Home / News / “Strengthening the European Transatlantic Pillar: Can Germany lead in Europe without Dominating? – by Prof. James D. Bindenagel

“Strengthening the European Transatlantic Pillar: Can Germany lead in Europe without Dominating? – by Prof. James D. Bindenagel

“Strengthening the European Transatlantic Pillar: Can Germany lead in Europe without Dominating?” From Blissful Isolation from world events to Guardian of the Order

Prof. James D. Bindenagel, former U.S. Ambassador and Henry Kissinger Professor for International Security and Governance, University of Bonn

A perfect storm of combined challenges of growing multipolarity, rising unilateralism, and global threats is changing rapidly the world order that has been in place for decades. The transatlantic partnership — the United States, Canada and much of Europe — have constituted a vast zone of peace, prosperity, and democracy for the most of the last 70 years. The transatlantic community has grown to over 900 million inhabitants of more than 30 countries and has set an example for regional cooperation in Africa, Latin America, and Southeast Asia. It serves as a mainstay of the liberal world order.

We stand at an inflection point in history not knowing when the tipping point will arrive. This unraveling of world order makes leadership from transatlantic allies who shaped it, all the more necessary. American leadership is waning, and yet a Spring 2018 Pew Global Attitudes Study showed that 63 percent of respondents worldwide and 58 percent of Germans “prefer the U.S. over China as the world’s leading power.” Nevertheless, the United States is stepping down from its leadership role in global affairs.

A more recent poll showed that Europeans trust China and Russia more than the United States. “The throne is now empty,” as Ivo Daalder and Jim Lindsay put it, and the competition to fill the leadership vacuum has begun. A rising China and a nationalist Russia are taking the initiative. Can Germany lead in Europe to fill that vacuum and reshape the European pillar of the Transatlantic partnership?

Let me reflect for a moment on how it came to this, this unraveling of the Transatlantic world order as we know it. Perhaps the beginning of the end was German unification. This year we celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of the Peaceful Revolution that brought German unification. At the time dramatic events stirred a new sense of freedom in the world. Germany’s sovereignty was restored with democratic legitimacy established by the combination of the 1989 Peaceful Revolution, free and fair elections in East Germany, and the constitutional democracy of the 1949 Federal Republic’s Basic Law. Self-determined East Germans unified Germany, and with the NATO Alliance’s deterrence and defense have brought peace and prosperity to America and Europe for the past three decades.

At the same time, the United States leadership of the Transatlantic Alliance discouraged strategic thinking in Germany. With the notable exceptions of the Cold War strategic visions of Konrad Adenauer’s Westbindung, Willy Brand’s Ostpolitik and Helmut Schmidt’s and Helmut Kohl’s INF deployments, Germany for the past 70 years could focus on economic prosperity, absorb U.S. strategic leadership and react to crises when necessary. Such a civilian power backed by NATO’s hard power could develop a strategic culture that is built on soft power. Germany prospered under this model. However, can such a model still be used in a world that is unraveling?  (As that model dissolves, Germany may not institutionalize a new model easily or quickly.)

When the Berlin Wall fell on November 9, 1989, we all were elated. Frank Fukuyama visited us in East Germany, and we all believed in the hoped-for liberal international order and the end of history.  Indeed, unification answered the “German Question” and left the country surrounded by friendly nations as Chancellor Helmut Kohl declared. Germany found its place in Europe. Model Deutschland has since unification sought to help shape a democratic Europe as well as to promote global peace as a “Civilian Power” while remaining in NATO to ensure security in Europe.  The country would avoid any return to past claims to hegemony or dominance, opting for “reluctant leadership.”

While on that October 3, 1990, night, German unification resolved the German Question, what remains is the “German Problem” a reluctant leader at a time when Europe needs one.  The reluctant leader problem stems from both a negative and a positive premise. Having been conquered in World War II, Germany was not to be allowed to lead and indeed, it lacked the sovereignty to lead before 1990. That is the negative pole. The positive pole is that Germany had the luxury of not having to lead.

