Alphen, Netherlands. 6 February. One of the many clichés and myths that provide the pitted pillars of Europe’s contemporary security is that Germany is an economic power. In fact, for twenty-five years and more Germany has invested billions in European stability and security. In his first ministerial speech to the Bundestag and during this week’s visit to London new German Foreign Minister and SPD leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier signalled a new “active foreign policy”. The speech highlighted Germany’s three essential places’: Germany’s place in the world, Germany’s place in Europe, and Germany’s place in history.
Germany’s place in the world: “In light of the millions of people who are victims of conflict or civil wars today…in light of the millions of people who might be forced to flee their countries because of these conflicts, [I believe that] what has often been written in recent years…about the declining status…or even the insignificance of foreign policy is not only insupportable but also quite cynical”. Reading between the lines Steinmeier shifted the balance between power and policy.
He said that German policy will remain anchored firmly in a humanitarian foreign policy via legitimising institutions with a clear focus on conflict prevention. However, by suggesting Germany will seek more ‘responsibility’, i.e. influence he reinforced Berlin's determination to legitimately instrumentalise the EU in pursuit of German policy goals. And, by accepting that soft power must be underpinned by a credible modicum of legitimate military power Steinmeier confirmed Germany 's return to power normalcy. This is an important shift.
In balancing ends, means and ways Berlin is also seeking to instrumentalise the UN. With Germany ever more influential in talks with the likes of Iran over its nuclear ambitions Berlin is fast becoming a virtual permanent member of the UN Security Council. Logically, Berlin would in time welcome a permanent EU seat on the Council to replace the individual memberships of the British and French and a special relationship with the US but getting to both will be difficult.
Germany’s place in Europe: “Pursuing a policy of military restraint is the right way; but it must not be mistaken for a general shying away from responsibility. Germany has become slightly too big and has too much influence in Europe to adopt this kind of strategy. If an influential country does not take part in seeking solutions to international conflicts, they will not succeed”. Europe today needs German leadership. However, Berlin is not so much leading as mothering Europe.
To the Berlin elite ‘Germany’ and ‘Europe’ are pretty much one and the same thing. Berlin’s challenge is somehow to extend German influence, organise the fiscal disciplining of the Eurozone around Germany via deeper political and economic EU integration and somehow get the British people to believe in the EU (the British elite have already raised the white flag) and thus stop acting as a brake on German/EU ambitions. One angle could be a Germany willing to work with Britain and France to make European defence credible and thus boost the 'prestige' of the old powers even as their influence declines.
Germany’s place in history: “1914 was proof of a failure of diplomacy, a lack of foreign policy and an increased estrangement between states”. Steinmeier’s comment demonstrated both the extent to which Germany’s place in the world and Europe is still informed by history and the extent to which German policy, strategy and history are still at odds.
Your blogonaut is a real student of the origins and causes of World War One. In my time I have written Oxford papers on the matter, consume all and any literature, and I am even considering writing a book on the controversial “Fischer Thesis” (Weltmacht oder Niedergang) which saw a German historian point the finger of blame clearly at Wilhelmine Germany.
World War One might have been triggered by a “failure of diplomacy” but the causes of it were overwhelmingly German: the unworkability of the Prusso-German constitution; the fear of the emergence of Steinmeier’s own SPD amongst the Prusso-Junker elite, German nationalism (Drang nach osten), fear of an emerging Russia, German militarism and the influence of the Army over foreign and security policy.
Why does this matter? First, Germany is not a hegemon and thus incapable of leading Europe without the consent of others. Simply air-brushing truth out of history for political convenience far from strengthening German legitimacy undermines it. London should of course point this out but Britain’s leaders are either too PC or too supine either to confront strategic reality or Germany’s historical illusions.
Second, implicit in Steinmeier’s vision is again a German Europe. It is so different from the German Europes envisaged by the Kaiser and Hitler that one must be sensitive in making the comparison. However, the comparison will be made and Berlin should acknowledge the historical record for what it is not what Germans would like it to be. Such an acknowledgement would strengthen German leadership because Germany can only lead via a balance of partnerships. Criticism is not ‘German-bashing’, it is simply the price of power.
To paraphrase E.P. Hartley the past is indeed another country but it is an influential country. If Germany is to successfully mother Europe it must treat both strategy and history with respect. If Berlin understands this Germany will find its rightful place in the twenty-first century world.