Three years ago, Radek Sikorski made a stunning statement while serving as Poland’s foreign minister. He called Germany the indispensable nation in Europe. But Sikorski did not stop there. He even went so far to say that it was not German power he feared. Rather, it was German inaction that kept him up at night. Imagine! This was at the time of the euro crisis when Berlin was really framing the debate about how to solve this mess and keep the currency union in one piece. Sikorski’s statement was remarkable in many ways. Above all, it signified the expectations that friends and allies have of a unified Germany: Show leadership, assume responsibility, forget the Cold War, and become a normal nation whose political actions match its economic strength. We need your active involvement, not your restraint. Restraint, however, was what many German politicians and the public still think is the key lesson of the Nazi past.
Commemorating John F. Kennedy’s Berlin speech in 1963 during a visit to the German capital, President Obama modified Sikorski’s call. “Complacency is not a characteristic of great nations,” Obama said in 2013. Against the backdrop of the Brandenburg Gate, he hit home one message: Germany, we need you as a strong and active ally in the fight for liberty, security and human rights.
Well, this caused Germans to scratch their heads and ask themselves: What more do they want from us, apart from money? We have a couple of thousand troops in Afghanistan; we patrol the coast of East Africa; we served in the Kosovo campaign. This was quite a change from the way we were. Well into the 1990s, we Germans had come to believe that our constitution prevented the German military, or Bundeswehr, from setting foot in any out-of-area operation. But, then, the highest court in the land came out of the blue and ruled that the constitution contained no such prohibition at all.
President Gauck: Accepting greater responsibility
Well, German President Joachim Gauck has certainly heard the messages coming from the country’s allies. He has turned their messages into his own. It has become his “leitmotiv.” On German Reunification Day 2013, he rattled the country by saying that we must get used to accepting greater responsibility, responsibility that extends from development aid to military deployments. Germany should not make itself smaller in order to avoid the risks and the solidarity it owes to partners, he said.
Gauck’s really big moment came a few months later when he addressed the Munich Security Conference. During his address, he posed a couple of questions to his audience. Does Germany act according to its weight in the world? Does it do enough to help prepare our alliances for the future? He warned Germans, to whom his speech was actually directed, not to fall into the trap of believing that they lived on an island of bliss amid a sea of chaos and madness. “We cannot assume that we will be spared the conflicts of the world,” Gauck said. “We need to pitch in and help solve them.”