Germany, for better or worse, has never been an ordinary European nation. After World War II, West Berlin relished a forward-looking view, establishing itself as a driver of European integration, global consensus, international responsibility, human rights, and peace.
Now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a successful (but psychologically and financially exhausting) reunification, there's growing sentiment in Germany to scale back its roles in Europe and the world.
Public ardor is shifting toward a sentiment for "normalization," analysts say: Germany has paid its substantial debt to history; it perceives no traditional threats, and wants quiet. Berlin will help Europe, but no longer wants to be its cash machine. It will more sharply define its interests, and is looking east to Russia.
"After the war, it was easy for Germany to be 'for Europe.' We were not a sovereign country. Now we are," says Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke ahead of Chancellor Angela Merkel's reelection Sept. 27, in a campaign that was free of foreign-relations debates. "Germany has become normal again. We are a country with high global interests, but not a global player. We are not a superpower, and don't have superpower responsibilities."
Fatigue among German elites
Jan Techau, also of the German Council, echoes that perspective: "The role of Germany in Europe used to be to give money," he says. "That has changed. There's a certain fatigue among German elites on Europe. There's no big enthusiasm for Europe here anymore."
This growing sentiment in Berlin is playing out against the backdrop of a new center-right coalition that is being formed between Mrs. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The FDP has strong transatlantic ideals, including support for US efforts in Afghanistan, as stated by FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, who is likely to be the next foreign minister.
It is unclear what appetite Merkel and Mr. Westerwelle have for challenging Germany's inward bent at a time of global uncertainty. German military officials on Oct. 1 denied reports that Berlin would up its Afghan troop deployment from 4,500 to 7,000. While Germans don't believe their security begins at the Hindu Kush, Berlin views a failure of NATO as sharply against its interests.
Former senior State Department official John Kornblum, who lives in Berlin, argues that the West – the United States and Europe – "is searching desperately for some kind of unifying framework." US leadership, he argues, requires a "strong and decisive Europe," with Germany taking a lead. "But the Europeans have checked out of history," he says. "They want to make Europe stable and livable, tend their gardens. Without a strong Europe, America lacks strategic depth … at a time when there's no clear compass or direction."
Berlin still at the diplomatic table
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."
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.