Germany Isn’t Special

To pull its weight, it needs to start seeing itself as a normal country, subject to the same pressures as all its neighbors.

A person is silhouetted behind the German national flag in Berlin on June 27, 2018.
A person is silhouetted behind the German national flag in Berlin on June 27, 2018. John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images

Polls before this weekend’s elections in states in the former East Germany show the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) comfortably capturing 20 percent or more of the vote. This is just one of the ways in which the country at the center of Europe is confronting a new state of affairs.

Ever since reunification, Germany has built its liberal democracy on a few key pillars—a disavowal of the extreme right, a focus on economic performance, and a steadfast relationship to the United States—to avoid a return to the conflagrations of the past. By following these guidelines, the country has won itself respect around the globe. But it has also persisted in treating itself as a special case, not subject to the pressures affecting its Western peers. That, in turn, has led to resentment among its partners. It is time for Germany to buck its postwar policy traditions and begin to see itself for what it is: a normal power.

Whereas other European countries have contended with the far-right for decades, Germany long preferred to look to other way, assuming it was immune because of its commitment to dealing with its past. Even before the AfD surpassed the 5 percent threshold to enter the federal parliament after elections in 2017, there were warning signs of a hard turn to the right. Between 2000 and 2007, the extremist National Socialist Underground murdered 10 people, most with migrant backgrounds. The authorities chalked the crimes up to gang warfare within the immigrant community, though, and didn’t uncover the neo-Nazi cell until 2011.

The AfD undoubtedly derives much of its strength from disaffected voters in the former East Germany—it is vying for first place during state races in Brandenburg and Saxony this Sunday. But the party cannot be dismissed as a regional player. It has support close to 14 percent nationwide. It is currently the largest opposition party in the federal parliament and is present in all 16 state legislatures.

Just a few years ago, it was inconceivable that a party like the AfD could gain a foothold in Germany. It is still unlikely to become a major party, because most Germans shun its platform, and the party itself is wracked with infighting. But Germany can now count itself among other Western democracies grappling with populist, nativist forces on the right, and it should work with European partners to monitor their funding sources and find solutions for managed migration to block their momentum. Germany’s established parties are still hanging on—at least compared to their peers in France and other countries—but they can’t afford to be smug in an increasingly fragmented political system.

Germany may also have to reconsider its penchant for austerity and its export-based economy. Postwar Germany thought its neighbors would appreciate its quest to pursue export rather than military power. And, indeed, the “Made in Germany” label is valued around the world, and the country’s ability to bounce back from the 2008 financial crisis was much admired. But warm feelings have turned into irritation at Germany’s trade surplus and veneration of balanced budgets—it is actually reporting a budget surplus of approximately $50 billion for the first half of the year. After consecutive years of such surpluses, Germany can’t excuse itself from spending more to help the overall economic health of the eurozone.

Even before Brexit, tariffs, and sanctions dominated the news, Germany’s partners were already calling it out for its economic doctrine. Although the euro has helped German export flows, because it masked the strong Deutsche mark to give German goods a competitive edge, it has hampered some other EU member states with its strict rules. Germany’s partners have repeatedly urged Europe’s largest economy to invest in infrastructure and stimulate consumer spending at home to spread growth throughout the continent. It has long ignored such entreaties, but now that it is facing its own recessionary fears, it is starting to pay heed to its European Union allies by tapping into its rainy-day fund to stem a downturn. Plans to tolerate debt are on the table when it comes to achieving Germany’s climate goals. But such magnanimity could also extend to investment in broadband and infrastructure, which would create positive spillover effects within the EU.

Finally, the United States has been a constant since Germany was defeated in World War II. The relationship hasn’t been perfect, but Germany could always count on the U.S. security guarantee. In turn, since 1989, the German military has been downgraded in size and expenditure. That was fine, as long as the world was peaceful and the United States and Germany were close, but the relationship is tense today, just as Russia threatens the continent and NATO partners are being expected to do their part to keep the peace beyond Europe’s borders. Germany should contribute commensurate with its size, but it has not.

Even before U.S. President Donald Trump took office in 2017 and floated the idea of moving U.S. troops from Germany if it did not increase defense spending, officials in Washington had been asking Berlin for more military burden-sharing. It is common knowledge that the German armed forces are lacking resources; these days, there aren’t enough boots to go around. Most Germans would probably want their armed forces to be better equipped if they had a better understanding of its current role. Not only are the country’s troops engaged in the Hindu Kush, but they also are there to help German citizens during forest fires and flooding, and they might have to go to war if there is ever an incursion into EU borders.

There is a realization in Berlin that the relationship with Washington will not return to where it once was regardless of when Trump leaves office. As German Chancellor Angela Merkel mused in a beer tent in 2017, the time of depending on others is over. She’s right. It is high time for Germany to shed its historical inhibitions to strengthen its own democracy and the liberal international order.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.

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