President Donald Trump laid bare his goal to divide, to disrupt the international liberal order, to undermine NATO, and has declared the European Union a foe of the United States. He stood next to Russian President Vladimir Putin and attacked American democracy, blaming his own government for the poor state of relations with Russia.
At home his own party, celebrating tax cuts for the wealthy and government budget cuts for social programs, did nothing, while American democracy was battered. Meanwhile, the Democrats are missing in action. If the United States is unable or unwilling to defend its own democracy or the international liberal order that America built to provide peace and prosperity over the past seven decades, who will?
Germany, traumatized by the destruction of the Second World War and remembering the slaughter of the Thirty Years War, is immobilized by its history that has become an obstacle to its future. The rise of the European Union over the past seven decades offers a slim chance for France and Germany, the fathers of the Union, to defend the democratic, peaceful multilateral world order.
Germany has become a geopolitical and geoeconomic power in Europe based on the values of freedom, democracy, rule of law and respect for human dignity. Those values, based in the German constitution, define German political culture. Germany shares, with its European partners, commitments to international trade and peace in Europe, once guaranteed by the United States. As Chancellor Angela Merkel has stated, Europe must take its fate into its own hands.
A European leadership role is now thrust upon Germany, along with willing European partners, and is the best hope to sustain the multilateral international order that has provided peace and prosperity for seven decades.
A global power shift of rising nationalism in China and Russia challenges the international order. After Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, Europe imposed sanctions on Russia. In November 2016, Donald Trump was elected president and immediately questioned whether the US would fulfill its defense commitments to Europe, withdrew from the Climate Agreement and the Transpacific Partnership, and subsequently named the European Union a foe.
Mr. Trump has defenders who would like to think he is like British Prime Minister Palmerston whose tactical maneuvers operated where a county has no permanent allies nor permanent enemies, but only national interests that the leader is obligated to follow. Donald Trump’s nationalist, interest-based policies are not set in the 19th Century, but set in the interconnected, interdependent, multilateral world of the 21st Century. Instead of protecting American interests, Trump has absented American international leadership in global affairs.
Recently, 88% of Germans surveyed by the Körber Foundation think Germany’s defense partnership with the European States should have priority over that with the United States in the future. Gallup has reported that Germany has a 41% approval rating as a global power, eclipsing the U.S. rating of 30% for the first time. Germany’s new international standing marks a historic shift in power relations.
The disruption in world order raises the question of what kind of order will emerge and who will lead it. Can Germany, with its European partners, agree on a strategy for world order?
Historically, Germany has experienced sovereignty under monarchy and dictatorship. After the defeat of democracy in the 1848 Revolution, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck united Germany with “Blood and Iron”. From 1871 through World Wars I and II, German militarism dominated German security strategy. Consequently, after the defeat of National Socialism in 1945, Germany rose from the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust to become a ‘Civilian Power’ (Zivilmacht), Europe’s leading democracy. Full German sovereignty restored with unification poses a dilemma for Germany. Does the pendulum swing in a Hegelian shift from the one extreme to the other or can Germany with its partners now find its place to balance between war and peace?
The German leadership debate began in earnest in February 2014 at the Munich Security Conference when President Joachim Gauck and Ministers Steinmeier and von der Leyen called on Germany to accept more international responsibility. Since then, the Foreign Office Review 2014 led to stronger crisis management and a new Defense White Book calls on Germany to act more proactively. Politically, both major political parties agree. Chancellor Merkel noted that “we (Germany and Europe) really must take our fate into our own hands”; and then foreign minister Gabriel said at the Körber foundation “either we try to shape the world or we will be shaped by it”. Tentatively, Germany has agreed in theory to accept responsibility; and is poised to take a leadership role in Europe with its European partners.
That role is needed. Jürgen Habermas reminded us of the challenge to protect democracy when he stated: “If the European project fails, then there is the question of how long it will take to reach the status quo again. Remember the German Revolution of 1848: When it failed, it took us 100 years to regain the same level of democracy as before.” The same analysis applies to the increasingly fragile international order.
