Razed to the ground by the Wehrmacht in 1944, Warsaw has never been easy terrain for the foreign minister of Germany.
As his convoy speeds through the Polish capital, Heiko Maas passes first the Soviet army war cemetery and then the memorial to the victims of the Warsaw uprising — potent reminders of the bloody price that German aggression has inflicted on Europe. At a press conference the next day, the foreign minister is asked about new Polish claims for war reparations. At a public debate an hour later, Mr Maas listens politely as his Polish counterpart lashes out at Berlin’s liberal refugee policy. On both occasions, he decides not to respond.
Being in charge of German foreign policy is a tough assignment these days — not just in Warsaw but in countries around the world. Over the past few years, Berlin has watched with growing despair as friends have turned into foes and old certainties have dissolved into doubt. A new breed of nationalist leader holds sway in capitals from Budapest and Warsaw to Rome and Washington, sounding a note of hostility and antagonism towards Berlin. For reasons both economic and political, Germany’s relationships with key powers such as China, Russia and Turkey are marked by growing tensions.
At the same time, the dense web of alliances that has characterised German foreign policy for decades — and that underpinned the country’s postwar success — is under strain as never before: Nato has descended into bitter recriminations over burden-sharing, leading many Germans to wonder how much longer the US will remain committed to the defence of Europe. The EU itself, meanwhile, is riven by splits between north and south and east and west, and exhausted from the never-ending struggle over Brexit. The UK no longer counts as a reliable ally, and the relationship with France is going through a phase of barely-concealed irritation. One by one, the fixed stars that have guided German foreign policy for generations have started to dim.
Mr Maas admits that the challenges for German foreign policy are both numerous and complex — from Chinese attempts to split the EU and Russian intervention in eastern Europe to the conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen. None, however, looms larger than the deepening rift with the US, the guarantor of German security since 1945.
“The biggest change I have seen is in the transatlantic relationship,” says Mr Maas. “There have always been crises and conflicts between Europe and the US but these were dealt with inside a transatlantic relationship that worked. Now we have to reorder the transatlantic relationship itself.”
That task, he believes, will not disappear when Donald Trump leaves the White House. “Things will change after Trump,” says Mr Maas. “But I don’t think the structures will ever be the same as they were. The US is no longer prepared to take on as much of the international responsibility and burden as it used to. That means it expects Europe to do more for its own security than in the past.”
Few analysts would disagree with that assessment. Yet many doubt that the implications have truly sunk in with German leaders and voters.
“It does feel at times like Germany is trying very hard to protect itself from acknowledging the huge transformational shifts that have taken place,” says Julianne Smith, a former foreign policy adviser to US vice-president Joe Biden and currently a fellow with the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. “There is a lot of whistling past the graveyard in this city. People are constantly talking about the parameters of a world that no longer exists.”
Critics point to a paradox at the heart of German diplomacy. Since the early days of the federal republic, Berlin has sought to pursue the country’s economic and political interests almost exclusively within multilateral and supranational organisations. For obvious historical reasons, few countries in the west have been more reluctant to go it alone — or to wield the blunt force of power politics.
Yet at the precise moment when those organisations are under attack from nationalist politicians, Berlin is doing little to shore up those structures. Indeed, some believe that recent German policies have done more harm than good to bodies such as Nato and the EU.
“Germany is committed to a particular political order — built around the EU, Nato and multilateral organisations like the UN — but it is not prepared to pay for the upkeep of this system,” says Jan Techau, senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, a think-tank. “The gap between [Germany’s] multilateral aspirations and what we do in reality is huge.”
Berlin’s support for the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany — against furious opposition from the EU, the US and eastern European government such as Ukraine and Poland — is a case in point. German reluctance to take bold measures to shore up the eurozone, despite intense pleas from Paris and Brussels, is another. Perhaps the clearest example of the gap between rhetoric and reality, however, is found in the increasingly shrill debate between Berlin and the US over defence expenditure.
In 2014, all Nato members committed to spending at least 2 per cent of their gross domestic product on the military. In Germany, that figure is currently 1.24 per cent. Nor is it likely to rise to anywhere near 2 per cent in the coming years. Berlin has promised to lift the defence budget to 1.5 per cent of GDP by 2024, yet even that figure may be out of reach judging by the finance ministry’s official medium-term spending plans. Mr Maas says Germany will deliver in the end, but President Trump is far from alone in viewing the country’s defence budget as risible.
Berlin’s reluctance to take on more responsibility in international and military affairs is essentially seen by critics as the result of stinginess. Germany, in their view, refuses to meet the 2 per cent Nato commitment because spending more on defence leaves less money for balanced budgets and the welfare state.
