Stage Fright

Just when Europe is in desperate need of a strong, forward-thinking leader, Germany is nowhere to be found.


In an interview one week ago in the Hamburg-based newspaper Die Zeit, German satirist Henryk Broder, who had just completed a six-month journey across Deutschland that he called a "Germany Safari," offered a succinct description of his country’s default psychological state. "Germans like to be afraid. They are afraid of overhead lines, and underground train stations; of dioxins in their eggs at breakfast, and of climate change," he said. "Fear is Germany’s nectar of life."

The German word for fear, Angst, carries an additional resonance of anxiety — of the type of dread, for example, that has been the mark of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy decisions on Europe, NATO, and the Middle East in recent weeks. The multiple global crises haven’t triggered panic in Berlin — Merkel, the PhD physicist, is too calculating for that — but Germany’s decision-making has been informed by a dismay of the unknown and an instinct to obsess over parochial concerns. Germany, the longtime geostrategic understudy, has finally earned a leading role on stage only to promptly forget its lines. Its fumbling improvisations haven’t inspired much confidence either.

Once the evangelist of European solidarity, Germany is now reluctant to jeopardize its stability for the sake of a fraying continent. Berlin has made a decision to mostly stay out of budding conflicts, rather than shape a resolution to them. As a grand strategy, this has unsurprisingly proven problematic. With the common European currency spiraling deeper into crisis, the continent’s largest economy has managed to organize only piecemeal palliatives as first Greece, then Ireland, and now Portugal teetered on the brink of all-out bankruptcy. And after Germany finally earned in January a long-coveted seat on the United Nations Security Council — a position it assumed with the promise to "prevent rather than promote antagonisms on the council" — how did it decide to use it? By abstaining in the March 17 vote on intervention in Libya, thereby aligning with China and Russia against its closest allies, France and the United States. Politicians across the political spectrum in Germany, astounded by their country’s newfound diplomatic isolation, have wondered why the government couldn’t have voted for the resolution while clarifying that it would not be able to substantially contribute to a military mission. They have not received any clear answer from Merkel. The situation prompted a respected German army chief, Klaus Naumann, to say that he was "ashamed" of his country’s stance.

Indeed, it’s not that Germany does not have the capacity to serve in a position of global leadership, but that it simply would prefer not to. The psychological roadblocks to a more robust leadership role are deeply ingrained, so much so that Germans are blind to them. One anonymous government official in Berlin dismissed concerns about his country’s abstention from the Libyan war, proudly stating that Merkel was too busy attending to the German public’s concerns with Japanese nuclear power. When history is written, he told the New York Times, "people will remember 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassination, and Fukushima." It’s true that Germans have been obsessed with the nuclear disaster in Japan (like they are still obsessed with Kennedy), but that is evidence of myopia, not of wisdom.

Indeed, Germany registered its abstention at the U.N. vote as if only dimly aware that the decision would have a series of real, and uncomfortable, repercussions. The first came courtesy of Muammar al-Qaddafi, who thanked Germany for its vote and promised he will now advocate for Berlin to have a permanent seat on the Security Council. (Germany’s former foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, promptly declared that long-time aspiration now permanently dashed.) Germany has also found itself in the somewhat humiliating position of having to remove four military ships seconded to NATO from the Mediterranean to be certain that they stay out of any potential entanglements — a move that amounts to a unilateral withdrawal from other NATO commitments that Berlin had made in the region. In a seemingly ad hoc decision to prove her goodwill, Merkel has quickly moved to increase German support of military surveillance missions in Afghanistan. Of course, goodwill only goes so far in high-stakes diplomacy.

Meanwhile, France is working to ensure that Germany is kept out of any aspect of consultations on the current status of the Libyan intervention and future political arrangements, while French diplomats lob vague threats at their neighbor. "Angela Merkel will have to pay for this for a very long time," one French diplomat told French newspaper Le Parisien. Meanwhile, it seems the rebels in Benghazi have turned decisively against Germany as well. Spiegel reports crowds of men in the Libyan city chanting, "Merkel should be ashamed of herself." The magazine quotes one rebel saying, "When we’ve earned our freedom and can decide for ourselves, we won’t be doing any business with Germany."