Henry Kissinger, a statesman whose decisions have caused much controversy with his realist approach, set out also the ultimate moral goal of foreign policy: that is, to avoid war through a favorable balance of power. Can Germany with its European partners find balance with a resurgent Russia, a rising China and a withdrawing United States? If so, there are three essential things to bear in mind in developing a European strategy with Germany:
First, full German sovereignty was restored in 1990. Since Habermas wrote, Germany has had another revolution. In 1989 Germans in East Germany rediscovered Thucydides secret of freedom, courage. With courage, they brought down the Berlin Wall, elected a democratic parliament and voted to join the West German constitution. In West Germany, the Basic Law created a democracy based on respect for human dignity. In East Germany, a Peaceful Revolution fought for freedom and democracy in the act of national self-determination to unite Germany in 1990. Together the legitimacy of Germany’s republic lies in the marriage of West Germany’s constitution and the East German revolution that formed a united Germany. That is the founding myth of Germany’s Berlin Republic that sets the country on a path of peace and respect for human dignity.
Second, Germany has exercised its sovereignty with ‘sovereign obligation’ pooling sovereignty with the European Union and embedding its security in alliance with the United Nations or NATO and deploying the Bundeswehr only with a parliamentary mandate. The country has rejected a German “Sonderweg” or unilateralism that was practiced in the past. It has developed a never alone leadership with partners model that could be called “leaders in partnership,” („als Partner führen“).
Third, political extremes are hindered by history. The German debate of overcoming its history is not one that can draw a line and move forward. Rather Germany has a “Culture of Remembrance” (Errinerungskultur) centered on the horrors of the Holocaust, the National Socialist and SED regimes. That Remembrance Culture acts as a restraint on German leadership excesses. At the same time, Germany accepts more responsibility; it may not use its National Socialist and Holocaust history as an excuse not to act. As then Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorsky told the Germans in 2011: “And I demand of Germany that, for your sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”
Finally, Mr. Trump can be a catalyst for European unity. That unity is critical for Germany and its partner countries to build Europe to strengthen its transatlantic pillar and sustain the ideas and institutions of the international liberal order. European security and prosperity rest on this order. Germany is called on to lead with its European partners with a bold, strategic vision to sustain democracy, peace, and prosperity in Europe.
Following the Review 2014 and the Defense White Book, Germany needs a security strategy that enables a European Security Strategy. Strategic planning may be controversial, but the current coalition agreement calls on government and government-related think tanks to develop strategic plans. American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, a former Second World War Allied Commander, insisted on the difference between plans and planning when he said: “There is a very great distinction because when you are planning for an emergency you must start with this one thing: the very definition of ‘emergency’ is that it is unexpected, therefore it is not going to happen the way you expected”. Eisenhower went on to say that plans are worthless, but planning is everything.
No one expected American leadership to be squandered so quickly, leaving a power vacuum to be filled by adversaries. Now can Germany and its partners create a planning process for strategic policymaking? Trump as a catalyst, with his declaration of the EU as a foe of America, spurs action to overcome the lack of a coherent security policy that the general public can support. The other is to create a national institutional forum to coordinate and to strategize German foreign and security policy between relevant ministries and agencies. A Council of Experts for Strategic Foresight could address scenarios of the unexpected, report to the Bundestag and participate in parliamentary hearings with other think tanks. From such a strategic planning process, capabilities needed to meet crises, conflicts and confrontations could be established. The essence of strategic planning includes a strategic vision, key elements to fulfill them (the four pillars of the 2017 US NSS — protection of the homeland, promotion of economic prosperity, ensuring peace, advancing national interests). — What are the pillars in the 2017 White Book?
Such a strategic policy process links well with European initiatives in security including the European Defense Fund and Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). More Europe strengthens the Transatlantic Alliance.
Can Germany lead, but not dominate Europe? Will Germany and Europe fill the leadership gap left by absent American leadership? It is urgent that Europe find its unity in what Chancellor Merkel understands — Europe must take its own fate and the fate of the multilateral world order into its own hands.
From Henry-Kissinger-Professor James D. Bindenagel
Former U.S. Ambassador and Head of the CISG