On world stage, Germany cautiously moves to the center as US eyes the wings

Germany has been reluctant to assert itself globally. But as relations with the US come under strain, Germans increasingly see the necessity of taking a leading international role – particularly with Angela Merkel as the steady hand.

Markus Schreiber/AP
German Chancellor Angela Merkel stands behind a European flag as she waits for the arrival of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, July 5, 2017. Xi is in Germany to open an Panda enclosure in Berlin and to attend the G-20 summit in Hamburg later the week.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel first took office in 2005, her British counterpart was Tony Blair. Jacques Chirac was president of France. And in the United States, George W. Bush occupied the White House.

At the time Germany was suffering high unemployment and sclerotic growth, and under Ms. Merkel, the country largely had its head down – just the way it has long liked it.

Now, with Merkel preparing to host the Group of 20 in Hamburg Friday – in the middle of an electoral campaign for a fourth term in office – none of these countries is operating within the previous political status quo. While Germany emerges as the clear preserver of the norms of the postwar era, Merkel has had to turn her face to the world.

In terms of the transatlantic relationship, Merkel is speaking more boldly than ever. In May, she warned Germans they can’t depend on old relationships like before, a statement widely interpreted as being about the US under President Trump. On Monday, her party released its campaign platform, omitting the word “friend” from its reference to the US.

Merkel is polling well ahead of her rivals for the September federal election, but her popularity doesn’t mean Germans want the prominent role on the world stage assigned to them on defense or trade. Most would prefer to continue on with heads down. Rather they have accepted – particularly young voters – that they face no other choice, with many viewing Merkel’s leadership as the safest path forward.

“It is pushing Germans out of their comfort zone,” says Ulrich Kühn, a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg. “But what we see right now are rapid developments. We really see shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.”

If it is largely the German instinct to focus inwards, he adds, "the German public has understood this is not possible anymore.”

Reliable partners

Germans are not alone in recalibrating their own role in the world in the era of President Trump. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey across 37 nations, only an average of 22 percent of respondents have confidence in Trump to do "the right thing" when it comes to international affairs. In Germany, just 11 percent do, one of the lowest of all the nations polled. That’s a 75-point drop in trust from German confidence in former President Barack Obama in his last year in office.

Trump has taken direct aim at Germany, accusing it of currency manipulation and Merkel of “ruining” her country with her open refugee policy. His attacks on the EU, welcoming Britain’s choice to leave the bloc, and pulling out of the Paris climate agreement are seen as direct threats to the German preference for collaboration and consensus. His first stop in Europe is in Poland, whose governing Law and Justice party (PiS) has butted heads with Western Europe over democratic rollbacks.

“The Germans can’t deal with unpredictability,” says Thomas Risse, a professor of foreign relations at the Free University Berlin. “They want reliable partners. That’s a typical German trait: We don’t like this kind of ‘everyday something else.’”

It is in this context that Merkel seems to be blazing new ground. She has promised that Germany will meet the NATO requirement that members spend 2 percent of GDP on military, which in the case of Germany would represent a significant increase. In the platform that her Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party released this week, it reiterated her words from May in Bavaria, after Trump’s first visit to Europe to attend NATO and Group of Seven meetings. “The times in which we could fully rely on others are, to a certain extent, in the past,” the program states. “We Europeans must take our fate into our own hands more decisively than we have in the past.”

Germans' 'need for balance'

But if Trump foes or pro-EU liberals have sought in her a new global leader to fill a vacuum, most Germans hear in her words a promise of stability in an uncertain time. “In her way of doing politics, Merkel satisfies much of people’s need for balance and avoiding conflicts,” says Hans-Joachim Busch, a professor at the Sigmund-Freud-Institute in Frankfurt.

Germans in fact aren’t gunning for a giant leap. Instead they see their country’s rise in the context of the EU. Although new French President Emmanuel Macron faces uncertain terrain in France as he seeks to transform the political culture and usher in unpopular labor reform, Germans have been reassured by his Eurocentric vision, including on a European defense fund.

Korinna Wellmer, who works as a child educator assistant in a Berlin daycare center, says she believes Germany should only grow stronger alongside Europe. She says she appreciates how her country “can talk to America from an equal level today.”

And yet on defense she reverts to long-held views. “We should not be selling all those weapons abroad, to start with,” she says, referring to Germany's large arms export industry, “nor should we take part in too many missions abroad; because of our past on the one hand, and because I believe in diplomacy on the other.”

It is younger Germans who might be willing to push new boundaries on foreign policy. While Merkel’s favorability – and Trump's unfavorability – are higher among the oldest Germans according to a breakdown of the recent Pew data, young people have rallied around Merkel’s campaign. Almost half of first-time voters say they back her, according to a Forsa poll in April.

An uncertain future?

Joerg Forbrig, transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the US in Berlin, says that as a first-time voter in the early 1990s he witnessed the fall of the Iron Curtain and the process of reunification of Germany. But he says he believes that first-time voters today face even more uncertainty than they did in the '90s “about the future and their own prospects,” which he says draws them to Merkel “as an anchor.”

First-time voters also belong to the first generation to have grown up without the US as the unquestioned superpower, and they are thus more willing to imagine a new role for Germany beyond the passive one prescribed for it in the postwar order.

“I think a lot of younger people support more of a leadership role for Germany in the world,” Mr. Forbrig says. “They acknowledge that this is a big and resourceful country that can make a difference in a positive sense and that it should take on that responsibility."

Of course, Germany faces its own domestic limitations and realities on the ground.

Merkel is the first to scoff at the "leader of the free world" tag that some Western liberals have applied to her. German analysts say that outsiders misunderstand the importance of consensus in German society, and deeper reflexes against military use or economic spending that would secure its leadership. Many are hoping the current era is but a blip, a finite period that will end at the end of Trump’s term, not the beginning of a fundamental shift.

Germany also simply lacks a long-term vision, entering this era in crisis management mode as the “hard reality of geopolitics” arrived unannounced, says Mr. Kühn. Still he says, it’s forcing Germany to ask itself what strategic tools it needs for the future.

“During the next years we will see more of a sense of what Germany’s role in the world should be, and what the role of the EU should be.”

• Sara Miller Llana reported from Paris. Daniel Mosseri also contributed reporting from Berlin.

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