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Forget Washington and Beijing. These Days Global Leadership Comes From Berlin.

People love to hate Germany—but the country is doing far more than most nations to help its European neighbors fight the coronavirus.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to address a press conference in Berlin on April 23 after taking part in a video conference with EU leaders.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives to address a press conference in Berlin after taking part in a videoconference with EU leaders on April 23. Michael Kappeler/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

At the beginning of April, the university hospital in the central German city of Jena dispatched two doctors, two medical assistants, and assorted medical supplies to Naples, Italy. A couple of days before, the Bundeswehr, Germany’s military, had airlifted French and Italian patients to German hospitals. That’s just a tiny part of Germany’s coronavirus assistance to allies.

Germany’s initial response to the coronavirus outbreak was not exactly covered in glory. At the beginning of the year, Italy, the first European country badly hit by the coronavirus, logged an appeal for medical supplies with the European Union’s emergency hub. But the German government reacted the way every other EU government did: It sent nothing. Then, in early March, the German government imposed an export ban on vital medical supplies including face masks, medical gloves, and protective gowns. By March 14, Italy had still not received any medical aid from its EU allies.

Two days later, Germany’s Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy announced that the delivery of 400,000 face masks to Italy had been approved by the government. With that, Germany changed the tenor of the Europeans’ response to Italy: Soon medical supplies were arriving from around the continent. When there’s a crisis, the world’s collective instinct is often to pick on the Germans. This time, we owe them a thank you—and a request for more global leadership.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

Even as Germany took initiative to help Italy, Beijing had dispatched supplies and a few medics there, as it subsequently would to other countries such as Serbia. Though most of the supplies had been purchased by Italy, Beijing—assisted by Italy’s foreign minister, Luigi Di Maio—made a big deal of the Chinese support. Soon Russia sent 100 military medics and medical supplies to Italy.

Any government’s first responsibility is to look after its own population. The German government imposed a ban on medical supply exports just as Italy was succumbing to the coronavirus in early March, while other countries closed their borders with Italy. But the damage to the EU—and stature gained by China and Russia—was immense.

When there’s a crisis, the world’s collective instinct is often to pick on the Germans. This time, we owe them a thank you.

A new survey by SWG, an Italian pollster, reveals a shocking shift in Italian attitudes toward other countries: 52 percent of Italians surveyed now consider China a friendly country, a massive 42 percentage point leap compared with last year. Likewise, 32 percent consider Russia a friendly country, up from 15 percent, while only 17 percent consider the United States a friendly country, down from 29 percent a year ago. Even more shockingly, 45 percent of Italians surveyed now consider Germany a “hostile country,” 38 percent consider France an enemy, and 17 percent see the U.K. that way.

Had Germany immediately responded to Italy’s appeal for medical supplies, chances are it could have reversed some of the resentment with which many Italians view it. That resentment has been simmering since the 2012 eurozone crisis, when many Italians felt Germany acted heartlessly (though it finally agreed to a bailout of Italy and Spain). Germany wouldn’t even have had to send enormous amounts of medical supplies: China and Russia didn’t.

But Berlin’s change of heart is better late than never. Now Germany is not just sending supplies; the much-maligned Bundeswehr has airlifted 22 Italian and two French intensive-care coronavirus patients to Germany, transporting them on the military’s flying intensive care unit—an Airbus A310 medevac plane—and other aircraft. It has also donated its space on NATO’s Strategic Airlift International Solution initiative—which features enormous cargo aircraft—to coronavirus deliveries. And despite having a slightly higher COVID-19 caseload than Britain, it has donated and delivered 60 of its own ventilators to the U.K.

And that’s just the beginning. To date, according to the German foreign ministry, Germany has treated 229 foreign intensive-care coronavirus patients (44 from Italy, 55 from the Netherlands, and 130 from France) and offered to foot the bill for all of them. Berlin has donated and delivered 7.5 tons of medical supplies (including ventilators) to Italy and 25 ventilators to France. The government-run Robert Koch Institute, the country’s disease control and prevention agency, has sent coronavirus test kits to developing countries. Doctors employed by the Fresenius Helios hospital chain in Germany have traveled to Spain for coronavirus duty, bringing 50 ventilators with them. And when the coronavirus first hit China, the Germans sent Beijing more than 14 tons of medical equipment.

