The end of the cold war, German unification, the implosion of the Soviet Union, and the wider changes in Europe have set Germany on a new trajectory: from security consumer and full-time U.S. client to security provider, anchor nation and even hegemon. In security and military terms, the country has been transiting from a culture of restraint to a culture of responsibility.
Before and after the turn of the century, demands and expectations that Germany carry more of the burden of transatlantic and European security and prosperity were constantly increasing – to the point where a Polish foreign minister, in November of 2011, called Germany the indispensable nation of Europe. Imagine. While Germany has always been Europe’s economic powerhouse, it was around that time that the increase in political clout became all too clear. When the European debt crisis gripped many European countries and the future of the Euro zone was on the line, Germany clearly moved to center stage. It fell upon Germany to save the Euro and avert disaster for the global economy, on terms and conditions that were too lenient in the eyes of the believers of fiscal and monetary orthodox and too harsh for the recipients of aid packages. As a consequence British political scientist William Paterson argued that Germany had become Europe’s reluctant hegemon. I do not think this is a useful term, because it suggests a kind of behavior we usually associated in the past with the behavior and power of the United States. Its new influence, authority and power notwithstanding, Germany does not fit in this category. It is a rich country with considerable power, but its resources are limited and, unlike in France and the United Kingdom, a strategic culture is almost nonexistent.
Since a couple of years, however, things don’t look so bright anymore, if not outright dark. Most recent political and geopolitical changes in and around Europe were not in favor of Germany. Quite the opposite. Some developments directly challenge its core interests, beliefs and principles. We have seen Russia’s aggression in and against the Ukraine changing borders, undermining states, threatening neighbors, popping up dictatorial regimes. We witness the return of big power rivalries and conflicts. The power struggle in Venezuela, by the way, may be an example for this. The rise of China is no longer merely seen as an economic opportunity but as a serious, geopolitical and economic challenge. Global order is seen as dissolving, as the concept of common rules and institutions is shared less and less. When it comes to Russia, it fell primarily upon Germany and France, in this order, to organize a response. This response, sanctions, is asymmetrical, and until now has not changed Russia’s behavior. But it has signaled to President Putin that his aggression at least comes with a price. “Peace is more fragile than we had hoped for at the end of the Cold War,” Chancellor Angela Merkel said the other day.