Germany: The centre of attention
The German chancellor has led from ‘the middle’ as a series of crises hit Europe, but a Trump White House has changed her stance
When German politicians first talked about ‘leading from the middle’ people laughed, said Jürgen Hardt, foreign policy spokesman for Germany’s ruling Christian Democrat-led bloc. “They said, you either lead or you’re in the middle. But that [phrase] describes pre- cisely the kind of leadership role that Ger- many is prepared to assume.”
Although it sounds like a contradiction in terms, this is the approach Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has developed during her 12 years in power: Bringing sometimes reluc- tant countries together to build alliances and always playing down Germany’s role. It is an approach she adopted in the global financial crisis, the eurozone turmoil, the Ukraine con- flict and Europe’s refugee crisis, even as Ger- many accepted over 1mn migrants, and one that is now at the heart of Berlin’s growing global role.
But with the election of US President Don- ald Trump, ‘leading from the middle’ is getting more difficult for Merkel, who is hoping to se- cure another four years in power in parlia- mentary polls in September.
The US President’s America First approach and his isolationist promises to reduce his country’s involvement in multilateral co-op- eration have changed the game. “It is a chal- lenge for Germany,” said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “We have to live with America’s self-imposed isolation.”
This was painfully on show at the G20 meeting in Hamburg earlier this month, when Trump was isolated, 19 to one, on a key global issue - climate change - in a move orches- trated by Germany.
The shift in Washington raises profound questions for Berlin at a time when the Euro- pean Union (EU) is trying to revive its for- tunes, Russia is reasserting its influence, China has emerged on the world stage and in- stability is rife, especially in the Middle East.
Since Trump won the election, Merkel has come under pressure to pick up the liberal western banner left behind by Barack Obama, Trump’s predecessor. But with its 20th century history and its location in the middle of Europe, Germany remains cautious about assuming leadership. Merkel will not even use the word, speaking instead of Ger- many’s ‘contribution’. While widely forecast to win a fourth term, the 63 year old leader does not want to provoke a public sceptical about foreign policy initiatives, with any dra- matic solo forays just weeks before polling day.
With a defence budget of only about 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and with a deeply ingrained wariness of military interventions, Germany is no superpower. But as the EU’s dominant force and with no other country setting the global agenda, Merkel has become the one figure who could nudge the rest of the world into action, however uncom- fortable this role might sometimes be for her and her country.
“It’s not the kind of bold leadership some people in the world would like to see but it is what she does,” said Jan Techau, a foreign pol- icy specialist at the American Academy, a Berlin research group. “She leads, but comes late to an issue and is reactive.”
The Protestant pastor’s daughter is not easily Diplomatic clout riled by the alpha males who often sit across the table from her, including Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin. A video clip of Merkel and Putin speaking informally in Hamburg has become a YouTube hit. While the sound is inaudible, the President is seem- ingly explaining a point to the Chancellor, waving his finger in the air. Merkel simply rolls her eyes.
An unashamed admirer of American cul- ture, she believes the US remains the globe’s only superpower, closely bound with Europe on everything from trade to the fight against Islamist terrorism. But Merkel is alarmed that the US leader’s protectionist threats, criticism of the NATO alliance and his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord have created unprecedented tensions between Washing- ton and Europe.
“For the first time in many years, there is global co-operation but the US is not part of it,” said Henning Riecke, a foreign-policy ana- lyst at the German Council on Foreign Rela- tions.
Merkel’s response is to seek to expand the EU’s international influence. She set out her view in a speech, just weeks before the G20. In words that shook Germans more used to their Chancellor’s generally restrained tones, she said: “The times in which we could rely fully on others are over, to some extent.” Her call for action was equally direct - Europeans have to ‘really take our fate into our own hands’.
Yet the Chancellor will not willingly break the transatlantic bonds. She is, in part, con- strained by the legacy of the country’s Nazi past. Even now Foreign Ministry officials oc- casionally respond to questions about Ger- many’s global strategy with the bitter in-house joke: ‘The last time we had a global strategy, it didn’t work out’.
Axel Schäfer, a parliamentary whip for the Social Democrats, Merkel’s coalition partners, said: “We have learnt from our history. my grandmother remembered 1914 and my mother 1939. For us the lessons are ‘never again war in Europe’ and ‘never again Auschwitz’. This makes us more careful than other countries.”
Merkel often makes the same point, speak- ing of Germany’s ‘special responsibility’, es- pecially in matters of war and peace. Germany has moved a long way since it abjured foreign military missions and limited diplomatic ini- tiatives after the second world war. It took until the 1990s for Germany to break taboos with its first postwar foreign military mission - sending peacekeepers to Bosnia - and first armed action, bombing Serbia.
Germany declined to fight in the Iraq war, but participated in the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan, deploying up to 5,300 troops, its largest foreign force since the second world war. Last year, Merkel backed a NATO mission to protect eastern Europe against possible Russian military aggression - and deployed troops to Lithuania.
