Another obstacle has to do with Europe’s history and the reality of European politics. Not all Europeans cheer when they are confronted with German leadership. In some parts and political milieus history is still a potent political force. Germany learned this during the European debt crisis. Or put differently: Germany is not immune to the American experience: Damned if you do and damned if you don’t. Leadership cannot dispense with smart diplomacy and coalition-building efforts.
And then, of course, dynamics of coalitions politics and swings in public mood may hold Germany back from assuming international responsibilities. In general terms, Big Switzerland is particularly popular on the hard right and on the hard left.
In his recent book, “World in Danger”, the Chairman of the Munich security conference, former German top diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, disagrees strongly with suggestions to stick firmly with the old concept of restraint. We do not have the luxury anymore to watch what is going on in the world from the stands, he argues. We cannot afford being passive. If we want to keep ourselves out of what happens in the world, then we will have a price to pay – sooner or later. Witness the consequences of the Syrian nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming to Europe and turning German, and European, politics upside down. Ischinger thinks Germany has no other choice than to assume greater responsibility for the security and prosperity of itself, Europe and the wider West. He even suggest we must be prepared to spend more in and for Europe. This is certainly a controversial proposition.
What lies ahead
Here, in broad brush, is what Germany has to do:
- Work to preserve the liberal international order which is under threat from several sides. When and where necessary, aim for reforms.
- In collaboration with like-minded partners hold up multilateralism.
- Invest time, energy and other resources in the coherence of the European Union, its viability, and ability to act.
- At the same time, recent backlashes notwithstanding, engage the United States as much as possible. Europe cannot make without them. It is a bitter fact that most Germans have less confidence in the U.S. of Donald Trump than in the Russia of Wladimir Putin. Do not appease the man in the Kremlin even, though, a sizable part of the German business community wants the government exactly to do that.
- Fulfill NATO obligations and act militarily when necessary to protect our collective security and defend our interests.
The military dimension of this list is likely the most controversial. But then one has to look at look a today’s deployments: German armed forces are, still, among others in Afghanistan, in Iraqi Kurdistan, in Mali. Recalling the German debate about the constitutional limits of out of area missions 25 years ago, I marvel at the distance travelled and acknowledge the way we have come. Yes, we may do too little and sometimes do it too late. But still. One can pretty sure there is more to come.