There is the argument that the U.S., as well as France and the U.K., were happy for Germany to rebuild, become a bulwark against communism, and to be the locomotive that could pull the European economy forward. Transatlantic Alliance security is premised on the U.S. bearing the military burden in large part, including with strategic nuclear forces, and Germany leading Europe forward economically to support an interdependent group of Western nations that all believed to one degree or another in some variation of capitalism. Consequently, Germany’s ‘reluctance’ was beneficial and opportunistic. And it worked tremendously to Germany’s advantage.

Recently, Politico called Chancellor Merkel the “Leader of the Free world” but Germany has shied away from leading in Europe. Without Germany leading, the future for a strengthened European Transatlantic Pillar is an open one. Almost thirty years after unification, balancing national interests within its parliamentary democracy with Germany’s sovereign obligation to Europe and NATO institutions still presents dilemmas; navigating the tightrope between Germany’s culture of self-restraint and the need for increased engagement (cum leadership) in times of growing global problems remains a source of constant conflict.

There are many obstacles to German leadership in this world. Shifting powers challenge German foreign policy pillars in fundamental ways: Rising nationalism and populism, mass migration, the need for EU reform, Brexit and right-wing parties that threaten further European integration. Also, an American negative and adversarial relationship, as Hudson Insititute’s Bruce Jackson notes, undermines NATO and the Transatlantic Partnership.

The American Administration’s world view is that the world is not a community but an arena where nations, non-governmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. That worldview runs contrary to the Transatlantic Relationship based on values of the rule of law, democracy, and respect for human dignity that are the foundation of the seven decades world order.

Germany needs to step up to defend and help reshape world order to sustain Western values. Germany’s self-elected position in the backseat of international leadership is beginning to feel uncomfortable, as Sigmar Gabriel has noted, but the path forward remains uncertain. Germany’s unique historical sense of responsibility and its present position of power, nevertheless, present its leaders with a window of opportunity for accepting increased international responsibility.

Although already in September 2017 French President Emmanuel Macron presented a vision to reform the European Union to prepare the EU for international leadership, Germany reluctantly responded. Nevertheless, it needs to join France to make the vision a reality. However, Germany, even with the new Aachen Treaty with France and as the economic powerhouse in the middle of the continent, stubbornly remains reluctant to take a leading role. Germany continues to pursue crisis management effectively while lacking a strategic planning process. Reluctance results in halting steps toward reform of the EU, despite a renewed debate on European strategic autonomy. Security issues, such as in defense procurement with PESCO and in creating a European intervention force (E2I), as well as in Eurozone economic structures that would strengthen the union on the international stage, are all haltingly, overly-cautiously considered.

For several years, U.S. presidents have called for German leadership and a stronger Europe. Presidents George W. Bush’s and Barack Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned in 2011 that Europe was dangerously de-militarizing itself. President Trump has made drastic threats, called NATO obsolete, and has repeatedly said he wanted to withdraw from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Why? He sees allied military spending lagging behind the NATO spending goals. It seems to be a core issue for him.

At the same time, Americans still support NATO, and in a bipartisan 357-22 vote, the Democratic Party majority House of Representatives sent the Senate the NATO Support Act, which would prohibit the use of federal funds to withdraw from the 70-year-old NATO alliance. American policy toward Russia is the one area where congressional Republicans have consistently opposed American withdrawal from leadership, including by imposing sanctions on Moscow and by criticizing the July 16 news conference with Mr. Putin in Helsinki, Finland.

Congress sent the largest delegation of Members to the Munich Security Conference in a reassurance act to show NATO has the support of the American public, including Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi. NATO’s popularity continues to be strong. In a 2017 PEW poll about NATO, six-in-ten Americans (62%) had a favorable opinion of NATO. U.S. goodwill toward the alliance was significantly higher than in 2016 when 53% had a favorable view. Nevertheless, the president’s repeated suggestion of withdrawal from NATO, as retired Adm. James G. Stavridis said, would be “a geopolitical mistake of epic proportion and even discussing the idea of leaving NATO — let alone actually doing so — would be the gift of the century for Russian President Putin.”

Now, after Russian President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, the Russian-Iranian alliance in support of Syria’s President Assad, it is time for Germany to find the right balance between its international responsibilities and its historical culture of remembrance. Yes, it can. German security policy has changed. After the ‘civilian power’ accepted the use of force in Afghanistan, using force only in self-defense was no longer the single policy. In 2003, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder managed this German intervention dilemma by choosing national sovereignty over Germany’s sovereign obligation to the US-led multinational coalition, sought and won support from French President Jacque Chirac, who joined him in opposing the Iraq War. Since nothing moves forward in Europe without Germany, the country not only has to develop a strategy but also one that can strengthen Europe’s strategic role in the transatlantic partnership.

