Transatlantic Take

Merkel’s Successor Will Have to Define Germany’s Role in a World of Competition

June 23, 2021
8 min read
Photo Credit: photocosmos1 / Shutterstock
Germany’s recent tensions with the United States over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the role of the Chinese telecom provider Huawei in the country’s future 5G network, and the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment are more tha

Germany’s recent tensions with the United States over the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the role of the Chinese telecom provider Huawei in the country’s future 5G network, and the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment are more than just accidents. They are symptoms of a far greater malaise. What they indicate is that Germany’s post-Cold War approach to foreign and security policy has reached a dead end.

To rely on the United States for security and for geostrategic leadership, not just in Europe but around the world, while deeply engaging economically with China and Russia is a formula that has been hugely successful for Germany in the post-Cold War decades.

Germany more than ever became a champion of global trade and an exporting world champion (Exportweltmeister). At the same time, and not unrelated, it has largely managed to stay out of crises and conflicts. Like few other countries, Germany appeared to be tailor-made for the post-Cold War era, with its specific economic strengths and its emphasis on multilateralism and win-win cooperation.

In this environment, the country’s business interests appeared to be perfectly in line with its political interests. Trade with and investment in formerly communist countries, especially in Russia and China, could be defined as a way to promote globalization. They could be pursued in the name of an increasingly “flat world” where borders would lose their significance, in which autocratic regimes would liberalize over time, and in which conflict would be replaced by multilateral cooperation.

Today, though, Germany increasingly looks to many outsiders often less a champion of globalization and a liberal international order, and more like an unreliable, self-interested island largely ignoring the security interests of its partners and interested only in pushing through its business interests. The clashes over Nord Stream 2 or Huawei are a case in point.

A New Paradigm

It is not a question of Germany changing in the 16 years of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship—in these years it just stayed the course while its environment changed. The old post-Cold War paradigm of globalization secured by a U.S.-guaranteed liberal international order has been replaced by a new one based on competition and conflict, with the return of military and economic coercion as a central dimension of international relations.

That did not happen because U.S. hawks prefer it that way. It happened because the ruling classes in Russia and China only appeared to subscribe to the liberal model, using the opening to the West not for political modernization and for transformation toward a genuine market economy, but for the strengthening of their domestic position after the shocks of 1989-1990.

In recent years, they have started to use their newfound strength to weaken the liberal order; they have moved from the defensive to the offensive. Russia has used the only instrument it has left, military power, to advance an agenda of domination in its neighborhood and of predominant influence in some regions of the Middle East and North Africa. Beyond that, it has used hybrid instruments in an attempt to weaken the will of Europe and the United States to push back against its neo-imperialism.

China equally flexes its muscles in its neighborhood, and with its impressive economic and technological might it is trying to rewrite the rules of the international order and putting itself into a dominant position, convinced that the West is in decline. Each in its own way has launched a “systemic competition,” driven by the goal of decreasing the existential threat of democratization to their rule at home. While they are not truly aligned, Russia and China nevertheless agree on this one goal: to make the world safe for autocracy.

The new muscular language from the United States, first in the national security documents of the Trump administration and now in the speeches and articles from the Biden administration, is a reaction to this change. Team Biden has come to the conclusion that neither Russia nor China are still on the path of transformation toward liberalism and that it is democracy that is on the defensive. The U.S. foreign policy project is now to reverse this dynamic by building new economic and technological strength and political resilience at home, and through cooperation and coalition-building with ‘like-minded’ democracies abroad.

No More Comfort Zone

The global paradigm change from cooperation to competition is a particular challenge for Germany. It forces the country to leave its traditional comfort zone and embrace competition, which includes the acceptance of tensions and confrontation.

The post-Cold War environment was extremely comfortable for Germany. It could build its new political consensus on the West German conviction that the time of power politics was finally over—that the world was now learning the lessons West Germany thought it had learned in the decades after the Second World War and was now ready to leave behind narrow national interests, inter-state tensions, and conflicts. The “new world order” George H. W. Bush announced would resemble Immanuel Kant’s “eternal peace”: a global system of cooperation, enshrined in law and institutions.

Angela Merkel’s political awakening took place in the 1990s when she was a minister in Helmut Kohl’s cabinet. As she recalls quite regularly, her formative experience was the fall of the Berlin wall—and the discovery of the world behind the wall. The belief in peaceful solutions of conflicts and in historical progress that Merkel always brings with is well grounded in her personal experience.

Yet instead of moving toward more global harmony, the world moved towards more conflict. Power and geopolitics are back. Russia invades and occupies parts of neighboring countries, threatens others, uses all kinds of tools to undermine the EU’s coherence, and intervenes in Syria to keep a dictator in power. China challenges the regional order in the Asia Pacific and increasingly treats European countries like subordinates, using harsh language and sanctions.

The “Merkel doctrine” of treating the United States, France, Russia, and China largely as partners, and making some concessions to each while frustrating them elsewhere, appears to be increasingly out of sync with this new, competitive environment. Germany’s ambiguity is increasingly irritating friends and competitors alike. They want to know where it stands.

France wants to know whether Germany is on board with the concept of European sovereignty. The United States wants to know whether it is ready to join its coalition of democracies and to embrace systemic competition with China. Moscow and Beijing increasingly consider Berlin as something as a Eurasian bridge, at least partially open for their bids for influence.

Germany is crucial in the new global competition because of its central role in Europe. On issues where the EU is divided or does not have a clear stance, it is usually the country tipping the balance.

At the same time, the EU is the swing state in the new global competition. If it responds positively to the Biden administration’s offer to cooperate more closely on issues like tech, trade, and regulation, a new global coalition of democracies could shape the emerging new global order. This would force China and Russia to accept the rules of the game.

If the EU tries to stay neutral or if it refuses to take a more assertive stance, the United States would be in a far weaker position vis-à-vis China in particular, because it would have to deal with the competition with China with far less global weight. European neutrality would also encourage China to confront the United States far more harshly and to would view it as a hegemon in decline.

What Will Germany Do?

The overarching decision for Germany’s next chancellor therefore will be where to come down on systemic competition. Should Germany play the transatlantic card and accept a certain amount of tension with China and Russia? Will Germany accept that the golden age of flourishing in the shadow of U.S.-guaranteed security is over and that it will have to play a geopolitical role to make the liberal international order safe for a new era?

The alternative would be to stay the course, with Germany keeping its head down and hoping that the storms are going to pass without hurting its major interests. But in the new environment, such a passive stance is almost impossible. Power politics and hard power have not only returned to global politics, they also increasingly shape European politics.

Not only is the global landscape changing, the regional, European political landscape is changing as well. The United Kingdom’s decision to chart its own path is only the most visible part. Other countries are acting geopolitically as well—from France’s policies in the EU’s southern neighborhood to Poland investing heavily in its defense and regional projects such as the Three Seas Initiative. Turkey has become a much more active player in its region, partly in response to Russia’s new activism there.

The more the competition heats up, the more the space for Germany’s post-Cold War approach is shrinking. Keeping everyone guessing where the country stands is a game Merkel mastered. Yet, as the tensions over Nord Stream 2 and Huawei have demonstrated, muddling through will put Germany increasingly on a collision course with its friends and allies. And, worse, it risks weakening the liberal-democratic order on which Germany relies.

Germany needs a bolder vision as the holiday from geopolitics is over and it is not anymore embedded in a U.S.-guaranteed world order that allows it to put its business interests first. To continue its success story, Germany’s best option is to become a co-shaper of order itself—together with its main partners in Europe, North America, and Asia.