The American Void It's Time for Germany to Learn to Lead

Washington's move to abandon its global leadership role marks the end of Germany's foreign policy innocence. Berlin will soon be faced with difficult choices that could dent its moral standing.
U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

U.S. President Donald Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Foto: Michael Kappeler/ dpa

It is often a single sentence that goes down in history, one that epitomizes an idea, a movement, an era or a personality. Two sentences from Angela Merkel come to mind. One, focused on domestic politics, was an entreaty: "We can do it." It was a pledge and a plea to all Germans in the face of the huge influx of Syrian refugees who entered Germany in 2015.

The other, focused on foreign policy, was earthshaking. "The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over," Merkel said on May 28 during an appearance in Munich. She did everything she could to make the sentence seem as offhand and trivial as possible. She wasn't speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin -- she was at a festival in Munich, the smell of beer hanging in the air. She hemmed and hawed, she relativized, toned down her language and spoke of "others," even though it was clear that she was referring to the United States.

Still, the sheer impact of her words was undeniable. The German chancellor had essentially announced the end of an alliance that had guaranteed Germany's security for half a century and shaped its politics and values. When she made the statement in May, Germany was in the middle of an election campaign, which informed the manner in which it was interpreted and discounted. Even today, its radicality has been largely ignored -- perhaps because to do otherwise would be too painful or unsettling. Germans prefer to avoid such introspection. The U.S. remains our most important partner, government officials are fond of saying, and the NATO alliance is still intact. That may be true. But for how much longer?

Germany has been busy with its own affairs since May, when its election campaign started in earnest ahead of a September vote that has yet to produce a new government. But once Berlin again has a governing coalition capable of conducting international affairs, it will face circumstances that have changed dramatically. The liberal world order that the United States spent seven decades building is disintegrating. The U.S., meanwhile, is withdrawing from the global stage  on three different fronts: militarily, morally and as a key leader of the international community. It is withdrawing from its role as a reliable guarantor of European security, as a shaper of global policy and as the leading power of the free West. What does a future hold without the U.S. at the helm? What does a future hold when the most important constant of German foreign policy is no longer there? What will a future look like if all countries seek to emulate "America First?"

For Germany, it means the end of what has essentially been a sheltered foreign policy, one in which others have often made the most difficult decisions for us. In recent years, Germany has shown a greater willingness to take on the responsibility commensurate with a country that is the most economically powerful and populous in Europe. Thus far, however, Germany has preferred reaction over (pro)action, as seen in Ukraine and the euro crisis.

For years, Germany was able to get away with a foreign policy that didn't call for it to assume much responsibility. West German sovereignty was limited and German reserve was understandable for historical reasons. The divided country was also too small to play a role in international politics. Looking ahead, though, Germany will have to lead. But where to? The most radical consequence of the new state of global affairs is that Germans now have to become clear about what it is that they want. That may sound banal, but it isn't.

Germany's global abstinence has permitted it to have the luxury of basing its foreign policy largely on values, while others took care of the realpolitik dirty work. Merkel's refugee policies, which placed humanitarian principles over the cohesion of the European Union, is only the most radical example of this German tradition. The new global situation will also mean a departure from the good Germany. When principles collide with pragmatism, when values clash with interests, Berlin will be forced to make difficult decisions. But how far should we go? What means are we prepared to employ in order to defend Europe, to bring the Middle East closer to peace or to stabilize Africa?


German foreign policy experts are still debating how radically the estrangement between the U.S. and Europe has become. Atlanticists are calling for optimism, even though Trump, so far, has served to affirm the worries of the pessimists. They continue to cling to the illusion that, Trump aside, trans-Atlantic relations are actually still entirely intact. They see the U.S. president as a painful, but temporary illness. They believe that once America returns to health, the status quo will return to trans-Atlantic relations.

The problem with that view, however, is that America's retreat from its role as a shaper of global politics began before Trump -- and it won't end with his departure, either. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel went even further in reiterating Merkel's beer-tent sentiments in an important foreign policy speech a few weeks ago in which he stated that Germany might also have to get by without America if need be.


What does it mean when the U.S. abandons its global leadership role? The idea that Germany might assume that role was nonsense from the beginning. The notion that the German chancellor would step in as the leader of the free world and that Germany, as actor and philanthropist Richard Gere put it, would be the "wise, stable, forward-thinking moral country on the planet" was the desperate hope of a handful of American romantics. They flattered Germany and fueled the naïve illusion that values can be upheld without having to defend them.

Germany may view itself as a major moral power, but politically and economically, we're not nearly strong enough -- and militarily, we possess only moderately equipped armed forces  without any nuclear deterrent.

