Europe in crisis: After Turkey, Nice and Brexit… can Germany lead the way?

Terror in Nice, a failed coup in Turkey, Russian-sponsored war in Ukraine, and Great Britain’s decision last month to leave the European Union are all signs of a Europe in need of leadership more than ever. But where will that leadership come from? 

Traditionally, it’s been the United States in concert with the United Kingdom that has provided the strategic backbone to the transatlantic relationship. However, with the British decision to leave the EU and signs of America turning inward a key question arises: Can Germany provide the continent’s anchor to help maintain transatlantic stability and strength?                   

Certainly, Germany is once again the “great power” on the European continent. It’s not a status either Germany’s neighbors or most Germans feel entirely comfortable with. German citizens and politicians had become strategically comfortable during the Cold War wrapped in the blanket of the American-led alliance (NATO). Since that time, Germans have rested most often inside the cocoon of the “European Project.”

The combination of the EU’s own institutional weaknesses and serial crises (Greek bail outs, refugees, the Russian invasion of Ukraine) have pushed Germany to the forefront. Angela Merkel has taken the lead in ways unprecedented for a German Chancellor. As Americans might sympathize, as a response to this leadership, some German allies see “arrogance,” “unilateralism”–and worse. Europeans have long memories, and Germany’s size, weight, and geo-strategic position can make lesser powers in the neighborhood easily jittery. But it’s hard to get escape facts. With London leaving, within the councils of the EU the German voice in Europe will now become unavoidably bigger. 

How will Germany respond to the new situation? Will it be spooked by a new role and additional responsibility? Can Germans admit that the country’s past, while important, can no longer–after 60 years of exemplary democratic rule–define its present, let alone its future?

Germany’s outgoing president, the highly respected former East German dissident Joachim Gauck, has attempted to move his country along this new agenda. Gauck argues that Germany should play a more overtly active role internationally, and not instinctively saying ‘no’ to the use of the military in all cases, for example.

The German president insists that his country overcome inhibitions linked to its past in order to accept more responsibility for Germany and European security in the future—a view reiterated by the German defense ministry with the publication of a new government-approved “white paper” on German security policy. Part of this responsibility involves standing up for universal rights in Europe and elsewhere–the very principles that define Germany’s own democracy. 

However, this will not be easy. A recent poll indicates that a majority of Germans would not support sending the German military to defend Poland or the Baltic States if invaded by Russia. And while Chancellor Merkel has led the way within Europe on sanctions against Russia for its illegal annexation of Crimea, her coalition partners in the Social Democratic Party–as well as some members of her own party–advocate a softer line. 

German foreign policy has been generally characterized by caution. In a recent piece in Foreign Affairs on Germany’s “new global role,” Germany’s Social Democratic Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier writes, “Some politicians, such as the former Polish foreign minister Radek Sikorski, have described Germany as Europe’s ‘indispensable nation.’ Germany has not aspired to this status. But circumstances have forced it into a central role.” But one would be hard pressed to read Steinmeier and see anything that resembles a clear or coherent roadmap for Germany’s new course. 

There are three ways to push Germany sensibly ahead.

First, there’s NATO. It’s striking that Steinmeyer omits mention of the transatlantic military alliance in an article about Germany’s new foreign policy. The evolving projection of German foreign policy power will need multilateral cover in order to be palpable to others in Europe. For decades, the Germans have understood this about the European Community (and today’s EU). It’s time Berlin fully grasps the same lesson about NATO. Germany inside NATO is a safer idea to other Europeans than the idea of Germany un-tethered. In addition, it’s NATO that will provide the indispensable organizational, infrastructural, and technological framework for European defense going forward. 

The EU has myriad problems; it has deep deficiencies and structural limitations in foreign and defense policy. It cannot substitute for NATO on the security front. Moreover, given the scale of the security problems facing Europe, German leadership exercised outside of NATO—and, hence, absent the US contribution—would be a “bridge too far” for Berlin. However, as the current presidential campaign has made clear, to maintain that vital American role, Germans will need to spend more on defense, learn to articulate a strategic vision, and actually be prepared, when necessary, to use its military decisively. A tall order, no doubt.

Second, there’s Russia, a conundrum for the Germans. Serious foreign policy requires a mixture of carrots and sticks, a sober and clear view of one’s own interests and values, and an accurate assessment of the aims of adversaries. It also involves resolving dilemmas. Much of the German political establishment finds it difficult–including large parts of the county’s influential businesses and banking community–to view Vladimir Putin’s Russia as threat and foe. This has in part to do with short-term commercial interests. But Germany’s general culture of strategic reticence tends to confuse diplomacy and dialogue for ends, rather than means. Putin’s expansionist foreign policy must be deterred and contained, and on this, Germany must lead. It would be hardly in German or European interests to sit idly by why Moscow further weakens and divides the continent.

Finally, there’s Syria. Refugee flows have turned the EU upside down. Germany alone has take in more than 1.1 minion refugees since last summer. The challenge of integrating such large numbers of people from Syria and other Muslim majority countries is in itself daunting. The EU has negotiated a deal with Turkey to regulate future flows. But everyone knows that such deals with the current Turkish leadership are inherently unreliable. The recent coup attempt underscores this (note Turkish President Erdogan flies not to Brussels or Berlin, but rather to Moscow to confer with Vladimir Putin after the failed coup). 

More refugees will come from the Middle East and Northern Africa. Germany needs to lead an effort, if not to stabilize a country like Syria, but at least to create safe havens so that the displaced and homeless have a decent and secure option for protection and shelter. This spring, Germany proposed such an option, but faced opposition from an Obama administration determined for its part to keep American ground troops as far as possible from harm’s way. Let Germany lead the European effort to cajole the Americans, much like the Americans had done with the Europeans to develop support for action in the Balkans in the 1990s. But that means a willingness to take the lead materially and diplomatically. 

As uncomfortable as it might be for Germans, there is no turning the clock back. Britain is leaving the EU, and the United States, no matter who the next president is, will increasingly find itself stretched to handle multiple global security issues. Threats to Europe from the East and the South will not abate.

The need for German leadership is inevitable. Both Europe and the U.S. depend on this.

Will the Germans accept their new role?

Jeffrey Gedmin, a former director of the Aspen Institute Berlin, is senior fellow, Atlantic Council and senior advisor, Blue Star Strategies.

Gary Schmitt is director of the Marilyn Ware Center for Security Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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