Three obstacles stand in the way of Germany developing a new strategic culture, however.

First, even though its leadership set out at the Munich Security Conference in 2014 to take on more responsibility, a strategic debate in Germany is still missing. Despite Angela Merkel’s surprisingly energetic speech at the Munich Security Conference this year, Germany, for five years now, has not begun to operationalize its pledge for “more responsibility.”  Meanwhile, Germans are also still at odds with the role Germany should play in international politics. In a very recent poll by the Friedrich-Ebert-Foundation, 59 percent said Germany should be internationally neutral. In the very same poll, 70 percent also said Germany should pursue an active foreign policy and have a significant role in solving international problems, crises, and conflicts.

Second, given the dominant civilian power culture, it is politically risky for politicians to suggest a German initiative or participation in international alliances publicly when the conflict is morally or legally unclear. Dogmatic public backlash often prevents an informed debate on foreign policy issues. Protests escalated when Chancellor Angela Merkel decided in 2015 to allow hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing the Syrian Civil War to enter Germany. The Alternative für Deutschland, AfD, established by economists to protest against the euro, has become an upstart nationalist party. The party has in the meantime won seats in State parliaments and the Bundestag and aspires to a blocking minority in the European Parliamentary election in late May.

The Social Democrats have slipped in the polls to 14%; the Greens have matched or surpassed them, and the CDU/CSU has lost support. Forging coalition governments is increasingly complicated as seen in the months-long negotiations that created the current CDU-SPD grand coalition. Of course, we all understand that domestic rather than international or security issues drive the political fortunes of aspiring and high-level German politicians.

Third, the strategic cultural deficit hampers Germany’s strategic thinking and a lack of cooperation and coordination within the government ministries, whose independence is protected by a constitutional mandate. At the same time, foreign policy in coalition governments, which are the norm in Germany, require collaboration between ministers with often conflicting political programs, adding to the lack of coherent strategic thinking and planning.

Yet, Germany can resolve its dilemmas. Even though Germany will not likely create a National Security Council as many have suggested, it might establish a Council of Experts for Strategic Foresight. Strategic foresight contributes to an informed public debate as a foundation for policymaking. Looking ahead, identifying risks and opportunities, could add significantly to more strategic consideration of German foreign policy.

Such a Council could lay the foundation for a continuing, informed public debate on strategy and foreign and security policy, based on an annual experts’ report that includes scenarios and policy options for current as well as likely future challenges. The Bundestag could hold regular hearings soliciting views from allies and neighbors in a transparent, open debate. In the short-run, it could inform the policy process and reassure Bundestag Members’ constituents that their Members have the issues in their hands. In the long run, this could lead to a change in the strategic culture, enabling elites and politicians to develop more easily a strategy for Germany and Europe and help strengthen or reshape world order with a robust transatlantic pillar.

Finally, combining these findings with the new challenges that Germany faces today, we should take a look at how Germany is stepping up to its international responsibility as the rise of nationalism, isolationism, and global crises are starting to undermine the basis of German foreign policy. One thing becomes clear when looking back over the past thirty years: Germany needs to overcome its historical obstacles and address its strategic cultural deficits, not letting them become a hindrance to the country’s future. Even today, three decades after unification, the country still has a problem in balancing national interests and its reluctance to lead with its sovereign obligations and responsibilities in foreign policy, leaving the German problem unanswered.

German sovereignty, foreign and defense policy need a strategic planning approach that can manage and resolve these dilemmas; however, it also requires a security strategy for Europe, one that elevates strategic planning as a priority over its policies for crisis management. A fully sovereign Germany, exercising its sovereign obligation to the EU and NATO with leaders in partnership, and restrained by history, is the best hope to reshape the Multilateral Liberal International Order.

The answer to our question is yes, Germany can lead in Europe and strengthen the European pillar of the Transatlantic Partnership.  And America needs its ally Germany to step up and help reshape the European cornerstone of the Transatlantic Relationship.

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