Furthermore, Germany's inability to form a governing coalition this fall and winter has shown that Berlin is not immune to the crisis of liberal democracy. Germany cannot rescue the West but, together with France, it could do a lot more in Europe and its backyard than it has previously done. Four years ago, Joachim Gauck and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany's president and foreign minister at the time, both called for such a focus, saying that Germany must act "earlier, more decisively and more substantially."


In his works, the German historian Heinrich August Winkler has described the triumph of the West, its values and its ideas. But even he has been at a loss since America ceased upholding these values. His most recent book, "Is the West Crumbling?" can't even answer the question it asks. Winkler has become a chronicler of an historical event that he is no longer able to interpret.

The crisis of the West is particularly painful for Germany. The country's long journey to the West described by Winkler ended as the West's decline began, like some train that has arrived at a station that has just been decommissioned.

As the West's position of power eroded, its claims of moral leadership only grew louder. This divergence was particularly apparent to those watching from outside of Europe. There, the West had long since been viewed as presumptuous and arrogant. It was a tone they didn't care for, and they reacted with rejection and defiance.

Authoritarian systems have now entered into open rivalry with the West, pitting their models against ours. The narrative -- disseminated by China, above all -- is one of efficient, benevolent half-dictators who promise prosperity and progress in contrast to cumbersome, inefficient and crisis-plagued democracies.


Europe must stand up for its values. To that end, it would be helpful if it changed its attitude and tone and shed its arrogance, shifting away from gestures of finger-pointing and rebuke. Europe must allow its virtues to speak for themselves. It has to stand its ground in the competition with other societal models. With Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France, we now have an opportunity to make Europe attractive again.

One of the favorite bits of wisdom adhered to by Merkelism is that politics begins with observing reality. But that's not so easy these days. Germany's foreign policy lacks a strategic approach that describes, analyzes and shows possibilities. So long as the most critical coordinates had already been set, Germany didn't have to think so critically. Others used to do this for us, but those times have passed. A few years back, the Foreign Ministry set in motion a review process and the Defense Ministry also began working on a new policy "white book." That's all fine and good, but it doesn't go far enough. Germany needs more foreign policy minds who in turn have greater influence. The smartest thinkers in politics should not be entering the corporate sector as many have done. They should instead be going to foundations and think tanks.

It's also no longer sufficient for each nation to plan and think for itself. If Berlin and Paris want to lead together, then they will also need to think together. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), Germany's most important foreign policy think tank, recently proposed the creation of a joint German-French "white book." That, at least, would be a start.


Values and interests aren't mutually exclusive by default. It's in Germany's interest to promote rule of law, human rights, multilateralism and the adherence to global agreements. Even so, it can still be necessary to accept limitations to achieve foreign policy goals. German foreign policy must weigh morals and interests against each other. For example: The EU Association Agreement with Ukraine represented a sovereign decision by Kiev to link itself more closely with the European Union. But was it in the European interest given the ultimate cost -- a war in Ukraine and a row with Russia? In the end, the unwillingness to budge served neither Ukraine nor the EU.

Another example: Was it right to insist to Britain that the principle of freedom of movement was non-negotiable, thus paving the way for the Brexiteers? Surely the free movement of labor forces is a central principle of the single market. But out of fear that the principle would be abandoned, there was never even a discussion over whether a compromise could be made.

Yet another example: In the conflict over Catalonia's quest for independence, Germany and the EU have held strictly to the principle of not intervening in a member state's domestic politics. But it would indeed be in Europe's interest if Berlin or Brussels -- or whoever -- could find a way to serve as an intermediary between Madrid and Barcelona.

Part of our consideration has to be accepting things that we do not have the power to change. Germany must prepare for the fact that democratic developments are unlikely in Russia in the foreseeable future. And yet we still need policies that bind Russia and Turkey to Europe. In the Middle East, we need to come to an understanding with a Russia that has filled the void left by the U.S. And when it comes to China, we need a European policy that limit's Beijing's influence.

And, finally, there's Poland. The question could soon rise there about what's more important? That Poland remains in the European Union or that it complies completely with the principles of rule of law. It may be unrealistic to expect both. In such a situation, it might be in Germany's interest to ensure that the Eastern Europeans remain in the EU, even if they do not conform to its standards on every value.

Germany will have to endure these conflicts in the future while at the same time making decisions that could be decisive. It's a mistake that there is little in terms of honest discussion about them. We should have much sharper debates -- and they should be as pointed as they are public. Instead, however, German politics is still focused on the illusion of being a moral power. If Germany wants to lead, then it also needs to have a realistic view of the world. The era of foreign policy innocence has passed.

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