, the German people have developed a preference for the status quo.
Von Wolfgang Ischinger
Meditations on the status quo.

Meditations on the status quo.

Foto: dapd

What is causing the new German tendency to go it alone, lamented by Munich University sociologist Ulrich Beck during a recent visit to Berlin? Why is it that "politics without a normative core," to borrow a phrase from the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, is transforming into a semi-permanent state "distinguished by a lack of perspective and creative drive"? Why is the "European Germany" once praised by former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher suddenly giving rise to a fractious German claim to leadership of a German-influenced Europe?

What is wrong with us?

Are we suffering from some new type of political paralysis? Why is it nearly impossible for our citizens to tell anymore what is at stake -- or if there is anything at all at stake beyond winning the next election? Does Germany -- does Europe -- have any goals its citizens might be able to identify, beyond reviewing write-offs for commuters or debating whether to eventually cut taxes after all?

It appears not. The recently passed nuclear phase-out hardly registers with the populace as a major national objective. Instead, it's seen as a move made out of fear in response to a distant catastrophe. It is seen as a way of preventing losses at the polls, nothing more and nothing less.

Doing Nothing Is Not an Option

It's strange, really. The world around us is changing with increasing speed, with new centers of political power and economic growth forming in Asia, while Germany argues in and about Europe, seemingly running in place. Yet Germany -- a major exporter of goods and thus more dependent on global trends in development and growth than almost any other country in the world -- ought to have an interest in spearheading this movement and helping to shape these global changes.

Doing nothing is not an option. We here in Europe kept clinging to the G-7/G-8 model, while years ago the United States and Canada took the initiative to herald the transition into the G-20, affording the organization an overdue measure of global legitimacy. Europe went along, but was never in the driver's seat. And how did the climate summit in Copenhagen go, again? Weren't the key decisions made without European participation there too?

Climate change, China, demographics, nuclear proliferation, religion, the Arab Spring, direct democracy, Facebook and cyber-warfare -- all these are keywords for dramatic changes that have enormous consequences for global security and stability, as well as for growth and prosperity. And Germany would truly rather that nothing change at all? Do we honestly think that things are bad enough now and further changes can't possibly spell anything good?

Please, no new airports, we say, at least not near our homes. In fact, we'd rather not have any large-scale construction at all, nothing along the lines of the controversial Stuttgart 21 rail project. We certainly don't want nuclear power plants, but please, no new overhead power lines either, or wind turbines in our communities, or coal mines! We'd also prefer not to have anything to do with Libya, which is to say, with NATO being in Libya. We dismiss potential new European Union members, Turkey being one of them, just as we dismiss financial aid to existing members such as Greece and dismiss solidarity with EU partners who are overrun with refugees from Northern Africa.

Losing Sight of the Future

Is this really where we, champion exporter and largest member of the EU, now find ourselves? In love with the status quo?

One thing is clear: When we focus almost exclusively on maintaining the status quo, we lose sight of the future.

Yet the Federal Republic of Germany's founding document, like the US Constitution, is an anti-status-quo document of the highest order. Germany's constitution, the Basic Law, is eminently clear in its goals, even if many people didn't take these goals -- overcoming the division of East and West Germany and establishing peace throughout Europe -- very seriously at first.

When reunification came in 1990, we lost the normative desire for change entirely, and since then we Germans have become more and more comfortable with the status quo. This is very different from the US, a country whose anti-status-quo spirit, first directed toward the British king, is still in effect today, expressing itself in the world-changing aspirations of a John F. Kennedy or even a George W. Bush.

Major goals, concrete national or European goals, ones that could put us, for example, in a position of scientific and technological leadership or at the forefront of educational policy -- such goals generally entail certain costs. And we don't want costs, except where necessary in avoiding absolute social catastrophe, paid in the form of welfare benefits.

Blatant Lack of Interest

What would happen if the EU proclaimed, for example, a goal of winning at least one Nobel Prize more than the US each year by 2025? After all, 200 million more people live here in the EU than in the United States. Unfortunately, the droning silence, the blatant lack of interest by most Germans in the projects of the future -- such as the EU's GPS satellite system, Galileo -- leave little room for hope that we could use such major goals to spur enthusiasm or even to win votes.

Outside the political arena, Germany actually displays an enormous degree of innovation, as the global success of our mid-sized businesses clearly shows. In other words, it's not as if we couldn't do it if we wanted to. But German society has privatized such things as objectives, risk-taking and innovation to the greatest extent possible. Our economy is easily able to keep up with global competition and we're champions at production, but it seems this private sector strength doesn't carry over into our politics, which are hardly even visible in their current unenthusiastic standby mode.

Yes, we apparently want to be a low-energy nation. But an awareness of the next looming election cannot and should not serve as a reason to sideline our goals. Doing so amounts to underutilizing ourselves and our citizens. Politics has to want something! It has to want to overcome the status quo, has to define goals that are worth making an effort for, has to explain why Germany's fear of change is shortsighted and owes something important to coming generations: perspectives for tomorrow and beyond.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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