After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the expectation spread in the West that the establishment of political and economic ties with Russia and China would produce a gradual integration of these two powers into the liberal world order and even a convergence of them towards liberal democratic values. . Trade and cultural ties, it was reasoned, would drive progress in those countries, a growing interest in propping up the global system, and the expansion of connected and demanding middle classes that would reinforce that virtuous circle. Few countries embraced that faith and built their foreign projection around it more than Germany, a society that, due to its past, shuns the prominence of hard-military power and that, due to its buoyant industrial present, yearns for that liberal order based on multilateralism, rules and free trade. . Few countries, then, are now as challenged as Germany by the blowing up of those expectations and the disruption of that system.
The Germany that goes to the polls this Sunday to open a new stage after the long leadership of Angela Merkel has a lot at stake in the challenge of successfully adapting to the threats of this new time. By the way, the entire position of the European Union on the global scene depends on the direction that its hegemonic power wants to take. The circumstances show that not only China and Russia, each in its own way, are ready for aggressive competition and confrontational positions, but that allies such as the United States and the United Kingdom are navigating an unpredictable course. “Unfortunately, the German political leaders have not prepared the public at all for the efforts that these new circumstances require, among them a strong investment to shore up and stabilize the European project. This is a danger, ”said Cathryn Clüwer Ashbrook, director of the German Council on Foreign Relations, in a telephone conversation, referring to the almost zero relevance of the issue in the campaign.
Germany has an ambivalent position on the world board. It is the fourth economic power by GDP (after the United States, China and Japan) and exhibits an export strength that places it as the second country in the world with the best current account balance (after, but very close to, China). These factors give you a remarkable capacity for influence. However, as is well known, it does not have a military weight commensurate with its economic strength. It is the seventh world investor in Defense, which is not negligible, but the mix between the rejection of the use of military force, the lack of nuclear weapons, the lack of a permanent seat and the right of veto in the UN, a certain delay in capabilities cyber and other elements confine it to a secondary role in security matters.
With these premises, supported by the pillars of its Europeanism and Atlanticism, Berlin has embraced in recent decades the mantra of the Wandel through trade (change through trade) in its international relations. Their postwar governments have gained broad global respect by holding positions generally considered responsible and constructive. There is no shortage of controversial episodes, in which critics see a stark prioritization of national economic interests over the collective interest of the Western family. Notable among them is the unfolding of the Nordstream gas pipeline, which allows Russia to reinforce direct supply to Germany by bridging eastern Europe, in what represents a huge strategic victory for Putin; or the investment deal with China that the German EU presidency pushed for in December, which many consider a mistake and is now languishing amid vibrant criticism and an arduous ratification process.
Many experts believe that this international position, based on a broad domestic political consensus, must be updated. “Without a doubt, there are limits to the current international order; the multilateral system is not stable; and openness implies vulnerability. In response, some speak of decoupling or deglobalization. But we can’t, that would be harmful, “says Güntram Wolff, director of the Bruegel study center, in a telephone conversation. “German and European prosperity depend on deep integration with the global economy. The answer must therefore be to sharpen instruments to better defend certain interests in this context. My vision is that the EU must be a pole in itself, developing a capacity for retaliation in the event of economic aggression. Germany must get involved in this, reinforcing the resilience of the EU and the euro zone, and seeking to capture globalization appropriately, ”says Wolff.
There is pressure from the United States and Europe on Germany in different ways. Washington demands that it considerably increase its military spending and show firmness towards China; France, which agrees to promote European defense projects that run parallel to NATO; the Mediterranean, to give stability to the euro zone; those of the East, to respond harshly to Russia; and from different spheres, to lead a movement towards strategic autonomy in key industrial sectors, fostering greater digital and indigenous cyber capabilities. The menu is very extensive; balance, complex.
The idea that the connection between countries in an increasingly globalized world fosters new avenues of competitiveness and conflict is the focus of a book recently published by Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations (The Age of Unpeace. How connectivity causes conflict. Bantam Press). In his text Leonard argues that connectivity generates reasons and means of conflict, a dangerous feeling of loss of control, and the paradox that the more connected they are, the more peoples and countries want to be separated. This is the scenario to which post-Merkel Germany must adapt.
“The assumption that economic interdependence would lead to the democratization of other countries was shared in the West. It is not just a German affair. But it is true that the Europeans believed it more than the Americans, and that the Germans more than other Europeans. Germany will be the last to abandon that idea, ”says Hans Kundnani, head of the Europe program at Chatham House think tank, in a telephone conversation. The expert mentions Kant, whose On perpetual peace it has exerted a profound intellectual influence. But, naturally, he notes that the German political position is determined by the set of primary interests, available instruments, and social perception.
The expert believes that a gradual evolution is possible, very consistent with the dominant spirit in German society. The recent increase in military spending goes in that direction. But consider profound changes, significant twists, unlikely. “The differences between the four parties with credible chances of coming to power are really small. And, in addition, they will have to reach compromises. Thus, if the Greens are tougher with Russia but agree with the SPD, which is softer, the result will probably be very in line with the current balance. The fact is that Merkel, rather than leading, has well embodied consensus present in society. It was a political skill. Merkel is leaving, but the underlying consensus remains, ”says Kundnani.
Clüwer Ashbrook points out that the business environment is emerging as a more relevant factor of change than the Foreign Ministry itself has been in recent times. “Entrepreneurs are changing their perception quite radically. They have already assumed that China is a systemic competitor and that the economic projection is wrapped in the geopolitical environment ”. Kundnani adds a comparative observation with Japan, another country defeated in the Second World War, which is undergoing a process of reconsideration of its role in the world and which, unlike Germany, has not cultivated a powerful industry in the Defense sector. Germany refuses the use of force, but exports many weapons, being the fourth largest seller in the world.
Challenges and contradictions related to the role of Germany in the world accumulate on the table of the next government in Berlin. After a long successful period, but in many ways lived in inertia, knots are approaching the comb that require Germany to reflect deeply on her soul. On whether to continue in that inertia with minimal changes or whether, staying true to its values, undertake a more substantial change.
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