In recent months, Germany has also proven unable to take the long view on Europe’s financial crisis. Merkel’s penchant for delaying major decisions to address the continent’s currency crisis would be palatable if it seemed she was preparing ground for a comprehensive solution. Instead, she seems wedded to prescribing unremitting austerity to those European nations unable to service their debts through the bond markets. Germany has established an EU bailout mechanism that offers debtor countries sizable loans with favorable interest rates, but only on the condition of imposing new spending rules. Greece and Ireland have taken the bailout money to avoid all-out bankruptcy, while protesting that austerity offers no sure path to growth. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Loans organized under the principle that creditors should be paid-in-full while taxpayers suffer, they argue, will serve as nothing more than a band aid, or worse, a recipe for weaker states to be permanently dependent on the stronger — but Berlin hasn’t been moved to significantly reconsider its preferred bailout mechanism. Merkel seems to believe that Europe’s periphery has been hopelessly profligate, and is due for punishment — or, at least, she has consistently condescended to the German public’s preference to believe the same.

Certainly, admitting that the EU’s crisis is, in the words of Barry Eichengreen, "first and foremost a banking crisis" would come as a rude shock to a German public that has now been told repeatedly that its neighbors’ lack of discipline is ultimately to blame. Germany has for now successfully conspired to prevent the application of true "stress tests" that would expose its own banks to the scrutiny of investors. But that scrutiny will eventually come: It is all but inevitable that Greece’s debt will have to be "rescheduled," at which point Germany’s massive investments in that bankrupt country (as well as in Ireland, Spain, and Portugal) will receive the attention they’re due. Berlin can’t avoid reckoning with the fact that its own banking system is deeply complicit in Europe’s financial woes — and at risk of suffering a massive implosion — but Merkel (whether because of political calculation or poor economic counsel) seems mostly focused on ensuring that the inevitable arrives later rather than sooner. That delay will likely have its own turbulent political consequences in the way of anti-German animus.

Perhaps these are just the growing pains of a nation aspiring to global leadership. Perhaps it is simply wrong to expect more of Germany right now. It already has the world’s fourth largest economy, but power is more than GDP alone. Merkel is particularly unskilled at developing the narratives that can convince other countries of Germany’s good intentions, or the German public that its interests align with the aggregate interests of others. Part of the problem is a matter of personality: Merkel is too coolly empirical to paint with broad brushstrokes a portrait of Germany’s responsibilities in the world. But part of the issue is that Germany’s history does not offer much in the way of positive rhetorical resources that can be used to appeal for greater engagement on the global stage. The country’s 20th century experiences with international assertiveness, drenched as they were in blood and xenophobia, were so undeniably disastrous that its foreign policy is still scarred. Germans today think of their favorable trade balances as international engagement enough.

Still, with memories of World War II fading and the economic disparities between Germany and France expanding, Berlin has calculated that it no longer makes sense to suborn itself to its European neighbor when it comes to foreign policy. But rather than hide under the covers while Paris struts across Libyan air space, Germany should commit itself to the task of acknowledging its historic, geographic, and material strengths and weaknesses as an international power. Merkel got a head start late last year with her decision to approve a wholesale reform of the German military, making it a professionalized force rather than a compulsory "citizen’s army". Germany will soon have a military more befitting of its international commitments, one focused on deployments abroad rather than a potential ground invasion at home from the direction of Russia. The German armed forces have had to strain themselves to maintain a presence in Afghanistan and Kosovo under the direction of NATO, but they will increasingly be prepared and trained to deploy on their own.

For now, however, Germany will have to content itself with the trial-and-error method as it accustoms itself to wielding influence. With its reversals in European negotiations over the past several years — Merkel, remember, originally argued that there would be no bailouts at all —  Berlin seems to have conceded that it has erred more than once in its approach to the euro crisis. And Merkel’s announcement, four days after the Security Council vote, that "the U.N. resolution is also ours" suggests the same about her stance on Libya. But there are few do-overs allowed in great power politics, and it’s hard to argue that the German government has not earned the criticism it has recently received. Germany’s mistake was to believe that it could decide in which situations it wants to step onto the common European boat. In reality, Angela Merkel and her government are not only already on that boat, they are the captain. And if the ship starts sinking, Germany will go down with it.

Cameron Abadi is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @CameronAbadi

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