GERMANY IS once more in a key position to shape Europe’s destiny, in a world in which the West is adrift as it confronts increasingly assertive challengers. Berlin’s strategic role is not mainly economic: eurozone reform, like improving internal security cooperation, is just a part of the challenge. Far more challenging for Germany is another question: will it do its part so that Europe can learn to “jointly project its power in the world,” as the outgoing foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, put it at the Munich Security Conference in February?
GABRIEL ASKED the question precisely the way it would hurt the most, since the state of strategic thinking and debate among the German political class remains far behind the challenges it is facing. At the Sorbonne in September, French president Emmanuel Macron laid out detailed proposals to revive the vision of a “fair, protective and ambitious Europe.” Berlin’s responses so far, laid out in the new government’s coalition agreement, headed “ A New Beginning for Europe ,” are vague at best. On retooling the eurozone, a cautious “maybe.” On building an effective joint police and counterterrorism apparatus, a careful “yes.” And on external security and Macron’s provocatively framed proposal to build a common strategic culture of “intervention,” a deafening silence—carefully embedded in a resplendent flowerbed of goals for making Europe “more independent” while “solidifying the bond to the United States.”
It was probably the best that could be expected from three parties, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), all of which are suffering from coalition fatigue, having governed together for eight of the last twelve years. Their new coalition deal had to be approved by a referendum among the SPD’s 463,000 rank-and-file members. As a result, it was negotiated with at least one eye toward winning this crucial vote, rather than just as a blueprint for governing together.
On defense spending, the negotiators found a complicated formula that obfuscates a pretty solid target: by 2021, Berlin’s annual defense budget will grow from €37 billion (2017) to some €45 billion. While it is set to miss NATO’s 2024 target of 2 percent of GDP by a wide margin, the new government aims for a 20 percent increase over the next four years, along with significant increases to diplomatic and development spending, parts of which are pegged euro for euro to the extra funds for defense. It’s a solid target, set out in almost impenetrable terms only because of the SPD leadership’s need to avoid provoking its dovish members. Together, the targets themselves and their opaque presentation help understand how far Germany has come—and how much of the return journey from its long holiday from history has yet to be concluded.
FOR MOST Germans and their politicians, the woes of the world had no immediate relevance as long as their home and their immediate European neighborhood were at peace, exports boomed and everybody more or less liked Germany. War and genocide in the Balkans in the 1990s and the intervention in Afghanistan after 2001 sparked changes to that mind-set, but they faded quickly. The real wake-up calls came only very recently: Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, in 2014, and the more than one million refugees and migrants who arrived in Germany in 2015–16, largely as a result of the civil war in Syria. In one of her first speeches after the “refugee crisis” began, Angela Merkel nailed how the country had long felt about wars and violence: “For many years we have read about this. We have heard about it. We have seen it on TV. But we had not yet sufficiently understood that what happens in Aleppo and Mosul can affect Essen or Stuttgart.”
Since 2015, Germany has come a long way, but the country’s political class is now lagging behind the population. To understand why, we only have to look back at the time of the last federal election, in the fall of 2013, and the last formation of government. At the time, the challenge of the day was to save the euro. Saving the banks at the expense of the Greek people essentially defined Germany’s role in Europe at the time. The war in Afghanistan seemed to be winding down, and the previous government had just avoided an entanglement with the ill-fated French-British-American adventure in Libya. Germany was living in peace, surrounded by friends in all directions. Consequently, while many of Germany’s friends and neighbors were growing more impatient by the day, diplomacy, defense and development barely played a role in those coalition talks.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier, entering his second term as foreign minister after a four-year break, was worried about this growing gap between expectations from abroad and reluctance at home. He launched a major outreach exercise to promote Germany’s “international responsibility.” He need not have worried, as it turned out. Enter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the refugees who opened Germans’ eyes to the outside world. Moscow’s aggressive behavior, in particular, forced many senior figures, including Merkel and Steinmeier themselves, to revise long and dearly held assumptions about Russia and the foundations for peace in Europe. Trump’s election made the United States an unreliable partner; the British vote for Brexit kicked one leg away from the three-legged stool of EU leadership. China, the main beneficiary of the American crisis, got more and more assertive—and better and better in playing the Europeans against one another.