Confront German leaders with a mere potential threat to their liberal internal order, and most will feel the immediate need to act. Confront them with a clear and present danger to the liberal international order, and most will say: well, what can we do about it? Europe’s ability to have its own foreign policy? We really don’t have much leverage to make that happen.
As the era of Donald Trump wears on, the paradox between Germany’s defence of liberalism at home and its denial to project these same values outwards is becoming ever harder to ignore. This is not least given the way in which Angela Merkel originally congratulated Trump on his electoral victory: in a pointedly conditional way, on the basis of shared liberal democratic values. At the time, comment ran wild about her becoming the “new leader of the free world”. But since the US president’s assault on the Iran nuclear deal, Berlin’s reaction has been notably less forceful than one might have hoped for back in November 2016.
In Germany, wehrhafte Demokratie – well-fortified democracy – is what Germans call the lesson learned from our national trauma in the 1930s, when Adolf Hitler turned one of the world’s most advanced democracies into a fascist totalitarian system within a matter of years. Fortified democracy means that liberalism and its rules have to be protected, if necessary with power, politics, and limited illiberal means. Simply sticking to the rules, just criticising from a safe distance, can be dangerous because those more determined to take action might destroy the liberal democratic order.
The old unpolitical, reactive legalism still dominates German foreign policy
According to Germans’ own philosophy, deeply ingrained into their political DNA, this should be no different on the international level. Here, too, it takes courage and political leadership to defend liberalism, democracy, and a rules-based order. Here, too, it does not suffice to just stick to the rules, to point to international law, and to criticise violations from a safe distance. In fact, Trump is currently demonstrating to all Europeans that he thinks he can break international law and then get to punish those who still want to abide by it.
When Trump launched his most blatant assault on Europe’s vision of the rules-based order and the nuclear non-proliferation regime, what was the German reaction? And what was it when he attempted to make the international system an illiberal great power competition without rules and without order? The German response was sharp in its analysis of the dangers, wehrhaft was nowhere to be seen.
Merkel said that Trump’s decision “violates our trust in the international order”. But she was happy enough to let on that Germany would do little about it. It does not help to “over-estimate one’s own force and negotiating position”, she said. Europeans would have to discuss “whether there was any way at all of upholding the agreement”. Even if this is all true, the concept of wehrhafte Demokratie should have informed the chancellor it was wrong to tell everyone right away that we are powerless.
Merkel pulled her punches compared to her economy minister, Peter Altmaier: “We have no legal ways of protecting German companies from a decision of the US government”, he told the press just days after Trump’s announcement. Compare that puritan legalism to his French counterpart Bruno Le Maire whose five-point plan to defend the European interest showed that he was thinking politically.
Merkel’s coalition partner, the Social Democrats, sounded a slightly different note. “As long as we stand a chance of saving this important pillar of the international disarmament order, we must try everything we can”, foreign minister Heiko Maas said, noting that international law was being replaced by the paradigm of ‘might makes right’. But he, too, immediately said he saw no simple solution to protect German companies from US sanctions – and without the chancellor it will be hard for him to adapt German foreign policy to the new great power competition.
Many in Berlin do not view themselves as shaping the world and the old unpolitical, reactive legalism still dominates much of German foreign policy. The predominating arguments in Berlin are not necessarily wrong, but they are deeply unpolitical. Germany is choosing not to project political power in defence of the liberal order, not because it cannot do so – it could, and rather successfully too. A country does not grow to be the fourth largest economy and grow no teeth in the process. And the recent past has seen instances of Germany using its economic power for political goals (against Russia on Ukraine and in dealing with Turkey).
German policy chiefs will tell you they cannot force German companies to do business with Iran and thus ensure the continued trade benefits the Iranian regime needs to stick to the deal. But politics can incentivise such trade, negotiate exemptions and threaten counter-measures against US sanctions. Germany could finance trade with Iran through publicly held banks that do not depend on US market access, as Alexander Graf Lambsdorff from the opposition Free Democrats has suggested. It could set up a public fund to compensate for losses from US secondary sanctions, even if it covers just some losses. But Altmaier dismissed that idea from the start. Why? Because there is no provision in the German tax code for it. And because it would set a precedent for other countries. As things stand, however, other countries now know they can sanction German companies and Berlin will just bow to their policies.
Options on Germany’s table are, in fact, abundant, if only one were to look. They further include threatening to favour a Chinese company over a US rival in sectors where Germany has leverage. Berlin could hint at sanctions on US companies and thereby activate relevant lobby groups in Washington that have influence with the Republicans and Trump. It could show it is ready to sanction US companies together with their European partners if necessary.
Trump the supposed business leader would get into too much trouble at home if he risked a full-blown trade war with Europe. He currently knows he can just crush Europeans without risking dispute at all because the Germans in particular might use some more or less tough language, but will ultimately back down.
Even if Germans were indeed as powerless as they make out, their conclusion should be to get together with their European partners and make sure they are not so defenceless next time. In response to Trump leaving the Iran nuclear deal, they must now announce that they will strengthen the EU together with Emmanuel Macron. They can make their own proposals, but just saying, “We are weak and can’t do anything” cannot be the preferred option. If the US still has more leverage over us despite roughly equal market sizes, we need to minimise asymmetries over the next years. China, for instance, is systematically building up its own economic leverage. But more and more Berlin insiders are having doubts about whether the new government will follow up on its professed “relaunch of Europe” plans at all.
There is a big danger in this for Germany’s and Europe’s future. Barely anyone in Berlin seems to think about the consequences of the recent (in)actions for the next two – or six – years of the Trump era, during which time the US president will be determined to destroy or weaken more things of vital interest to us, like the World Trade Organisation, the German car industry, or disarmament. Germany might find itself waking up at some point and finding that the liberal order as well as the European order – so critical to Germans’ wealth and stability – are effectively gone. Perhaps only then will we realise that our wehrhafte Demokratie is only possible in today’s world if we have a wehrhaftes Europa too.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.