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After Merkel: Germany's Role in International Affairs

23 Jan 2019
By Heribert Dieter

Has Germany succumbed to the “Arrogance of Power”?

After many years of undisputed leadership, the era of Angela Merkel is coming to an end. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, previously Secretary General of the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), has replaced Merkel as Chairwoman of the party and may soon replace her as Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has a very demanding task to accomplish. Contrary to the rather positive perception of Angela Merkel abroad, the legacy of her foreign policy is mixed at best. She has contributed to quite a few conflicts in the European Union and has added little to the debate on the future of Europe.

Relations with both the Russian Federation and the United Kingdom, two of  Europe’s three nuclear powers are at a low. Merkel has been unwilling to play a constructive role in organising Brexit, arguing that European integration has no room for diverging preferences of member countries. Merkel’s policies have unwittingly increased Germany’s dependence on France’s nuclear protection. That may not currently be an issue, but should French President Emmanuel Macron turn out to be a soufflé and be replaced with a populist, the state of German foreign policy could hardly be worse.

German leadership?

In both Germany and other European countries, Chancellor Merkel – ever since her solo effort during the refugee crisis in autumn 2015 – is now perceived as a disorganised, rather than benevolent, politician. At the time, there were calls for stronger German leadership. Critics throughout Europe had urged their most populous and economically most capable country to overcome its fear of taking on responsibility. Today, however, the calls are no longer heard.

But why have German politicians in general and Angela Merkel in particular lost touch with other European societies? One explanation for this attitude can be found in book by the American politician J. William Fulbright. Writing during the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s, Fulbright’s book criticised the “Arrogance of Power”, as the title of his book reads, at the beginning of the Vietnam War in the mid-1960s. Fulbright observed the tendency of great nations to conflate power with virtue, and he saw powerful countries as particularly susceptible to the idea that their power signaled God’s favour. According to Fulbright, powerful countries often pursue the idea that they have a special responsibility to make other nations richer, happier and wiser. The hegemon would remake other, less powerful states in its own shining image.

Germany’s foreign policy elites have gradually developed their own arrogance of power, and a critical discussion of German policies in Europe is not taking place on a broad basis. The outcome is an unreflective adherence to the paradigm of an ever-closer union in Europe.

The completely unintended result of this policy is that it is precisely the greatest friends of European integration, the Germans, who are causing serious damage to the integration process. Kramp-Karrenbauer fits this description perfectly. Having grown up in the small Saarland, which was only returned from France to Germany five years before she was born, she has always been a staunch supporter of European integration. But like so many other German politicians today, she fails to see the downside of Germany’s foreign and economic policies.

Merkel’s legacy

One of the biggest voids in German foreign policy today concerns East Asia. Driven by domestic economic interests, Angela Merkel had developed a cosy relationship with Chinese leaders throughout her chancellorship. She established regular consultations with the Chinese government and visited the country eleven times. Today, Germany does not know how to deal with an increasingly assertive China. Should German economic interests prevail over a foreign policy that emphasises the rule of law and the acceptance of norms in international cooperation? If Kramp-Karrenbauer will become Germany’s next Chancellor, she will not be able to avoid this issue.

The list of challenges for Germany’s next Chancellor is shaped by Merkel’s legacy. Three areas will require particular attention. First and foremost, Germany needs to contribute to the debate on the future of European cooperation and integration and its own role in that endeavour. Considering the situation in Italy and other EU countries, the assumption that all is well in the European Union needs to be tested. European integration may well need a new approach that permits individual societies tailor-made conditions for participation. Second, Germany ought to develop a policy for organising its long-term relationship with Britain. It is a specific kind of German cherry-picking to assume that the UK will, despite some humiliating moments in the divorce, continue to cooperate with Continental Europe once the economic ties are loosened. Third, Germany should develop a policy for the Indo-Pacific region in general and for China in particular. The future of international relations is currently shaped in the Indo-Pacific, and it is an illusion to assume that Germany should shy away from the debate if it wants to stay unharmed.

Heribert Dieter is professor in International Political Economy, Zeppelin University and senior fellow, German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.