David Rothkopf

Deutschland, unter alles…

I will be happy to tell you how a host of the world’s current problems will work out if you answer one question for me: How far will Germany go to solve other countries’ problems? From the European debt crisis to its knock-on consequences for Japan, the United States, and the World Economy, from stabilizing ...

Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images
Michael Kappeler/AFP/Getty Images

I will be happy to tell you how a host of the world’s current problems will work out if you answer one question for me: How far will Germany go to solve other countries’ problems?

From the European debt crisis to its knock-on consequences for Japan, the United States, and the World Economy, from stabilizing the Middle East to promoting lasting reform in that part of the world, from the future of environmental policy to the future of multilateralism, a very substantial factor in the outcome of each will be whether or not an overburdened, increasingly introspective Germany is willing to play the role of global leader.

Recently, the hints from the German electorate and from that country’s political leadership have been that after the stresses and strains associated with recent problems from Greece to Libya, Berlin is once again divided. This time, however, it is not a wall but an idea that divides the German people. As the most important country in the world’s largest market, just what are the limits of Germany’s responsibilities to preserve the European experiment.

I sat today at lunch with a renowned economist and we discussed the fate of Spain. "That is the $64 billion question," he mused. If Spain falters a la Portugal, Greece, and Ireland, then the issue will be will Germany help foot the bill to bail them out? His sense was that they would … reluctantly. However, he also felt that Spain would be the last straw and a bitter pill for the Germany people to swallow. Therefore, he felt, should a financial quake in Spain rattle Italy, which he did not feel Germany would or could dig down deep enough to help, that global debt markets would be in deep trouble. Japan and the U.S. would all of sudden look much riskier and while certainly the IMF and the G20 would circle the troops to try to solve the problem … the damage done to global confidence would be huge and the consequences potentially far reaching.

Similarly, it was with great unease that the United States watched Germany vote with the BRICs to abstain on the Libya no-fly zone vote at the U.N. Security Council. It was with more unease that it and the rest of NATO watched as Germany walked out of subsequent planning meetings and has leaned away from much involvement in the Middle East. However, to the extent that the international community gets involved in helping to promote reform in the Middle East, the Europeans must lead. They are closer. They will feel the weight of immigration flows and terrorist anger if the reforms fail. And the United States is pretty close to spent. And for Europe to lead, Germany must lead. And if Germany is not in the mood, then the result will likely be halfway measures, dithering and unsatisfactory outcomes.

When Germany decided to pause on nuclear expansion…it sent a message worldwide. To the extent the EU, NATO, or the G20 have an effective future, Germany will be central to setting the parameters of the agenda.

For some, the notion that so many issues important to the future of the world depends on the international engagement of a benevolent Germany will seem more than a little ironic. So too will the fact that Germany has become Europe’s indispensable nation. But these are among the game-changing facts of the 21st century. Germany is not just the wallet of Europe, it also must necessarily be Europe’s spine and its heart. Fortunately, Germany has always been dependably attentive to its self-interest. The collapse of the Euro or the inundation of Europe with refugees from increasing unrest in the Middle East would be disasters for Germany. And as my economist friend said, they would also be very disorderly and "Germans don’t like disorder." They must play the role of backstop, he implied, the safety net-for Europe and its neighbors when problems arise, Germany must be there to help catch and lift back up those who tumble, Deutschland, unter alles.

That’s a cliché, of course and modern Germany defies all clichés and cheap historical analogies. But what is clear is that after the United States and China, with Japan sidelined with its own multiple crises, Germany has become the world’s third most important power and, in terms of many of the day’s most pressing question, it may even play a role more central than that exalted position implies.

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