On top of that, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development has reallocated 1.15 billion euros ($1.25 billion) to help developing countries fight the coronavirus, for example in strengthening their health care systems and securing otherwise perilous jobs in supply chains and tourism. The German government is also working with other governments to ensure sufficient global production of medical supplies for coronavirus patients. Berlin is also now permitting exports of medical supplies to EU countries. In recent weeks, German firms have, for example, exported 8 million medical gloves to Austria, according to the German foreign ministry.Many governments have clearly realized that helping other countries’ coronavirus victims is a good thing and indeed a geopolitical imperative.

“Since a virus doesn’t stop at any border, the response to it has to be a signal of global solidarity,” said Agnieszka Brugger, a deputy leader of the Green Party in the Bundestag, the German parliament. “Every government that has the capacity to do so should help those most in need, and there have been German acts of solidarity with our European neighbors that should be applauded. My home state of Baden-Württemberg, for example, provided hospital beds for corona[virus] patients from neighboring Alsace [in France], and the Bundeswehr is helping with transport capacity. These signals are exactly what we need now.”

Germany is, of course, not the only helper. Romania and Norway have, for example, sent doctors to Italy. Albania, with only 2.8 million people, has sent the Italians a 30-strong medical team, and France and Austria have sent medical supplies. U.S. soldiers based in Germany are making face masks for German soldiers, and the U.S. government has put all U.S. military personnel in Italy (some 30,000 service members) at Italy’s disposal for coronavirus duty. Indeed, European airspace today is dotted with coronavirus aid flights between friendly countries.

Many governments have clearly realized that helping other countries’ coronavirus victims is a good thing and indeed a geopolitical imperative. The most phenomenal coronavirus aid effort has been put in by Taiwan, which has donated millions of face masks to countries around the world, including 6.9 million to EU member states, dwarfing China’s aid. But, thanks to concerted Chinese pressure, Taiwan is an international outcast and is not even recognized by the World Health Organization.

But unlike the Chinese and Russians with their modest aid, the Germans haven’t been very good at publicizing their efforts. (That might be why nearly 50 percent of Italians surveyed consider them enemies.) That needs to change, argued Roderich Kiesewetter, a Christian Democratic Union member in the Bundestag. “Otherwise there will be a skewed picture of the situation, particularly regarding the aid from Russia and China,” he said. Kiesewetter also proposed that the EU develop self-sufficiency in advanced medical technology and protective equipment. Considering that the German medical technology industry already employs some 200,000 people, far more than any other European country, that’s an area where Germany could likewise play a leading role. When the next global health crisis appears, the Europeans could then make sure the world is not dependent on Chinese supplies.

The German government isn’t compassionate in every way: It has been reluctant to agree to so-called coronabonds, where all eurozone countries would share debt accumulated by the countries worst hit by the coronavirus crisis. “Given the severe economic threats to the EU, the German government has to stop blocking effective solidarity measures such as common bonds to deal with this crisis,” Brugger told Foreign Policy. “Preventing an economic collapse in European countries is not just the right thing to do but also in Germany’s own economic interest.” On April 23, EU leaders finally agreed on a 540 billion euro ($585 billion) coronavirus rescue package.Germany is indisputably aiding other countries’ coronavirus victims, and it’s mostly doing so at taxpayers’ expense. 

Still, Germany is indisputably aiding other countries’ coronavirus victims, and it’s mostly doing so at taxpayers’ expense. The German effort is also taking place in a global leadership vacuum. During a global crisis, the United States would typically take charge. It did so during the 2014 Ebola pandemic, sending soldiers and medics to the most affected countries in Africa and marshaling a global response that curtailed the outbreak. This time there is no such U.S. leadership.

The absence of such leadership during this pandemic has created a Darwinian situation where countries compete against one another for medical supplies, components for medical supplies, and components for coronavirus vaccine and drug research. Researchers are even competing to purchase the genetically modified mice best suited for coronavirus vaccine development.

If the world is to manage the next crisis less chaotically than this one, there has to be more coordination of resources, and that requires a leading country doing its part and nudging and encouraging others. But Germany’s coronavirus aid offers a model for such leadership in the future.

That’s especially important because when the next disaster hits, countries certainly won’t turn to China for leadership—and given Washington’s bungling of this crisis, perhaps not even to the United States either. The EU can be a formidable actor but requires consensus among its member states, which doesn’t come quickly or easily.

The next time a dictator like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad decides to kill his own people, it would be unwise to count on Germany to lead a global military effort to stop him. But if there’s another a pandemic or a climate-triggered disaster, there’s potential in Berlin.

For once, the world should thank the Germans—and ask them for more global leadership.

Elisabeth Braw is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Twitter: @elisabethbraw

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