Germany's power of attraction in Ukraine crisis

With Ukraine now signing up for membership in the European Union, Germany's soft but firm approach to Russia's aggression sets a global standard in how to wield influence in the 21st century.

AP Photo
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, left, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, center, talk during the 70th anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, France, June 6.

One measure of the relative peace in the world today is that more countries are competing to be liked than to be feared. They seek the power of attraction – in trade, culture, and education – more so than the power to intimidate with military might.

A refreshing new master of this “soft power” is Germany, especially under Chancellor Angela Merkel. Since 2009, she has helped Europe out of its financial crisis by holding fast to Germany’s high economic standards in offering relief to other countries. As Britain and France have faded, Germany is now Europe’s undisputed leader, although one that constrains itself within the 28-member European Union.

Since November, when the crisis in Ukraine began, Germany’s strong adherence to the values of democracy and national sovereignty has given it a starring role in standing up to Moscow and its use of “hard power,” which included the sending of Russian troops to take Crimea. Ms. Merkel has led the effort to tie economic sanctions on Russia to the trampling of those values in Ukraine – while also keeping a door open for Russia to reverse course.

This gentle but firm approach has helped newly democratic Ukraine to sign a pact to eventually join the European Union. With that victory, Germany is setting a new yardstick in the global competition to win by the power of attraction.

In polls, Germany has long been the world’s most respected country. Its extreme reluctance to exercise military power since World War II has pushed it to seek other forms of influence. Since reunification in 1991, it has exercised that influence in the Balkans and Afghanistan. Now, in the Ukraine crisis, it has emerged as a global leader, one whose style of diplomacy provides a test for the use of “soft power” in resolving conflicts.

As its president, Joachim Gauck, said in March, Germany is switching from being “a beneficiary to a guarantor of international security and order.”

Germany’s emergence as a world leader comes as the United States seeks to share more power with allies in order to tend to its domestic problems. As Europe’s biggest state and the world’s fourth largest economy, Germany certainly has the potential to wield more influence. But unlike the US, which has relied on military deterrence as much as soft power, Germany has largely kept its military in the barracks. Its military ranks 30th in the world in number of soldiers.

“If we want freedom, democracy, and the rule of law to be spread on a sustainable basis, the best way to do this is through integration, not intervention,” said German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble last April.

As the Ukraine crisis has played out, both President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin have turned to Merkel as a broker, not because of her military threats but because Germany has long tried to win over countries by persuasion. If Ukraine can find peace and independence, the German method of setting ideals and winning by example could become the global standard.

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