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18 July, 2016  ▪  Anna Korbut

A subtle balancing act

What kind of a leader is Germany between the US, China and Russia? How do German politicians view their country’s role in the world? The Ukrainian Week spoke about this to Stephen Szabo, Executive Director of the Washington-based Transatlantic Academy

The nature of German power. Germany’s diplomatic strength is based on its economic power, not military strength. Its diplomatic strength comes out of its ability to use its economic power to leverage other countries, as well as to provide aid. Two examples would be Greece and the eurozone issue. And, of course, the Russian sanctions issue where Germany took the major lead.

Whether this will be changing in view of the current challenges - that’s the key question which the Germans haven’t really answered. There are small signs that they will increase defense spending a little bit, and the German public supports this a bit more. But that’s still pretty small.

The result is a geo-economic power facing a confrontation with the military power in Russia. At this point, they have to rely on NATO and the US for the military backup. I don’t see it changing too much: there is a deep aversion in the German public to the use of military force and tools. Plus, it takes away their resources from economic policies. I tend to think that Germany will continue to ride on American military power when it’s necessary.

Is there a consensus in Germany on what kind of a leader it should be? Angela Merkel represents a large part of public opinion in Germany today. She has been crucial to the German position on, say, sanctions against Russia. Also, Merkel is not happy about Nord Stream 2 project. But she probably felt that she had to let this play out to keep the coalition with the SPD going. She might be still hoping that the European Commission will somehow block this. Why is this happening? Simple: Gerhard Schröder, his role in Gazprom, influence in the SPD, and the interests of German business to continue building long-term business relationship with Russia. SPD also has a long-standing built-in culture of willingness to work with Russia after ostpolitik.

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So, as long as she stays chancellor, Germany’s policy on that will stay firm. And the German public will provide support in that because, even if the sanctions are costing them a lot, they still feel that it’s important to make the point on what the Russians have done in Ukraine. If, however, she had to leave too early, a change in the position would be possible. What we’re seeing right now is the SPD beginning their campaign for next year (German federal election will take place in late summer to mid-fall of 2017 – Ed.). The SPD are trying to find an independent profile from the grand coalition with the CDU. They only have around 20% in the polls and are desperate at this point.

Germany and Russia. The Russians were very surprised by Western unity on sanctions and the Minsk issue. But Vladimir Putin probably still thinks the West will not hold together in the long run, he’s playing the longer game and thinks he can outlast the rest of the West. Germany has been the solid pillar that’s held the West in terms of sanctions together. Putin is probably hoping that Merkel will somehow be destabilized in the next couple of years. If she’s replaced, the sanctions will probably get weaker and maybe even end.

In the past six months, however, the US has been Germany’s biggest trade partner; Germany invests a lot there. France had been the top trade partner for years before. Also, economic relationship with China is probably more important for Germany than that with Russia. Still, there is substantial energy dependence on Russia. In addition to that, big companies in Germany still see a long-term future with Russia. They’ve been there since Catherine the Great, so it’s nothing new.

Germany and the US. It’s been clear for a while that Germany has become the key partner for the US in Europe, especially as Britain and France have had their problems and have not taken leadership roles in the past couple of years. President Obama has made it very clear that Brexit would create a major problem for the US-British relationship and would clearly lead to a stronger reliance on Berlin. What we’ll probably see developing now is a much closer Germany-American relationship in Europe.

At the same time, Washington has been pulling back from the European focus and Germany took the lead. That will probably continue to be the case, unless Russia escalates in Ukraine or somewhere else in Europe. As long as the situation remains relatively stable in Europe, I don’t see a major US re-entry into the European scene, even though I think it’s necessary for the US to re-engage. Donald Trump would definitely not do that. Hillary Clinton might be willing to re-engage in Europe. But the US has a lot of other things to worry about. Generally, the future of Germany depends on the future of Europe. For the US, the future of Europe is not as existential as it is to Germany.

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Germany in Europe. The question is whether the Germans will take a stronger lead, and whether Europe will accept that – Europeans don’t like to be led by one country. A lot of problems could develop out of that. That’s why the Germans were worried about Brexit– that would leave them out there in the open, given that France is very weak right now, so Germany becomes the only leader. When it leads, however, everybody gets nervous. You can see that not only on Ukraine, but also on the refugee issue, the eurozone, the deal with Turkey. A lot of things the Germans have tried to do have led to very strong reactions. So a good question to be asked is whether Europe can be led? It’s a very diverse area and with various national cultures, interests. The federalist option seems to be dying. The next ten years in Europe will be a very uncertain period. By the way, it is extremely important that Ukraine survives and succeeds. If Ukraine falters or the Russians can win out in Ukraine, then we’re talking about a very different and dangerous Europe.

I really worry about German-Polish relations right now – these have been crucial to unity on Russia policy over the last couple of years. If the Poles decide that they want to take a more anti-German line, that would be very dangerous for undermine solidarity over Russia.

Overall, Germany is a central European power. It has to develop some sort of constructive relations with its partners. It doesn’t like what’s going on in Poland or Hungary, but at the end of the day there will probably be some way of working together. The Germans can’t afford to have a hostile Eastern Europe on their borders. It’s also important to them economically. But finding that way would be difficult.

That goes back to the question of Germany leadership – if it gets too strong as a leader, not only the Greeks, but the Poles, Hungarians and others will get nervous. So, it’s a delicate balancing act: they need to have leadership within the European context. If it only becomes leadership only within a bilateral or national context, you’ll have problems with suspicions and concerns about German power in Europe.

There is still a lot of concern that Germany will return to the equidistancing position between the US and Russia, especially if it becomes more independent and Europe begins to unravel, while Germany has to live with Russia.


Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy (TA), based in the Washington office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF). Prior to the founding of the TA, Dr. Szabo had been with the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, where he served as Academic and Interim Dean as well as Professor of European Studies. Prior to that he had served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National Defense University and Chairman of West European Studies at the Foreign Service Institute, U.S. Department of State. He has authored a number of books, including Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics (2014), Parting Ways: The Crisis in German-American Relations (2004) and The Diplomacy of German Unification (1992).

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