Member and neighbour States

Is Germany “too big for Europe, too small for the world” (H. Kissinger)?

There was a time in post-WW2 European politics when this remark would have been highly pertinent. In the 1960s, Germany emerged from two decades of reconstruction, re-education and investment to become an economic powerhouse. Throughout the 1970s as other Western European economies stagnated, Germany grew in stature and by the 1980s was clearly the continent’s key financial power. 

This economic might was not matched in any sense on the world stage in terms of political power. Germany, while undoubtedly wealthier than Great Britain and France, did not enjoy a seat on the UN Security Council. Unlike its two principal European rivals, it did not seek to project military power overseas either. Indeed, its army was focused principally on defending its eastern borders in conjunction with NATO. The idea of German forces being deployed abroad in world trouble spots would have been unacceptable to German electors, since they had spent over 20 years living with the consequences of their country’s previous political and military ambitions.

Henry Kissinger, a Jewish and German-born American, whose parents fled Nazi Germany in 1938, had a particular insight into the country’s political and economic aims. Serving as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor for two US presidents, Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, Kissinger’s comments reflected the wisdom of the era in which he made them. Nation states were seen as the key players on the global stage, players whose military might alone dictated their status as global powers. Some observers say that the advent of political and economic ‘supra-national’ institutions based on the importance of international trade and security, such as the EU, means that these comments are no longer valid (Jarrard, 2011).

I would argue, however, that while Germany is now an economic powerhouse, the main driving force behind the Euro and an anchor for the European economy as a whole, it remains reluctant to exert itself on the world stage and to consider itself as a dominant strategic power around the globe.

One of the largest countries geographically in Europe, Germany currently has 81 million inhabitants, more than any other European nation (CIA, 2012). The German economy is the fifth largest in the world, and continues to dominate European trade abroad. It has strong trade links with China, and as a leading exporter of machinery, is continuing to prosper (CIA, 2012). It is largely argued, that as the most powerful nation in Europe, Germany ‘calls the shots’ for the Eurozone (Telegraph, 2010). Although Germany, has perhaps involuntarily accepted this leadership role, with one of the strongest economies, Germany is the most capable monetarily, and has therefore become the ‘paymaster of Europe’ (The Economist, 2009).  Nevertheless, others believe this economic power has yet to translate into political might on the global stage.

Certainly Germany has its hands on the levers of economic power. Berlin has become Europe’s ‘de-facto capital’ and important decisions are increasingly made in Berlin. An increasing number of EU decisions also take place in Germany, especially economic and monetary decisions and they most often involve the Bundestag and the German Bank. Interestingly the European Central Bank is also located in Frankfurt.

The Geopolitical Power Index, 2012, aims to ‘measure both the ability and potential of the world’s ten most important countries’ in terms of both soft and hard power (Merchant, 2012). In 2012, Germany moved up from the sixth place, to third place, behind only the United States and China, confirming its place as the strongest power in Europe. A top EU official once said ‘Germany needs France to disguise how strong it is’ (Rachman, 2012). While Germany grows stronger, as other European nations are suffering, is it possible that Germany is growing too big and too powerful in Europe?

‘Neighbours in Europe worry that Germany is either acting too boldly, or not boldly enough’ (Kauffmann, 2012). Germany is a nervous and reluctant driver of the European Union, while its position is respected outside of Europe, within the continent the country is tied to its Eurozone commitments (Kauffmann, 2012).

Germany does not necessarily want to assume political leadership, but the responsibility has been forced upon it because of its economic power, and its role within the European Union. Many Germans feel that along with leadership comes the requirement to spend money and bail out those who need it, and although this may not always be the case, it certainly reflects the attitude of German citizens (Garton Ash, 2012). A poll at the end of June 2012 revealed that two thirds of Germans are reluctant for their government to impose more political power on the EU, despite their popular Prime Minister’s willingness to take more control of the debt crisis (The Local, 2012).

There is, however, a growing unwillingness in Germany to bail out “irresponsible” southern European countries, such as Greece. Germany’s apparent reluctance to continue signing more European cheques led to violent anti-German protests when Angela Merkel visited the Greek capital in the autumn of 2012. The protestors made much of historic antipathy towards Germany, not least referring in great detail to the country’s occupation by Hitler during the Second World War.

Whatever Germany’s strength or even dominance within Europe, it is also forging economic and, inevitably, political links elsewhere, particularly China. While many of Germany’s trading partners are nations within the EU, China now accounts for 8.2% of trade with Germany, and that number is growing rapidly (EconomyWatch Content, 2010). In 2012 it was reported that China and Germany would be able to ‘double their bilateral trade’ within the next three years (Yao, Rinke, 2012). This means that while Germany is already an economic power, its ties with China will help it grow further, while European economies that lack its manufacturing and exporting strength may lag further behind.

