Too much alarm

Ian Bremmer and Mark Leonard see the western liberal order in danger. But shifts in Germany’s international outlook may not be the trigger as change has many sources.  

In a recent op-ed in the Washington Post, Ian Bremmer and Mark Leonard decry “irreconcilable differences” between Washington and Berlin. A “fundamental shift in interests and outlook” now threatens the “entire Western alliance”. The authors see Germany’s ever-more narrow focus on economic stability as running roughshod over other nations, including traditional allies. In Bremmer’s and Mark Leonard’s understanding, Germany is a “geo-economic power, using commerce to extend its influence and advance its interests”. Increasingly it associates itself with non-aligned and mercantilist states while showing disinterest in cooperation with its NATO allies on matters of common security. The good counsel of the U.S. president, especially during the eurocrisis, is constantly rejected. In the authors' assessment, the divide between Germany and the United States now endangers the liberal world order.

It is certainly true that transatlanticism isn’t what it used to be. The end of the Cold War and the rise of the rest have transformed the relationship. America is no longer Europe’s protector and Europe is no longer at the core of America’s foreign policy interests. Whether America and Europe can go global together is increasingly uncertain; and it is uncertain not least because the United States and Germany don’t look eye to eye on key issues of the international agenda. But Ian Bremmer’s and Mark Leonard’s claim is bolder. In their essay, they don’t seem to attribute the changes they decry to anything the United States does; and neither to anything that happens elsewhere. Virtually all change appears to originate in Berlin. The authors see Germany’s willingness to commit troops to international missions waning; they see the country as less multilateral than it used to beand more aligned with mercantilist-driven rising nations. These claims warrant closer inspection:

1. Germany is becoming less willing to commit troops to defend its liberal values.

Bremmer and Leonard correctly observe that the willingness to deploy troops, while never high, has faded over the past few years. The question is: why? The authors assume that this reluctance is part of a larger trend of Germany going alone, becoming ever more trade and ever less security minded.

However, there are other forces at play. Disillusionment about the mission in Afghanistan and with the military alliance with the United States is one factor. Germans did not feel felt that they were abandoning the U.S.; rather, they felt that the U.S. was abandoning them. The endless tug of war with the U.S. about the acceptability of civilian deaths, of drone strikes, of targeted killings, the fallout of the torture scandals and the treatment of prisoners, the ripple effects of a controversial war in Iraq – in sum: America’s loss of moral compass during its neoconservative moment brought Germany’s slow and conflict-laden emergence as a more “normal” member of the Western interventionist family to a standstill.

This recent trend is by no means irreversible. After more than a decade in Afghanistan the Germans are tired of the war. In that sense they are not that different from their peers in other Western countries. At the same time, the German Chancellor is already contemplating a new “out of area” mission, albeit a small one, this time to Mali. For the foreseeable future, Germany will not be interested in becoming a military power. It will continue to exercise military restraint and sit out some missions as it did in Iraq and Libya. The concern, however, that the country is becoming disconnected from the Western mainstream hardly squares with German intentions, actions or attitudes.

2. Germany is becoming less multilateral.

For postwar West Germany, multilateralism was a religion. In the German mind, foreign relations should be governed by rules, treaties, and international organizations. Not coincidentally, this seemingly benign strategy was also the only way for a tainted nation to regain respect and influence. As if a default setting remained in place, Germany remained committed to multilateralism after achieving full sovereignty with re-unification. But the world around Germany changed. Much to the surprise of many Germans, the emergence of a multipolar world created nations more interested in their own rise than in working global institutions, global rules, and conflict mediation bodies. It came as a shock to the German foreign policy elite that the infamous Climate Summit in Copenhagen in 2009 was, to many nations, about gaining power, not about saving the world from global warming.

Since then, Germany has been slower than other nations to abandon the UN imperative and adopt a new climate realism that relies less on multilateralism.

