As the most powerful member of the European Union, Germany is the most likely candidate to offer solutions to Europe's geopolitical anxieties in the emerging multipolar world order. Yet, Germany's success in this regard hinges first and foremost on its ability to defend the liberal international order against realpolitik assaults of the United States, Russia and China. Together with Japan and France, Germany seems to be one of the rare defenders of this order.
Since the end of World War II, German foreign policy has stood on three pillars. One has been Germany's commitment to the transatlantic community through its membership in NATO and strong bilateral relations with the United States. The second has been Germany's staunch support to the EU integration process and the intensification of Franco-German relations through a myriad of multilateral and bilateral channels. And, the third has been Germany's adoption of a dual-track approach toward Russia, in that Moscow should both be deterred from endangering the security order in Europe and engaged through economic and soft power instruments so that it becomes a responsible stakeholder in Europe's security and prosperity.
Rebuilding the identity
In order for Germany to leave behind its Nazi past, being exonerated of his previous crimes, and gain legitimacy in the eyes of its neighbors, German leaders of mainstream political parties, namely the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, have taken great pains to prove Germany's commitment to the transatlantic community and EU integration. The assumption was that the project of rebuilding German national identity on the basis of secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural and liberal-democratic values would be much easier to accomplish should Germany pursue a pro-EU and pro-Atlanticist foreign policy while simultaneously courting Russia through economic engagement.
Rather than weakening this consensus, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reunification of Germany in 1990 have further strengthened these characteristics of German foreign policy. This has been so despite the fact that the commitment of the United States to the European security order has gradually eroded in the face of diverging strategic priorities between the two shores of the Atlantic Ocean and quite a number of Germans are arguing that Germany's increasing power capabilities in the wake of its reunification should lead Germany to play hegemonic roles in the middle of Europe and increasingly adopt realpolitik attitudes alongside its "normalization" process.
Over the last quarter-century, alternative voices in Germany arguing in favor of the "normalization" of German foreign policy have not taken center stage. Europeans have mainly failed in their attempts to cope with the security problems on their continent successfully without the United States. NATO has preserved its primacy and the United States remained committed to European security. In the struggle between the "Europeanists" and the "Atlanticists," Germany tried to do its best to strike the right balance.
Whether the issues at stake were strengthening the EU's strategic autonomy against NATO, speeding up the EU integration process in a more supranational manner, boosting institutional cooperation between the EU and NATO, accommodating Russia in the European security order as a great power or supporting the globalization of NATO in the name of securing American commitment to European security order, Germany has primarily adopted midway positions very much reflecting the gist of the postwar era consensus in German strategic thinking. Post-Cold War era German leaders seem to have done their best to ensure the three pillars of the German foreign policy continue standing unscathed.
The post-war era
Germany has immensely benefited from the postwar era liberal order in Europe and beyond and tried to do its best to ensure it continues uninterrupted. As a civilian power and trading state deriving its wealth and power from free-trade and the enlargement of the liberal world order around the world, Germany has paid close attention to whether the United States would remain committed to the liberal world order and whether Vladimir Putin's Russia would see its future inside the West or the rejuvenation of the Russian empire in realpolitik clothes.
Another German priority has been to adopt a neutral position on the ongoing geopolitical and geo-economic rivalry between the United States and China. Rather than adopting the United States' strategic and military approach toward China and defining China as a power to be contained, Germans wanted to benefit from China's growth economically and at worst defined China as an economic competitor.
Yet, it has become increasingly difficult for Germany to successfully stick to these principles in its foreign policy over the last two decades. For example, Germany had its most important crisis with the United States in the post-Cold War era during the first presidential term of George W. Bush, during which neoconservatives shaped American foreign policy profoundly.
It was noteworthy that Gerhard Schroder won the parliamentary elections in Germany on the ticket of anti-Americanism. Despite the fact that German leaders and people alike breathed a sigh of relief when Barack Obama came to the White House, structural factors have continued to mar transatlantic cohesion. Obama's adoption of multilateralism did not change the facts that the United States has increasingly grown uneasy with the continuing defense cuts in Europe and that East Asia has become more vital than Europe to American national interests.
It was Obama's secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, who first voiced the "Pivot to Asia" strategy in an influential article published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, and Obama's Secretary of Defense Robert Gates who continuously warned European allies against the negative consequences of their reluctance to increase defense spending. For the Obama team, the picture was quite clear: If the European allies wanted to be taken seriously by the United States, they would need to increase their defense expenditures and take on more security responsibilities in Europe and its peripheries. Obama made it clear that the 21st century would be shaped more by the developments taking place in the Asia-Pacific region than in Europe and the Middle East. The sooner the European allies adjusted themselves to this reality, the better.
Contradicting the liberal order
The British decision to withdraw from the European Union and the never-ending assaults of the Trump administration on the liberal international order seem to have aggravated German concerns in this regard. For the first time since the end of World War II, the United States and the United Kingdom are now being ruled by leaders who very much question the foundational pillars of the liberal world order from which Germany has derived immense benefits. Mrs. Angela Merkel has encouraged Donald Trump on many occasions in the recent past not to disparage the transatlantic alliance and the liberal international order. Yet, her ability to lead the liberal world seems quite low because she is now a lame-duck prime minister and the forces arrayed against the liberal order are also on the rise in Germany.
Merkel's message that the time has finally arrived for Europeans to strengthen the EU integration process by endowing the EU with strong institutional capabilities in the fields of common economic, foreign, security and defense policy is also supported by French President Emmanuel Macron. Yet, Macron's penchant for European leadership, critical stance on the transatlantic alliance and eagerness to mend fences with Putin's Russia appear to clash with Merkel's patient and circumspect attitude. Merkel is not as eager as Macron to take on the role of European leadership and rebuild the EU as an independent strategic actor on par with other global powers. Nor is Merkel inclined to forget Russia's wrongdoings in Georgia, Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
The time for Germany to decide on the future role of the European Union in global politics, as well as Germany's place in the emerging multipolar order, has already arrived. Myriad internal and external factors have combined to put pressure on German leaders. Whether Europe becomes a geopolitical player itself or a playground in the intensifying great power competition strongly depends on Germany's choices.
* Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at Antalya Bilim University