Germany as a geoeconomic power

It is wrong to think of Germany's assertive response to the eurozone crisis as a simple case of old-fashioned Realpolitik. Berlin's willingness to throw its weight around economically still sits awkardly with reluctance on military issues. In short, Germany is a geoeconomic power.  

At the European Council at the end of last week, Germany forcefully pushed the so-called Six Pack – a package of measures, based to a large extent on German norms, to promote more economic cohesion in Europe. It was another illustration of the way that, as economic imbalances within the eurozone have grown, Germany has increasingly tried to impose its own preferences on its European partners. During the last year, Germany has tended to see itself as a paragon of economic virtue and believe the solution to the euro crisis is to force other eurozone economies to become more like it for their own good.

Some have seen in Germany's response to the eurozone crisis a return to old-fashioned Realpolitik. However, the eurozone is not the whole story. For example, while Germany is increasingly willing to use its economic power within Europe, it remains extremely unwilling to use military force as a foreign-policy tool or even to project power in the wider world – as its controversial abstention in the vote on Resolution 1973 in the UN Security Council in March illustrates. The central difficulty of explaining German foreign policy is how to understand this paradoxical combination of economic assertiveness and military abstinence.

Germany has traditionally been understood as a “civilian power” – that is, one that, unlike a great power, uses multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military force to achieve its foreign policy goals and thus helps to “civilise” international relations by strengthening international norms. However, during the last decade, Germany’s “civilian power” identity has weakened. In particular, it has become less instinctively multilateral and less willing to transfer sovereignty to supranational institutions, even though it now seeks more power within multilateral institutions such as the UN.

Some have seen this as an expression of a new German “normality” (a concept that is usually defined, somewhat problematically, by reference to France and the UK). However, if Germany is seen as “normal” in its pursuit of national interests and in its selective multilateralism, it remains stubbornly and perhaps even increasingly “abnormal” in other aspects of foreign policy – especially security and defense policy. During the first decade after German reunification and in particular around the time of the Kosovo war in 1999 – when Chancellor Schröder’s “red-green” government agreed to send four German Tornados on sorties as part of the NATO military intervention – Germany seemed to be slowly converging with that of France and the UK as it reconciled itself to the use of military force as an instrument of foreign policy.

However, in the last decade, Germany seems to have reversed direction. After September 11, Schröder promised the United States Germany’s “unlimited solidarity” and committed troops to Operation Enduring Freedom and subsequently to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). But opposition to the mission in Afghanistan – and to German involvement in “out-of-area” operations in general – has gradually increased as German and civilian casualties have increased. The perceived failure of the Iraq war – which the German public and government opposed – has also played a key role. As its attitude to the military intervention in Libya illustrates, Germany now seems to be diverging from France and the UK on the question of the use of military force.

Because of this combination of “normality” and “abnormality”, Germany can now best be understood as a “geo-economic power” – in other words one that, in Edward Luttwak’s words, uses “the methods of commerce” according to a “logic of conflict”. Of course, it is not the only “geo-economically active” state in the world. In particular, there are striking parallels between China and Germany: both are both manufacturer/exporters that have huge surpluses of saving over investment and have recently tended to impose deflationary pressures on their trading partners (the US for China, the euro zone for Germany). However, although China relies primarily on economic power at this moment in its rise, it is also building up its military and ultimately aspires to be a great power. Germany, on the other hand, has no such great power aspirations. In a sense, therefore, Germany may be the purest example of a “geo-economic power” in the world today.

This article first appeared on the website of E!Sharp.

A longer version of this article appeared in the Washington Quarterly.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Research Director

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