The truth, however, may be more complicated. “The Germans are not free-riders. We don’t do all this to save a few euros. This goes much deeper,” says Mr Techau. In his view, the country’s reluctance to lead is grounded above all in history. “The real legacy of the Third Reich is not just guilt. It is the lack of confidence in ourselves. We learnt that on the one occasion when we put all of our effort into a grand national project, the result was the greatest civilisational rupture in history,” he adds. “We don’t have this trust in our own good intentions that other countries have.”
That instinct, deeply ingrained in voters as well as its leaders, was reinforced by the experience of West Germany. In the decades after 1945, says Mr Techau, “Germans learnt that foreign policy restraint is a model for success. Germany grew rich, it succeeded in reunifying, and it ended up in a situation where — perhaps for the first time ever — it was surrounded only by allies.”
Germany’s postwar success also looms large in a recent essay by Thomas Bagger, a German diplomat who serves as foreign policy adviser to federal president Frank-Walter Steinmeier. It argues that Germany’s historical experience — specifically reunification in 1989 — left the country uniquely ill-equipped for the resurgence of nationalist politics.
The end of the cold war and the triumph of reunification meant that “Germany finally found itself on the right side [of history]”, Mr Bagger writes. The conclusion reached by many Germans was that history was “bending towards liberal democracy” and that their country had “arrived at its historical destination”. All they had to do was to wait for the rest of the world — including authoritarian states like Russia and China — to follow suit.
When that hope failed to materialise — and even European allies started drifting towards rightwing authoritarianism — Germany was left stranded. “While others can go back to their respective Gaullist traditions of foreign policy thinking, with a more or less clear set of defined national interests that do not depend on integration with others, there is little of that in Germany . . . Multilateralism is all there is in the German mainstream today,” Mr Bagger wrote.
That is one reason why it is so hard for the country to adjust to the current era. Another is that Germans feel threatened by all manner of things — climate change, social tensions, economic instability — but much less so by powers such as Russia and China. One recent poll found that Germans in fact view the US as a greater threat to world peace than either of those countries.
“In some ways this is the result of the success of our policy of detente,” Mr Maas admits. “The security situation changed with the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, but my impression is that this perception is not shared widely in all societies concerned.”
The absence of a genuine threat perception applies to large sections of Mr Maas’s own party, the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD). It has called into question the 2 per cent Nato target and taken a tough line on European defence exports, angering France and Britain.
But critics also point an accusatory finger at Angela Merkel, Germany’s veteran chancellor, now in the twilight phase of her political career. Ms Merkel, one senior Berlin-based official complains, is only in “damage-limitation mode” these days — unable or unwilling to make a decisive case for a more active German stance in world affairs.
While French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly outlined his vision for the future of the EU in speeches and papers, the German leader has been largely silent. Nor has Ms Merkel made a sustained effort to convince German voters that the country’s life on the sidelines of world politics has to come to an end.
German officials insist that much of the criticism is unfair. The defence budget may be low by international standards, they say, but it has risen sharply in recent years. Since Russian forces invaded Crimea in 2014, annual spending on the armed forces has grown by a third to €43.2bn. What is more, unlike some Nato allies who meet the 2 per cent threshold on paper, Germany actually adds military muscle to the alliance, as evidenced by the Bundeswehr’s increasingly ambitious deployments around the world.
“Germany has shown that we can do hard power,” says Niels Annen, an SPD member of parliament who also serves as a junior minister in the foreign ministry. “We have tanks in Lithuania, we are leading the VJTF [Nato’s rapid response force to deter Russia]. All this would have been unthinkable 10 years ago.”
International leadership, German officials say, is reflected not just in the size of the defence budget but also in diplomatic initiatives, peace and stabilisation efforts, financial support for multilateral organisations and a readiness to take in refugees from crisis countries such as Syria and Afghanistan. They insist that once these softer factors are considered, Berlin’s leadership record looks more impressive.
There is one final German peculiarity to consider: a political culture that favours caution and consensus, and a system of government that is capable of changing direction only slowly. Hemmed in by unwieldy cross-party coalitions, leaders prefer baby steps to grand visions, and incremental change to radical reform. “Germany is a status quo power,” says Daniela Schwarzer, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations. “We essentially want everything to stay the same.”
That may indeed be the wish of German voters — and quite a few politicians as well. They grew up in a world where American power and Nato kept Germany safe, and the country’s national interests were expressed — almost imperceptibly — through the EU and like-minded international organisations.
That world, however, is vanishing fast. “No country benefited more from the old structures, whether you are talking about the world trade system or the whole rules-based international order. But all that is under pressure now,” says Mr Annen. “There is no way back to the good old days.”
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