The world turns to Germany

Fractious geopolitics create leadership vacuum

While the rest of the western world sank into confusion following the election of Donald Trump, Germany did not miss a beat. It dispatched elections of both the federal president and the chancellor in the course of a few days. There was no excitement, no controversy and no wavering from Germany’s determined course.

Angela Merkel needed only to confirm her interest in a fourth term to be acclaimed as the
indispensable chancellor, for whom there might not even be an opponent in the 2017 election. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was equally certain that nomination by the CDU/CSU and SPD coalition partners would result in his elevation to the federal presidency in February.

Barack Obama topped off Germany’s week by proclaiming that Merkel had by far been his most important foreign partner. With American leadership now open to question, there seemed to be unanimous agreement around the globe that Germany remained the only pillar of liberal ideals on the planet.

Why then did The Economist magazine highlight a commentary on Germany’s growing leadership role by proclaiming that it would never happen? Exhibiting amazing insensitivity to what is really going on in Germany, the magazine’s European correspondent unwittingly answered his own question by noting that to ‘visit Berlin is to be confronted at every turn by the evils that Germans do’.

Germany is in fact so ‘evil free’ that is regularly chosen by the BBC as the world’s most respected country. But it is the evils that Germany once did do which have helped it rise to this pinnacle of international respect. In fact, an important key to understanding Germany’s growing international role is the restraint impressed upon it by the tragedies of the past. Germany has for centuries been faced with the task of integrating a complex cultural and political geography. And it has learned with great sorrow the lessons of overreaching which others such as the US and Russia, but also France and Britain, seem not to have understood.

So Germany frustrates its partners by hesitating to go beyond comfortable international limits, while often driving them to rage by grasping the initiative unilaterally whenever Europe’s travails seem to be tipping the balance against the restraint which is so essential to its own self-confidence. Neither Germany nor its partners seem to understand how to harmonise these two essential goals of German behaviour.

Events outside of Germany may now bring things into clearer focus. Trump’s erratic behaviour will make German continuity an even more precious commodity globally. Marine Le Pen’s rise in the polls, Theresa May’s stumbling over Brexit, Vladimir Putin’s decline into irrationality and the growing Chinese instability will underline Merkel’s essential role.

Increasingly, the rest of the world will come to understand that the answer to this conundrum is not further hectoring of the Germans, but understanding by its partners that the ‘über stability’ which forms the core of German normality can be utilised to define a secure foundation for a very unsettled Western world.

In practice this will mean helping Germany to build a more self-confident and flexible approach to its leadership role. German society is still far from achieving the inner equilibrium that is an essential foundation for confidently playing in the risk-and-reward culture which lies ahead. Until it somehow masters the alchemy of turning the winds of globalisation into the soft breezes of stability, Germany’s current lack of resilience will continue to affect its ability to work co-operatively with others.

What the world now desperately needs from Germany is the one thing its leaders probably cannot deliver – that Germany ‘grows up’ and acts with the graciousness and self-confidence which others expect from Europe’s and maybe the world’s most indispensable leader.

Lessons from the past might be helpful. The best way to move forward with Germany has always been to build a practical foundation which spreads confidence amongst the German electorate. This method served the state well during the Cold War and the era of detente.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was hoped to be the channel for building a new sense of mutual interest. But growing populist sentiment on both sides of the Atlantic has expanded the need for a more fundamental effort which supports trade interests with comprehensive treatment of the many practical and social values issues raised by digitalisation and globalisation. It can be a focus which again unifies the West by defining a strong mutual interest even between the Trump and Brexit governments of the Anglo-Saxon world and an increasingly German-influenced Continent. This is as important a common task as was the Cold War.

John Kornblum is a former US Ambassador to Germany, Senior Counsellor at Noerr LLP, and a member of the OMFIF Advisory Board.

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