It first took the lead in an international cri- sis in 2014 with the Ukraine conflict, when Merkel orchestrated western policy. She had little choice, with the US focused elsewhere (even under Obama), France weak and the British government distracted. Hardt said: “Our partners have actually been demanding that we play a bigger role. That’s the decisive point - previously we didn’t do these things because we weren’t sure that [for example] France or Poland wanted us to.”
Merkel’s approach is not just a matter of temperament, it also chimes with public opin- ion. Germans favour a more active foreign policy, not least because of the 2015-16 refugee crisis. In polls by the Infratest Dimap agency, the share of people supporting Ger- man international engagement has risen from 52 per cent on the eve of the Ukraine conflict to 62 per cent today.
Yet military missions remain unpopular: Just one-fifth of those polled say Germany should deploy soldiers abroad, even with in- ternational partners. Lacking adequate air transport and naval support, the German mil- itary is in any case incapable of reacting quickly to crises. At the American Academy, Techau said: “We are still unwilling to engage militarily. And without military engagement, we have less diplomatic clout.”
But with Trump calling for the US’s 28 NATO partners to shoulder a bigger share of the defence burden, the external pressure on Germany to spend more is intense. It is by far the largest of the 24 countries that have failed to meet an alliance defence spending target of at least two per cent of GDP.
The arguments are reverberating through the German election campaign, with the So- cial Democratic Party (SPD) and other politi- cal rivals denouncing the two per cent target as arbitrary. “We can’t just go from spending
35bn to 60bn,” said Schäfer. “This must not be a dogma.” The Christian Democratic € € Union’s (CDU) Röttgen retorts that SPD min- isters have endorsed the target and are now ‘playing politics’.
Merkel, like her predecessor as CDU head, the Fragile power base late chancellor Helmut Kohl, sees Europe above all as a ‘peace project’. She hopes to re- vive the union, amid a surge of pro-EU senti- ment driven by reaction to Brexit and Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and believes the election of Emmanuel Macron, the youngest French leader since Napoleon, offers the chance to restart the EU’s Franco-German motor.
But EU partners are a fragile base for Ger- man power. The financial straitjacket im- posed on debt-laden Greece has been criticised not only in Athens but also in Rome. Merkel’s efforts to redistribute refugees were blocked not only by Warsaw but also by Paris.
Moreover, Trump is not alone in attacking Germany’s huge trade surplus, which is likely to hit a record this year, beating 2016’s
252bn. His criticisms are echoed in some of the weaker EU economies, including Italy and €
France, which have both called on Berlin to boost domestic investment and generate im- ports. A German official said “The German surplus is a central issue. It came up at the G20 and will come up again and again.”
This is not the only criticism that continues to echo. Old fears about German hegemony still surface in the EU, notably in Poland and even, occasionally, in France.
“The Germans never give way,” said Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland’s ruling nationalist Law and Justice party earlier this year. In Berlin, Riecke said: “You can’t order the EU what do to.”
Moreover, as Merkel encourages the EU to project its power through external alliances, she encounters problems with partners more awkward than in the EU. In Turkey, for exam- ple, Berlin backed a controversial EU migra- tion deal with Ankara, under which Turkey blocked migrants from crossing to the EU in return for aid and promises of closer EU ties. Even when it was struck, Recep Tayyip Erdo- gan, Turkey’s President, was being accused of undermining democracy. His tough response to last year’s coup has exposed him to further condemnation - and prompted criticism of Merkel for backing him. As Berlin seeks other partners to control migration, for example in Libya, these dilemmas could worsen.
Further afield, while co-operation with Trump is not easy, other big partners are even more difficult. For example China’s President Xi Jinping has cast himself as a champion of free trade, trying perhaps to drive a wedge between Germany and the US. But the politi- cal gap between Europe’s largest democracy and the world’s biggest one-party state runs deep.
Riecke said: “Outside the EU, forming coali- tions with, for example, China is more diffi- cult. There is not the same trust that there is, even now, with the US.”
The same applies to Putin’s Russia. As a Russian-speaker raised in Communist East Germany, Merkel knows Putin better than any other western leader. But this has not created much warmth. Quite the contrary, she insists that a thaw can come only with the imple- mentation of the Minsk peace accord to re- solve the Ukraine stalemate.
Röttgen said: “Russia is reasserting itself and it explicitly rejects western rules . China too applies its own rules. Germany and Eu- rope can do more but there is nothing that can substitute the US.” So even with Trump in the White House, engaging with the US re- mains a priority. And, although Merkel scorns wishful thinking, some in Berlin hope Trump will be voted out in 2020.
Away from the western alliance, comfort- able partners are hard for the chancellor to find. But she has to deal with the world as it is, not as she might like it to be.