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After the fall of the wall: Germans long to downsize their role

Germany's postwar internationalism seems to be giving way to parochialism.

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To be sure, Berlin has hardly backed away from the world. Germany was at the table for Iran talks in Geneva recently – the "one" in the "P5 +1" that includes the US, Britain, France, China, and Russia. It has armies of nongovernmental organizations. But the "global puzzle" of 2009, described by Financial Times col­umnist Philip Ste­phens after the Pittsburgh summit, is getting harder to fathom: China's temporizing embrace of multilateralism, an increasing challenge to the West from the Middle East, President Obama's effort to forge a new path, and what Mr. Stephens calls "Europe's place on the margins of influence."

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Jean-Dominique Giuliani, presi­dent of the Robert Schuman Foun­dation in Paris, says Germany has greatly increased its presence in the sensitive area of security. But its reach is often done quietly, without mobilizing public consensus. "Germany is more involved at one level," he argues. "It has troops in Af­ghan­istan, naval ships off Lebanon, is in Africa. The German people don't like this. But we need Germany to help."

In addition to the Wall milestone, this year marks the 60th anniversary of the forming of a postwar Germany. Germany is Europe's largest economy. Its sovereign borders contain a huge landmass in the heart of Europe. Over the past 20 years, analysts say, Europe's center of gravity has steadily moved from Paris-Bonn to Berlin. Germany has never been simply a "normal" nation, punching far above the weight of Austria, Switzerland, Romania, Spain, Portugal, and most other states in the Continent.

A litmus test for German engagement may be Ireland's vote on the Lisbon Treaty, deciding if a more unified "United States of Europe," with more political and security integration, is possible. (At press time, polls were running strongly in favor.)

The success of the Lisbon Treaty, says Thomas Klau of the European Council on Foreign Relations, "will largely depend on Germany. Whether the new power the treaty allows the EU is taken seriously, with new responsibility devolving to Brussels, will depend on Germany."

Mr. Klau sees Berlin's shift as "a strong current of looking inward rather than outward – moving from being an active, enthusiastic, and dynamic player in the European integration process to being a less active and dynamic player.

"German influence on Europe," Klau continues, "was all the bigger because it rested on the perception that Germany was a committed player ready to step back from pushing a narrow national advantage to help bring about a compromise or better outcome for all.

"Germany exercised moral leadership and that translated into real advantage for both Germany and Europe. 'Normalization' is a foolish policy," he notes.

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