German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin on February 4, 2015. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch
German Chancellor Angela Merkel greets Malta's Prime Minister Joseph Muscat during a welcome ceremony at the Chancellery in Berlin on February 4, 2015. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch

Germany needs partnerships for leadership role

By JD Bindenagel Time of article published Feb 6, 2015

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TWENTY-FIVE years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the world order we have come to know is unravelling. The severe economic crisis that has engulfed the world for the past six years may be fading, but is not over yet.

Over the course of this crisis, the economic foundation for German leadership has become clearer than ever. Germany has shouldered the brunt of the rescue of crisis countries in the European south, but also insisted on the strict implementation of reform measures. With the French economy weakened, Germany’s leading position in the EU is now well established, although it has created a backlash in Greece as well as in France and other European countries.

All of this underscores the need for a significant role for Germany internationally. It is okay for Germany to lead – not alone, but in concert with its EU and North American partners.

Any other form of leadership such as a Sonderweg (Special German Path) – is plainly unimaginable. This is so not because of Germany’s past, but because of the strong multilateral tradition of post-World War II German foreign policy.

Germany’s core answer to managing international issues is the defence of international norms and acceptance of more international responsibility. Despite some inevitable naysayers, Germans are finding international acceptance for their role in managing the euro zone crisis, building consensus in dealing with the Russian-Ukrainian War and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Germany’s international responsibility is inextricably linked to the German-American relationship. This relationship, however, is undergoing a significant change as the younger generation assumes leadership. Not only is a common experience missing for younger Germans, but America’s relationship with Germany also faces a crisis of trust.

Rather than remembering Americans liberating Germany from Nazi rule and safeguarding its freedom against Soviet ambitions, policy issues that dominated the debate since 2000 have divided Germany and the US.


Germany rejected the 2003 Iraq War, Guantanamo Prison and torture. Trust took another hit earlier when the US refused to join the International Criminal Court and the National Security Agency affair that disrespected data privacy undermined relations. All of a sudden, the question “What shared values?” has become a real question.

Policy differences often undermine a sense of common values. Perhaps no policy difference is more profound than this one: debates over security in the US are often cast in political/military terms, whereas Europeans emphasise diplomatic approaches. Likewise, freedom for Americans is in large part freedom from the state, whereas Europeans tend to see the state as a guarantor of freedom.

As a matter of fact, Germans and Americans have long talked about common values without addressing the fact that we mean different things when referring to values and we have thus glossed over underlying problems. This has prevented us from having the honest debate we should be having in a genuine partnership.

Americans as well have grown increasingly wary of Europe. US politicians complain about insufficient burden-sharing. In the younger generation, many people, including President Barack Obama, have no roots and family ties to Europe.

Germany, for its part, has been conveniently able to accept a relatively safe world policed by America, while shifting blame on to Washington for the messiness of managing conflicts.

Americans understand that leadership comes with criticism. Germany is now experiencing similar “costs” of its leadership, including criticism of its emphasis on structural reform policies as well as of its determination to maintain sanctions for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That points to a new commonality in US-German relations: Germany is realising that it will have to bear more costs for leadership.

A key question is whether the Germans will continue to see the US as its best partner. The answer will depend on whether or not the two countries, in tackling global challenges, adopt a pragmatic approach in policy co-operation that mutually benefits both partners’ interests.

That will determine whether the relationship rooted in emotional ties, dominated by the sense of unbounded solidarity in the generation of leaders that is now passing, will shift to a useful and productive one in the emerging generation.

JD Bindenagel is a former US ambassador and currently the Henry Kissinger professor. This article initially appeared on The Globalist. Follow The Globalist on Twitter: @Globalist

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