This means that current concerns about Germany having to bail out smaller European economies may matter less in due course, simply because Germany is becoming much less dependent on the Eurozone for trade. The BBC’s Robert Peston, for instance, predicts that by 2015, Germany’s business with China will be making them richer so that solidarity with the Eurozone will matter much less.

With austerity becoming entrenched across Europe, governments are slashing their spending and there is growing uncertainty as to whether Greece can deliver the fiscally tight promises it has made to the EU. There is also mounting concern about the respective economies of Portugal, Italy and Spain, but it’s clear that Germany remains, uniquely, an economic powerhouse.

The German economy is still growing, reporting a 0.5% growth rate at the beginning of 2012, and furthermore unemployment is at a 20 year low (BBC, 2012). Germany has a model of success that it is keen to implement in other ‘failing’ European states (Elliott, 2012). Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor has insisted that ‘strict controls were needed if a country doesn’t comply with requirements’ (Hewitt, 2012). Germany feels that if it is to assist smaller countries, the nations must ‘implement the necessary decisions’ (Hewitt, 2012). Political observers suggest that there is a culture in Berlin that wishes to shape the rest of Europe. This is perhaps a credible thing to demand in Germany’s case because of the contribution the country has made to rescue packages (Spiegel, 2012).

At the 2012 Munich Security Conference, Germany’s position as a leader in Europe was discussed, and whether or not Germany should continue to pursue its role as a hegemon, a dominant country, within Europe. Poland’s foreign affairs minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, made his view very clear: ‘You will not be a benign hegemon in Europe, so you shouldn’t even try’ (Rogin, 2012).

Sikorski said he was sure that Germany was not to become more powerful, and would never be able to assume a role similar to the ‘United States in the post WW1 period’ (Rogin, 2012).  This view reflects traditional Polish antipathy towards Germany, largely arising out of its wartime experiences. However it also indicates the extent to which Poland, a former Warsaw Pact ally of the old Soviet Union, is itself firmly embedded in the EU and sees itself politically aligned and committed towards it.

Julian-Lindley French, a member of the ‘Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group and Professor of Military Art and Science at the Royal Military Academy of the Netherlands’, explained that Germany would never become a hegemon because Britain will simply not accept it (Atlantic Council, 2012). Professor French gives three reasons why.

Firstly, Britain’s economic power is still too great, despite the recession, and they would therefore not allow German pressure to be placed on them. Secondly, historically, Britain is a political counter-weight to Germany, and other smaller countries would recognize this, especially if Germany grew too powerful. Finally, Britain’s military power is also strong, especially relative to Germany’s military, which has been described as ‘pitifully weak’ (Rogers, 2012).

Germany may not be able to exert power on the world, primarily because of its commitments to Europe. This reflects the fact that Germany is content to act as part of a European whole or within other supra-national organisations. For instance, the first post-war deployments of German troops overseas, in 1993 to Bosnia and Somalia, were both in support of UN activities. The idea of Germany deploying troops unilaterally to some world trouble spot would be unthinkable within the country and, frankly, outside it. Germany would simply be expected to act in concert with others and in conjunction with international organisations.

As Germany is discovering, it may be economically powerful but there are still limits to this power and it cannot alone guarantee it will enable it to achieve its foreign or economic policy objectives. For instance, while Germany may be economically powerful, it is ‘too small to save the Eurozone’ (Albanese, 2012). Germany cannot support the Eurozone without significantly damaging its own banking institutions. Stephanie Kretz believes that the bailouts by Germany have put the country’s economy ‘at risk of overextending itself’ (Kretz, 2012). The German economy accounts for only 27% of the Eurozone’s output, and is ‘simply too small to save the Eurozone’ (Albanese, 2012).

Germany is not keen to exert its economic power on the world, or extend its political power beyond Europe. In 1953, Thomas Mann, a Nobel Prize Laureate asked a group of students to strive for ‘not a German Europe, but a European Germany’ (Ash, 2012). Today, we have the reverse, a European Germany in a German Europe. Germany is key to anchor itself politically to the centre of the Europe, as they see themselves as vital to the stability of Europe.

Germany’s brutal history still plays a large role today. Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust means that the country and its leadership have never sought a dominant role in Europe or abroad (Rachman, 2012). Stephen Brown, Chair of Finance at New York University, argues that Germany has ‘shied away from geopolitical power, because of its Nazi past’ (Brown, 2012). Both these observers’ comments reflect my earlier point about Germany seeking a world role within the limitations of its desire not to repeat mistakes of earlier eras.

Germany is, therefore, truly stuck in an ‘in-between position’. While it could potentially emerge as a global power in a setting where military might has become less important and economic might more important, there are still constraints on the most economically prosperous country in Europe. It has firmly tied itself to Europe, as it has relied on the Eurozone for its own economic stability. Its history means emerging as a world power would most probably bring opposition from both Germany’s citizens and neighbours.  Its own people would be uncomfortable with their government striving for a dominant position on the world stage, at least for now.


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