Germany Is a Great Power—It Should Act Like One

Berlin's national strategy must reflect its influence.

With Britain distancing itself from—if not leaving—the European Union, France increasingly self-absorbed and the United States possibly veering towards isolationism under a President Trump, it will be up to Germany to save Europe. But the signs so far are not encouraging. Germany’s ham-handed leadership of the euro crisis split Europe and paved the way for further backlash over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s impulsive diktat on refugees. From a Germany that once led from behind, we are now seeing a Germany awkwardly rocking the foundations of the European order. One is reminded of Churchill’s pejorative view of Germans as “always at your throat or your feet.” But the more apt quotation is from Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

The latter category is certainly what Germany faces and must now get right. Far from seeking greatness in the postwar period, Germans have done about everything to avoid leadership. Instead, they’ve been guided by two principles, justified in equal measure on moral and historical grounds: “No more war!” and “Auschwitz: Never again!” Every generation since the war has drawn the same instinctive conclusion: because Germany, in Kissinger’s apocryphal assessment, is “too big for Europe, [but] too small for the world,” it needs to outsource strategy to the United States, the EU, NATO or other supranational institutions. This worked well as long as there was consensus among Western democracies and little opposition to “an ever closer union” within Europe. Washington was committed to defending Europe, and there were no emerging new powers.

The key question is whether Germany is capable of forging a strategy and undertaking the planning that comes with it. The sobering answer is that its capacities are exceedingly limited. On the contrary, there has been an unspoken social consensus to get by without any strategy at all. To operate strategically, it is necessary to cultivate not only an aspirational vision that has broad social acceptance (e.g. seeing Germany as a great power in its own right) but also, most importantly, an idea of how visions of the future will play out in practical, everyday situations. In being the biggest power in Europe, Germany’s vision also needs to win acquiescence—if not outright acceptance—from its neighbors.

The reasons for Germany’s disavowal of strategy are obvious: the original foundation of the German nation-state was a geostrategic provocation in itself. It led to the First World War, which ended with a flawed peace that already bore the germ of a second global conflagration. The Second World War was conducted in the name of a German people that approved the physical annihilation of dissenters in order to secure what it felt was its rightful position in Europe and the world.

The euro crisis demonstrated how Germany, caught unprepared, reacts when its normative vision of the future collapses unexpectedly. The ensuing mix of muddling through, whistling in the dark and pronouncements that “there is no alternative” prompted the admonition from abroad that German power is now less a cause for fear than German inactivity. The remarkable thing about this particular phrase is not so much its content as its author: Radosław Sikorski, Poland’s foreign minister. According to Sikorski, structural reform in Europe could only be led by Germany, the “indispensable nation” (!)—despite criticism of Berlin’s crisis management and concerns about German dominance in Europe.

Increasingly there are signs that the postwar mindset is losing relevance as the new multipolar world takes shape. At the Munich Security Conference in early 2014, Germany’s Federal President, Joachim Gauck, warned that Germany is changing “from a beneficiary to a guarantor of international security and order.” In the face of limited American capacity to deliver, he said, Germany is in any case increasingly responsible for its own security and that of its partners.

“We would be deceiving ourselves,” said Gauck, “if we were to believe that Germany was an island and thus protected from the vicissitudes of our age.” Few other countries have such close links with the rest of the world as Germany does, he added, making it particularly vulnerable to any “disruptions to the system.” For this reason, “the consequences of inaction can be just as serious, if not worse than the consequences of taking action.”

The relevance of this statement became clear a short time later. Three weeks after Gauck’s speech in Munich, the barricades on the Maidan in Kiev were in flames, and four weeks after that Russia annexed the Crimea. And in June 2015, the Levant became the front line between “Orient” and “Occident” when Islamic State declared its caliphate.