The Reluctant Giant Why Germany Shuns Its Global Role

The world admires Germany and would like to see more active engagement from the country. But Germans themselves are reluctant and Chancellor Merkel has steered clear of taking on more global responsibility. Berlin should rethink its role in the world.


An Essay by Ullrich Fichtner

When a German reads current travel guides about Germany, written by foreigners clearly enamored of the country, he feels noticeably better afterwards. The travel guides praise Germany as a colorful, high-energy, beautiful country, a European power center in every possible way, a miracle world of culture and technology, inventive and with an entrepreneurial spirit, "truly … a 21st-century country."

That's what Rick Steves, a Germanophile American, writes in the latest edition of his "Germany" travel guide, published at the beginning of the year. Of course, he doesn't omit the clichés about schnitzel and the Oktoberfest, the Black Forest and Neuschwanstein Castle, but he is most enthusiastic about the modern, bustling Germany, which has "risen from the ashes of World War II to become the world's fifth-largest industrial power."

Steves raves indiscriminately about Germany's ICE trains, gleaming cities, world-class museums, the new Berlin and the Germans themselves, who he describes as people with bold "Type A" personalities. "Their cars are legendary," Steves writes, "BMW, Mercedes Benz, Volkswagen, Audi and Porsche. We ride German elevators and trains (ThyssenKrupp and Siemens), take German medicines (Bayer), use German cosmetics (Nivea) and eat German goodies (Haribo's Gummi Bears)." Similar, more or less eulogistic descriptions appear in many new travel guides on Germany.

'Most Popular Country'

Today, 68 years after the end of the war and 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we Germans are respected, admired and sometimes even loved. The fact that we generally don't know what to do with all this admiration, because we collectively still seem to assume that we are not likeable and therefore must be unpopular, is a problem that very quickly becomes political. It's obvious that Germans' perception of themselves and the way we are perceived by others differ dramatically.

Even if some would not consider a travel guide to be the most credible basis for political reflections, it's easy to find other sources of praise for Germany and the Germans. The BBC conducts an annual poll to name the "most popular country in the world." Germany came in a clear first in the latest poll, and it wasn't the first time. Some 59 percent of 26,000 respondents in 25 countries said that the Germans exert a "positive influence" in the world (and not surprisingly, the only country in which the view of Germany is overwhelmingly negative at the moment is Greece).

In the "Nation Brands Index" prepared by the American market research company GfK, which surveys more than 20,000 people in 20 countries about the image of various nations, Germany is currently in second place, behind the United States. This index is not some idle exercise, but is used as a decision-making tool by corporate strategists and other investors. GfK asks questions in six categories, including the quality of the administration and the condition of the export economy, and Germany is at the top of each category. But when Germans do acknowledge their current standing in the world, they always seem to be somewhat coy or even amused.

The rest of the world doesn't understand this (anymore). The rest of the world is waiting for Germany. But instead of feeling pleased about Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski's historic statement that he fears Germany's power less than its inactivity, we cringe anxiously over such sentiments. When US President Barack Obama calls Germany a leading global power, we hope that he doesn't really mean it. And when politicians in Israel say that Germany should wield its power more actively, we don't interpret it as a mandate to become more committed, but are puzzled instead.

We Germans? Exercise power? Take action? Lead?

A 'Europeanized' Germany

The German Society for International Cooperation (GIZ), Germany's government-run aid organization operating in 130 countries, made a concerted effort in 2012 to question decision-makers around the world about their views on Germany. Instead of quickly flipping through a list of questions, the GIZ conducted real, in-depth conversations with participants, and essentially arrived at two conclusions: Germany's reputation in the world is sky-high, yet Germany is considered anything from spineless to completely incapable when it comes to investing this "soft" capital in an effective way for the benefit of everyone.

The positive image we enjoy worldwide is fed by a large number of widely dispersed sources, but it's obvious that Germany's accounting for its Nazi past, its clear acknowledgement of historic culpability and its development of a model democracy in the West laid the foundation for the Germans to be given a new chance in the 20th century.

But it is also clear that Germany's reputation has received its biggest boost since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Since then, the Germans have managed to demonstrate repeatedly that they are capable of producing economic miracles, which is precisely what reunification and the development of the former East Germany are. At the same time, Germany was able to dispel widely held fears of the return of a gloating major power in the middle of Europe. To everyone's relief, especially that of our European neighbors, Germany has kept its feet on the ground, only waving its black, red and gold flag during football matches.

Perhaps the European financial crisis -- and the key role Germany is playing in the effort to overcome it -- has rekindled unease among our neighbors at the moment. But even if there is disagreement over the right way out of the crisis, and even if the German government has often proved to be too intransigent, no European in his right mind fears that Germany is pursuing some sort of secret plan to dominate the continent once again. Instead, Germany has "Europeanized" itself, both intentionally and credibly. But now it's time to share Germany's rich experiences along the winding paths of the 20th century with the rest of the world.

History as Obstacle

Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has a tendency to stress a supposed certainty of German policy, which became stuck in a post-World War II way of thinking and which the country actually seemed to have overcome: namely that "the history" of our country, which only means the years between 1933 and 1945, is an obstacle in foreign policy in every respect. But from today's perspective, there is every indication that the opposite holds true, namely that "history" has given us reformed Germans in the 21st century the mandate to play an influential role in all of the world's affairs precisely because of that experience.

Who, if not we Germans, is as well versed in emerging from the swamp of overthrown dictators? Who, if not we Germans, could advise war-torn countries on how to find their way back to peace? Who, if not Germany, whose path to liberal democracy was long and rocky, could help other countries along this path? And who, if not we Germans, would be destined to warn the Americans, for example, that absolute national security doesn't protect freedom but instead destroys it?

