Germany in Europe: no longer understood


After years of travelling to the US only to hear that Europe really doesn't matter any longer (or at all) for America, I can tell - coming back from the States this week where I did the roll out of my book in different academic and foreign policy circles - that it does matter again, and more so. Germany especially is a hip country once again when it comes to foreign policy analysis on the other side of the Atlantic. The reasons for this, however, are rather worrisome.

It’s hard to detect what matters more: German behavior over Libya or its course in the management of the Euro-crisis, but, in short, most US analysts believe that Germany got both wrong. On Libya, the US seems happy to welcome a ‘normal’ Germany, as long as normal would still mean signing up with the US on matters of international security. The US is puzzled about the loss of a strategic compass in Germany, which starts to be an overall discussed theme in Berlin, too: The famous German historian Hans-Peter Schwarz and Adenauer-Biographer just wrote a book about the loss of compass. For this discussion finally to happen, the Libya case was the trigger for an apparent game change, even before tanks to Saudi-Arabia or reluctance on the Palestine recognition brought Germany into asymmetry with most European partners and raised general concerns abroad. The German establishment is apparently coming to grips with the fact that being the economic power house of Europe on the one hand, but acting like ‘big Switzerland’ on the other, does not go that well together. But does this also apply to the general public in Germany, 67% of which supported the government’s decision on Libya?

There are two things here: the one is the loss of three paradigms that composed German foreign policy over years: NATO/ Atlanticism, Europe and multilateralism are all three in dissolution. That’s the problem for the German elites to find a new strategic narrative for the country and to define what modern Germany stands for beyond selling engineering stuff to China and caring only for rare earth as strategic tool of foreign policy. Merkel’s current trip to Mongolia - she is accompanied by German business leaders who will sign huge mining contracts securing Germany’s provision with rare earth – fuels again the vision that Germany does more trade policy than foreign policy, if not trade in short.

The other is perhaps more important, because not only is Berlin the new Brussels regarding its increasing importance in Europe, but the Bundestag is the new Congress with respect to defining foreign policy issues only in the narrow confines of what is explicable to German voters: in the years of the Federal Republic, mostly huge foreign policy questions clocked the biggest domestic discussions in Germany: rearmament 1955, ”Ostpolitik”-treaties 1963-1973, Pershings in 1983 or Maastricht in 1992 and most were decided against bold public majorities, but for the sake of Germany’s well-understood national interest. Today, regional elections in Germany clock Germany’s decision on the euro (North-Rhine-Westphalia) or on Libya (Baden-Württemberg). One may call this ‘national interest’. Hence it is rather provincialism as there is a thin difference between short-term ‘national interest’ (call it electoral constraints) and  well-understood national interest in the sense of Tocqueville’s definition. If a country and its elites are no longer capable to bring Germany’s foreign policy interests into the domestic policy equation, a country is in trouble, even if ordinary voters are pleased. And this is precisely because a country like Germany that dominates the middle of the European continent cannot afford to think as if it was alone. To make the linkage between domestic and foreign policy happen, Germany needs political elites especially in the parties that are no longer as autistic towards foreign voices and messages as in recent months, be it on economic choices and discourse or the foreign policy of their country.

One thing that repeatedly came up with respect to this gap in my discussions in the US was that Germany does have these elites who could do the intellectual bridge-building; yet, they are mostly neither sitting in the German parties nor in the German administrations or ministries, but in London or US based investment firms, in the ECB or the European Commission or US east-coast universities or in NGO’s – and not in Germany. I met a couple of Germans abroad, who were utterly frustrated about the foreign policy stance of their country or the German economic policy discourse with respect to the euro crisis. But these people don't see any appeal in returning to Germany for work, either because there aren’t any interesting jobs in the party or the political system at large; or due to the fact that they have been pushed out of the German political system because they didn’t want to submit their thinking only to party or narrowly defined ‘national’ interest approaches.

Germany has no revolving doors. Moving from think tanks to administration and back and forth is not possible and this is part of the problem. It adds to the disconnection of a German foreign policy community that sits abroad or in think tanks (myself included) or international institutions, but which is disconnected from those who really run the country. Whereas in former times the foreign policy community –  like Horst Teltschik, Wolfgang Ischinger,  Egon Bahr, Karl Lamers, Karl Kaiser, Joachim Bitterlich, Christoph Bertram, just to name some – were more or less part of the political and/ or party  system and hedged Germany’s appearance in the world.

Whatever the solution, Germany needs more ears to listen to what is said about our country beyond our borders and be capable to integrate this into the domestic policy discourse. Provincialism poses a danger to the biggest country in the European heartland and being self-righteous or insisting on a different approach to many things is simply dangerous  – even if Germany does many things quite well.


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