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Germany as European leader?

Image credit: World Economic Forum

Image credit: World Economic Forum

In this third ‘Standpoint’, two of European Geostrategy’s Senior Editors – James Rogers and Luis Simón – evaluate the rise of Germany as the most powerful European country, honing in on German structural influence, the Berlin-Washington relationship, Germany’s role in the Ukraine crisis and Berlin’s place in the Euro-Atlantic order.

1. Germany is the most powerful European country

Yes and no. Many eyes – even some foreign secretaries – have focused on the role of Germany in modern European politics in recent years, particularly since the Euro crisis. Germany is indeed the most populous and industrially powerful European country and – consequently – wields significant influence within the European Union (EU). It has played a pivotal role in helping the EU navigate through the financial and economic crisis, even if this coincided primarily with Germany’s own national interests. Moreover, Berlin’s influence is not confined to matters related to economic and monetary union or EU political reform. It also extends to foreign and security policy. In terms of security policy, working in cahoots with the United Kingdom (UK), which disfavours a strong European military capability, Germany has managed to undermine French efforts to turn the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy into a proper military expeditionary tool. In the area of foreign policy, not only has Berlin prevented the EU from becoming more assertive with Russia, but it has also undermined European solidarity in relation to Moscow’s hold over the European gas energy infrastructure. Berlin’s ability to utilise its institutional heft within the EU means that unless any European proposal is broadly compatible with the German national interest, it is unlikely to be realised, irrespective of the logic behind it.

However, this does not mean that Germany has become Europe’s most powerful country, not least because the world is becoming progressively bigger than Europe. Granted, German commercial relations with countries like China and India are extensive. However, Germany’s global industrial reach and success depends on the stability of an international political order that is ultimately underpinned by Western strategic and military power. Here, it is the United Kingdom and France in Europe (along with the United States in North America), not Germany, which largely guarantee the stability of this system and of European interaction with it. Unless international relations are reduced to European mainland and/or crude economism or institutional transactions, Berlin’s leverage and influence therefore become much more marginal.

2. Germany has become the United Statesmost important European ally

Hardly. In recent years, not least due to the Euro crisis, many German and American commentators have asked, often implicitly or subtly, whether Berlin has become Washington’s most valuable European partner. If our understanding of the world was based on day-to-day circumspection and intrigue, or on an exclusively European bubble, a conclusion could be drawn that they are correct. The Americans, in particular, understand that Germany is central to European economic issues. However – and this is where a geopolitical perspective augments mere commentary – the Americans also know that Berlin is not an autonomous power. German influence is geopolitically contained within the process and structures produced and maintained by the US, the UK and (to a lesser extent) France, namely European integration and – more importantly – the Atlantic Alliance.

Moreover, and connectedly, the UK and the US are Atlantic and global powers that operate above and beyond the Euro-Atlantic structures; France, too, has extra-regional interests. Their permanent seats in the United Nations Security Council and their status as nuclear powers means the UK and France play a key contribution to upholding Western strategic interests both globally and in Europe. The UK in particular will always hold a unique place in Washington’s calculations, not least because of the British geopolitical and intelligence footprint, both in the context of European continent and the wider world, on which the US relies for its own endeavours. France, for its part, is seen in Washington as a privileged partner for dealing with extra-regional contingencies in and around Africa. With a low birth rate and low military spending, the Americans know that Germany’s power and influence are primarily confined to the European continent. However, given its critical mass and its economic and technological prowess, should Berlin choose to align its military and foreign policies more closely with those of its Western allies, it could make a formidable contribution to the security of the Western order – as was indeed the case during the Cold War era.

3. Germany is critical to solving the Ukraine crisis

Maybe. Russia’s current power and assertiveness is to no small extent a consequence of the policies of accommodation put in place by some Europeans – and especially Germany – over the past two decades. German policymakers, as well as other Europeans, have sought to ‘integrate’ an increasingly prickly Russia into the Euro-Atlantic structures. But recent events in Ukraine show that the Kremlin has absolutely no interest in ‘integrating’ into these political structures, which it regards as hostile to Russian interests. Quite the opposite: Moscow reads many Germans’ knack for ‘accommodation’ and avoiding confrontation as an opportunity to consolidate and expand its influence in Eastern Europe – and rightly so.

Until Berlin – and those pulling on its coat tails, like Italy, Austria, Greece and Cyprus – adopts a more assertive approach to Moscow, particularly in relation to weening the German and wider European economies off Russian gas, and thus smothering Moscow’s means to fund Russia’s rising military spending, the Kremlin will remain belligerent. Unless Germany consolidates its position at the heart of geographic Europe and exerts a powerful sway over the destiny of the Eastern Europe, Russian gains will likely continue.

Yet, due to the connexions between German politics and business interests, this German volt-farce is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. Thus, the globally-oriented US and UK may grow tired of German intransigence, leading the two powers – with growing interests East of Suez, in the Indo-Pacific – to simply bypass Berlin, so they can solidify the Eastern European flank as quickly as possible. There is already some evidence of this: British and American military assets have already been forwardly deployed to the Baltic states and Poland; the Atlantic Alliance has declared that Russia has become an opponent; and consultations between London and Washington have grown over the contingencies required due to some future Russian-inspired crisis.

4. A strong Germany must be central to the European order

Absolutely. Germany is at the geographic heart of the EU. It is also – at least for the next two decades – likely to remain the continent’s largest economy and most populous country. However, Germany’s strength and stability – and that of Europe’s writ large – will largely depend on Berlin’s firm anchoring in the post-war European structures, as well as its renunciation of any pretensions, held by some on the anti-British and anti-American left of German politics, to some kind of bipolar European ‘order’ strung between Berlin and Moscow. Any vision Germany has for the future of the European system must be compatible with the policies of its powerful Atlantic allies, which ultimately undergird the Euro-Atlantic structures. So long as German policy remains compatible with that of the British and Americans (at least), the triad of power at the crux of the European institutions will remain cooperative, sustaining a generally prosperous and stable future for the European mainland. Moreover, a more active German military role in enhancing the security of Eastern Europe – within the framework of the Atlantic Alliance – would help alleviate the British, French and American ‘European load’, enabling the three maritime powers to devote additional resources to projecting power into the key European global theatres, namely the Indo-Pacific, the South Atlantic and the Arctic. Thus, the continued close alignment of Berlin’s foreign and security policy priorities with those of the large and autonomous Atlantic nations is critical to the security of the prevailing European order – and ultimately, Germany itself.

Vol. 6, No. 37 (2014)


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