Germany's Fatal Flaw: Strategic Blindness

"In short, Germany failed to consider the strategic risk its Ukraine policy presented for itself and its neighbors and allies."

What a difference a century makes. One hundred years ago last week, European capitals were in the grip of the “July Crisis”: on the 23rd, almost a month after the Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary finally delivered its ultimatum to Serbia. With bated breath, the world waited to see whether it would be war or peace. The answer would come soon enough and, with Germany’s coldhearted trampling of “gallant little Belgium” (whose only crime was happening to be located on the best invasion route into France), the Allies’ propaganda machines would swing into action, accusing the “vicious Hun” of a plot to subject the world to “Prussian militarism”.

Today, by contrast, Germany is probably having its best summer since 1914.

Reunified and at peace, it is indisputably Europe’s most dominant power, economically and politically. Leaving last year’s wobble behind, GDP growth hit 3.3 percent in the last quarter (compared to a measly 0.2 percent for France). And despite visceral British opposition, Germany-preferred candidate Claude Juncker has inevitably emerged as the next European Commissioner.

Internationally, German prestige has rarely been higher. Chancellor Angela Merkel—American president Barack Obama’s constant go-to in the Ukraine crisis—has acted more and more as if she were a joint leader of the ‘West’.

To many, Germany’s World Cup victory seemed to symbolize the country’s unique underlying strengths. In Britain, the Guardian’s Jochen Hung enthused that the German team showed us:

Today’s world lacks not leadership, but good teamwork. It may be less inspiring than one mighty nation dominating the field, but ultimately, like the squads built around Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo or Neymar, such orders and the political deals they create are fragile constructs.

That’s comforting stuff, indeed.

Outwardly, the only blot on an otherwise glorious German summer would appear to be the painful NSA scandal—but this misdeed of a feckless ally has only magnified Germany’s innocent virtues, Merkel’s (it must be hoped, feigned) shock suggesting that nobody in enlightened, postmodern Berlin could possibly conceive of embracing such ignominious artifices of the “old diplomacy.” (Never mind what it might mean about her judgment if the leader of the world’s fourth largest economy didn’t expect to be spied on.)

Yet, for all the praises heaped this summer on Germany’s unique capacity for discipline, teamwork and sensible forward planning, the summer has actually exposed Germany’s profound organizational and cultural weaknesses, especially in terms of foreign policy.

A harder look reveals strategic blindness unworthy of a country with pretensions to regional leadership—and an apparently institutionalized failure to extrapolate the possible consequences of its policies that confirms traditional accusations of Germany’s lack of imagination, parochialism and weakness for solipsism. If it cannot be imagined that Germany itself would act in a certain way in a given situation, then it seems that, in Berlin, it also cannot be imagined that any other country could or would either.

The problem is that if there’s one thing delirious admirers have fallen over themselves to point out this summer, it is that the rest of the world isn’t Germany, nor does it approach its problems with German eyes.

Today, Germany’s biggest and most obvious foreign-policy failure is Ukraine, which has tested its consensus-driven politics—the country is ruled by a “Grand Coalition” between the major right-of-center CDU and the left-of-center SDP—and imposed a difficult juggling act on a country with an often ambivalent position between East and West in the so-called “new Cold War”.

A crucial NATO ally since 1955, Germany is also among Russia’s top trading partners and investment destinations: links between Russian and German business and political leaders are unusually close, a relationship best illustrated by former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s current position as chairman of the board of the majority Gazprom-owned Nord Stream pipeline consortium.

Yet, while the Kremlin undoubtedly deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the blood spilt in eastern Ukraine since April, Germany’s role in precipitating the crisis there has received far less scrutiny than it should have.

Germany played a leading role in pushing the EU’s Association Agreement (AA) with Ukraine. It saw in it a means for promoting democracy, the rule of law and economic freedom in Europe, as part of the EU’s so-called Eastern Neighbourhood Policy. Indeed, Berlin insisted on tying the deal to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych's agreement to release his rival, Yulia Tymoshenko, from prison.