By Iain Whitaker, Assistant Director, Leadership Programs
Last November President Barack Obama traveled to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Although the meeting had been planned for months, recent world events imbued the summit with a sense of urgency and gravity. Coming just over a week after Donald Trump’s election victory, and against a backdrop of rising populism and geopolitical instability, the meeting was perhaps inevitably portrayed as Obama passing the baton of liberalism and globalism to his closest international ally. Sensing the unspoken gesture, Merkel described it as “grotesque” and “absurd” to imagine one person alone could defend the liberal world order. But as the chancellor prepares for federal elections this fall, and a possible fourth term in office, she may find she has little choice.
Sitting at the nexus of a manic venn diagram of overlapping alliances, multilateral institutions, and trade flows, few nations have a greater stake in the liberal international system than Germany. As the 2016 McKinsey Connectedness Index confirmed, Germany is the most globally networked nation in the world. Its enviable export-driven wealth rests on free and open global trade, particularly across the European single market, and its dominant position within the Eurozone. Meanwhile NATO’s umbrella of collective self-defense has been the foundation of the nation’s security, bolstered by other regional security organizations such as the OSCE. Germany’s openness to the world has, in short, been overwhelmingly beneficial for most Germans.
But in recent years this openness has appeared more fragile and, for some, threatening. Since 2015 Germany has, in the words of Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, experienced a “rendezvous with globalization.” First there was the migrant crisis. As many as 1.8 million migrants and refugees fleeing war and genocide beyond Europe’s periphery arrived on the continent in 2015 alone, and the vast majority headed for Germany. While Germans have remained remarkably welcoming, a spate of ISIL-inspired terror attacks and fears of cultural change have been deeply divisive and have fed support for the nativist Alternative für Deutschland.
Next there was Brexit. For Germany, a nation deeply and emotionally wedded to the European project, the first-ever decision by a member state to exit the European Union has been unsettling, especially in its potential to nourish like-minded euroskeptics across the continent. Then America elected a president who questioned the fundamentals of transatlantic cooperation during his election campaign, querying NATO’s value and describing the alliance as “obsolete.”
While Merkel has publicly contested the notion that Germany can somehow halt this global unraveling, she has, through her actions on multiple fronts, actually begun to demonstrate the opposite. In a cautious, understated manner reflective of the chancellor’s own personality, Germany is beginning to feel more comfortable articulating its own interests and leading from the front in defense of globalization and liberalism.
Germany led the Eurozone through a sovereign debt crisis that at times looked likely to crush the nascent monetary union and was front and center during the fractious debt negotiations with Greece. German diplomats played a central role beside their American counterparts in negotiating the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in Paris. The Minsk Accords are a Franco-German initiative. And on both a policy and human level Germany’s settlement of nearly one million migrants and refugees in 2015-16 was, politics aside, an immense act of moral leadership. It is noteworthy that, with the exception of the Paris Agreement, Merkel faced down repeated criticism from within German society and politics to stake a more active international role.
But it is in the realm of defense where a new German boldness is most apparent. In August 2014 Germany announced that it would provide sophisticated weaponry and equipment to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters, a move which represented a significant break with Germany’s historically rooted reluctance to intervene in foreign military conflicts. More recently, in June 2016, the German federal government released a white paper on the future of the long underfunded and underappreciated Bundeswehr. The key takeaways – significant increases in defense spending, a military recruitment drive, closer EU security coordination, and enhanced contributions to NATO missions – all hint to a shift in Germany’s conceptualization of security and national interest. “Germany is ready to lead,” Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen boldly proclaimed upon the paper’s launch.
Federal elections in late this summer will be the ultimate test of whether the German public backs Merkel’s new international assertiveness. Polling conducted on behalf of Hamburg’s Koerber Foundation in October 2016 suggests that German public opinion is, slowly, following Merkel’s lead. Asked whether they believe their nation should assume responsibility in international crises, 41 percent of Germans said yes, up from 34 percent in January 2015.
Yet Koerber’s research underscores another essential truth about Germany’s foreign policy outlook: an overwhelming preference for multilateralism. Nearly 70 percent of survey respondents agreed that working through the EU is an extremely or very important foreign policy approach, and 47 percent said the same for NATO. Only 29 percent took this view of unilateral action. Reflecting both the weight of its history and the reality of its near-term military limitations, Germany’s emerging model of leadership will continue to rest on diplomacy, consensus-building, and the exercise of influence through international organizations.
If Trump’s presidency ushers in a period of American disengagement from the world, Germany’s softer, collaborative approach will soon be sorely tested. Amidst an upswelling of nationalism across the western world, and facing a spate of globally momentous elections in 2017 (including her own), Merkel’s greatest challenge may be to find willing partners to work with, at home and abroad, in defense of an international system that has been so good for her country.
In December 2016 Iain Whitaker participated in the German Federal Foreign Office’s Transatlantic Think Tank Study Tour.