Seen in the cold light of day, we have no other choice. Germany may have resolved never to become a major power again, but opted instead to somehow dissipate into the big, wide West and the many multilateral organizations. For a long time, it was easy to abide by this resolution, because Germany was indeed no longer a major power. Divided into two countries and occupied by foreign troops, its national sphere of influence was de facto limited. That changed after 1990.

'Auschwitz Never Again'

After the deliberately quiet approach taken by the former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, this sphere of influence was understood around the turn of the millennium. The government of then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, a coalition of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party, handled the new German sovereignty both casually and boldly, by saying yes to the mission in Afghanistan but no to the invasion of Iraq. That administration was hardly in office before it led Germany, alongside its NATO partners, into the war in Yugoslavia, both to prevent an impending genocide in Kosovo and to give new meaning to the maxim "Nie wieder Auschwitz" (Auschwitz Never Again).

Fischer fostered the ambition to use German experiences of the 20th century to develop ideas for the world of the 21st century. His plans and position papers on the conflict in the Middle East and Europe's future enriched international politics. They also enhanced Germany's reputation as a country that doesn't just sit on its wealth, but is willing and prepared to get involved, to participate, to contribute financially and to energetically tackle the eternal construction of a better world.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Westerwelle have taken us back to the tired 1990s, and our "history" must serve, once again, as justification for German inaction that extends all the way to denial of assistance. Listening to Westerwelle, one would think Germans were a bunch of narrow-minded people whose love of peace knows no bounds.

In fact, we are repugnant hypocrites. We like to talk about our pacifism, and we even use it to generate a warm feeling of moral superiority, and yet we supply large numbers of German weapons to buyers all over the world. Those weapons often end up in countries where regime critics are suppressed with armed force.

What is missing in Germany is an understanding of obvious geopolitical circumstances, an understanding of the fact that obligations, demands and hopes arise from a country's economic and military importance without any political assistance, and that there is clearly a need to consider at length our role in the world. But that doesn't happen, or at least it happens far too rarely.

Discuss this issue with other readers!
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brunocaronte 08/29/2013
1. I can understand your predicament, German folks!
Just starting, alongside Europe and Russia, World War i, losing it, blaming Versailles' treaty of 1919, a bad experiment on "democracy" with the Weimar Republic, only to end up with the brutal and dehumanizing Nazi dictatorship of Adolf Hitler, and ending up in a war you also lost, plus Allies firebombing you and invading you to complete defeat, divided for decades while rebuilding back, I can understand yor predicament in keeping distance to today world's conflict. But I have a suggestion for you: stay that way. I have the feeling Germany was never good trying to influence politically the entire world, not even your local continent. Cultural influence I can welcome [even in the Philippines and Japan they play Bach, Beethoven and Wagner in concerts and radio], but politically, I fear you.
rajpe 08/29/2013
2. Lessons Learned?
What "lesson" has Germany learned? Fichtner seems to say the lesson is: Germany should always guess right on how to involve itself in the world. If not that, then what is the lesson? Perhaps a better "lesson" from the 1930's might be to distrust collectivist solutions and always come down on the side of individual rights. Auschwitz was a collectivist "solution" that could never have survived in a nation where individual rights are held paramount. Although this has obvious application to internal, German politics, it also has application internationally. Nations that suppress the individual should always be resisted and nations that honor the individual should be supported. For example, who dishonors the individual more than Islamists, who think nothing of murdering women, who are bold enough to have their own thoughts and express them openly. Perhaps U. Fichtner might wish to re-examine this issue and sharpen-up his argument.
josegomezegea 08/29/2013
3. I can not believe
I can not believe this article. Germany initiated the Second World War, that killed roughly 20 million people and 6 million Jews in concentration camps, created brand names such Auschwitz or Treblinka and committed horrible and unspeakable crimes. Not happy with that Germany destroyed the idea of the European Union trying to bust his partners economies and ruined Greece, the cradle of the European civilization. In my view, the majority of European nations hate you (French, Dutch, Belgians, Poles, Italians, Greeks, Russians, Portuguese, Spanish). And I think you certainly deserve that hate with your behavior. Why don't you migrate to Mars instead? Auf wiedersehen.
muley63 08/29/2013
4. Start in Europe
Terrific article except the author blew the landing. Why worry about Snowdon (which is mainly an American problem and if Germany was really worried about privacy, she can just stop cooperating with the NSA) when millions of Europeans are suffering a Great Depression. Germany current success is a result of their place in a modern Europe which actively integrated Germany back into the league of nations after WW II. However, in this current of time of Europe's economic need, Germany's response has been cold and indifferent and predicated on protecting their own interests. The world's cry for German leadership is mainly in this area. Germany has allowed Europe to flounder for five years. I only hope that after the election Merkel will finally steer a new course...but I am not holding my breath.
at78rpm 08/29/2013
5. Merkel is right about this
People in capitalist countries don't realize the power they have. If we choose to buy something made in Germany, a German has a job; if we choose to buy something cheaper, because it's made in China, then that German is without a job. (As an American, I see this happening all the time here.) By the same token, Germany is already playing a big role in the world by the products it sells. If Germany wants to increase violence in the world, they will become its leading arms merchant; if Germany wants to promote peace, they will sell energy-efficient batteries and solar panels to the world. As far as a greater role, it is to be assumed that this role includes the government's threat of military force. We all see how well that has worked in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Indeed, America has not yet woken up to the fact that it need not be the world's policeman, because it does not make the laws for the planet. It sure costs a fortune, though, for the American taxpayer. Germany should keep on doing what has worked so well so far.
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