On the other hand, cooperation with the United States improved after the election of President Barack Obama, as America has rediscovered multilateralism just when other (mostly rising) nations begin to see multilateralism as a constraint. This has allowed the Federal Republic to act more multilateral, not less. Take relations with Russia. Here, indeed, Germany has had a tendency to go it alone, especially under Chancellor Schroeder. But the election of Angela Merkel, combined with President Obama’s “reset” policy, has resulted in Germany to try multilateral on Russia. Iran is another case in point. Since America no longer sees the combination of pressure and sanctions as simply the necessary prelude to an inevitable war, but rather as a strategy to possibly avoid war, Germany has joined France, the United Kingdom, and the U.S. to get tough on Iran. In this instance, too, Germany has become more multilateral, not less.

3. Germany has become a geo-economic power that is aligning with mercantilist-driven emerging powers

Here, Bremmer and Leonard are certainly onto something. But they exaggerate their point, thus reducing its usefulness. For half a century, most Western nations were in a comfortable position. Their most important strategic and economic partners were aligned or even identical. Take Germany. Strategic partner: America. Trade partners: France, America, the Netherlands. Take Australia. Strategic partner: America. Largest trading partner: also America. But things have changed. China has triggered a lasting boom down under by buying up the continent’s mineral wealth. Consequently, a debate has been waging about whether Australia should realign and accommodate its new most important trading partner. Yet Australia has resisted the temptation. It recently invited more American troops into the country. Australia’s actions demonstrate that countries have choices.

As of late, Germany is in a similar position. Over the past five years, exports to China have doubled. China is surpassing France as Germany’s most important trading partner. Many entrepreneurs see tomorrow’s major profit margins in China, not in the eurozone or in the Single Market. Quite naturally, these business people will become a strong lobbying group which will promote accommodation of China. Their voices might be listened to more frequently as the stewardship of the eurozone becomes ever more costly and burdensome. They will find support in the relatively strong neutralist and pacifist schools of German foreign policy. And neutralism and pacifism rhyme with nationalism.

So, what’s wrong with Bremmer’s and Leonard’s theory? Not much, except that they conflate future and present tense. They describe as reality what lies far in the future and, therefore, may never happen. A geo-economic Germany as a high-tech wingman of the rising powers is certainly the country’s strategic alternative to the present western integration. But it is a remote future option, nothing more. Currently, no more than a handful of foreign policy strategists in Germany advocate such a strategy. And while the gravitational pull of the trade relationship with China is getting stronger, the mainstream school of western integrationism remains dominant.

Ian Bremmer and Mark Leonard ring the alarm bell in their claim “the foundation of a liberal world order” at stake given the ever widening cleavage between a geo-political America and a geo-economic Germany. Their focus on a Germany as trigger is too narrow and their assessment of the changes in Berlin is overblown. In some ways, the authors give too much credit to Germany. Reading their claim one wonders whether they assume there is deliberate, if devious, German strategy. Obviously, there isn’t. There isn’t even an unintentional one that the country is stumbling into. If one were to criticize Germany, a broad side about its lethargy in strategic matters might be warranted. Little brainpower is invested into Germany’s long term aspirations vis-à-vis Europe, the U.S. and NATO, Asia and the emerging powers, or indeed Germany’s role in the global order. But given the fast pace of global change, Germany’s desorientation is not any larger than that of any of its major partners.

Countries make strategic choices. So will Germany. Choices are influenced by the geopolitical and commercial environments as well as well as by partners and adversaries. If Great Britain, for one, chooses to flee the EU and go global alone, this will be a strong trigger for Germany (maybe together with a core of the eurozone core) to contemplate doing the same. Another trigger would be an America that chooses to pursue a post-Western foreign policy that sidesteps Europe. It would most certainly strengthen Germany’s neutralist and anti-atlanticist camp. In that sense, Bremmer’s and Leonard’s alarm, while sounding shrill, may serve as an opening salvo to a valuable debate about a new western instead of a post-western world.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is a Senior Fellow and Senior Director for Strategy at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington where he leads the EuroFuture Project

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

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