The Berlin Pulse > 2017 > Erlanger

Between Ambition and Ambiguity

What do we make of Germany’s much cited increased international responsibility? What is it exactly that the rest of us want Germany to do?  And what do the Germans themselves want– or are willing – to do?

By Steven Erlanger, Chief Diplomatic Correspondent in Europe, The New York Times

The perennial questions around Germany are perhaps best left unanswered, because there can be little consensus. The embrace of Nazism marks Germany as a special case, and those crimes must never be forgotten. But using a terrible past as a pretext not to act responsibly in the present has begun to wear on Germany’s allies, who see an essentially pacifist, reluctant hegemon at the heart of Europe that too often still thinks of itself as a kind of Switzerland – obsessed with money, sanctimonious about its neighbors, neutered by history.

What seems clearer with time is that Germans themselves are asking these same questions about their role in the world. And if their answers, as reflected in the latest opinion survey commissioned by Körber Foundation in October 2017, are not always comforting in this period of flux, they are fundamentally rational and democratic.

Above all, they illustrate hesitation to embrace their country’s assigned new international role. More than half of Germans still counsel restraint, while only about 40 percent think Germany should take more responsibility in international affairs. This is consistent with similar results in November of last year, after the election of Mr. Trump.


With worries over migration, terrorism and Eurozone debt, skepticism about whether the European Union is “on the right path” remains strong, and nearly 60 percent believe that the bloc in which Germany has placed its future is heading in the wrong direction. Despite the new impetus supposedly given to the “Franco-German couple” by the election of Emmanuel Macron, only 12 percent of Germans regard that partnership as most important to the existence and further development of the European Union, evidence of lasting doubts about whether the French conception of the bloc fits the German one. For example, 54 percent of Germans oppose Mr. Macron’s idea of a Eurozone finance minister, even though Chancellor Angela Merkel has viewed the idea positively. Only 39 percent of Germans share her view, perhaps believing that a French minister would want to spend German money elsewhere, rather than imposing budget discipline on others. And that despite the clear desire of German leaders to rediscover a reliable French partner to share responsibility – and blame – for European leadership, especially with Britain leaving.

General German ambivalences about the use of force also remain strong. According to a survey of European attitudes by the Pew Research Center earlier this year, two-thirds of Germans approved of NATO, an increase of some 15 percent from 2015. Nonetheless, an astounding 53 percent did not believe that Germany should provide military force to defend a NATO ally if it is attacked by Russia, despite Article 5 and the commitment to collective defense that protects Germany, too. Only 40 percent of Germans would support such aid, the lowest among the countries surveyed. At the same time, some 65 percent of Germans were confident that the United States would come to their aid in any conflict with Russia.

Still, the present survey by the Körber Foundation found that 52 percent of Germans now consider relations with Washington to be “somewhat bad,” and 88 percent believe that priority for future defense cooperation should be with other European countries as opposed to Washington. And although 71 percent consider ensuring the security of Germany and its allies as the most important task for German involvement in international affairs, only 32 percent support an increase in defense spending. Instead, half of the respondents believe the current level, which amounts to 1.26 percent of GDP this year, is fine, despite Ms. Merkel’s commitment to raise defense spending in line with NATO pledges to two percent of GDP by 2024, a figure not reached since the beginning of the 1990s.

There is strong evidence that Germans rather see a special role for themselves in protecting the environment and combatting poverty in countries likely to send illegal migrants their way. Some 67 percent believe protecting the environment is the most important international task for Germany, followed by the protection of human rights worldwide (64 %), regulating and reducing illegal immigration to Germany (54 %); and improving living conditions in developing countries (49 %).


These figures suggest ambivalence at the least and some confusion about the nature of Germany’s role in the world, in particular with respect to its alliances and military commitments. They reflect a nostalgia or a kind of willed blindness to the shape of a world where the “peace dividend” after the collapse of the Soviet Union has disappeared and Russia is annexing territory and meddling in the elections of the United States and Europe. They underscore, perhaps, the unwillingness of German politicians to countenance the use of German troops in clear combat roles, as opposed to air-refueling and training, making the German participation in the 1999 air war over Kosovo look more like an exception than the beginning of a new commitment to alliance solidarity.

Two years ago, then Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier gave me a great honor and asked me to speak to the ministry’s yearly conference of ambassadors, urging me to be “a critical friend.” I already felt Germany drifting away from the United States, even under President Obama, and I said then: “There is a whiff of moral superiority coming off the Spree, and it is deeply unpleasant.”

That whiff is only stronger now, under President Trump, and with the fragmentation of the major political parties in September’s election. With the SPD now in opposition, and both AfD and Die Linke represented in the Bundestag, Mr. Trump represents an easy metaphor for what some perceive as deep American moral and political decline. They see him, like the Chinese and the Russians, as a symptom of that decline, instead of a temporary aberration or even a corrective. In this context, it is of course telling that Germans regard dealing with refugees as the most important foreign-policy challenge the country faces, more important than relations with Trump’s America, Turkey’s Erdoğan or even North Korea. Only some eight percent see the challenge in Putin’s Russia.

Besides German public opinion, the present volume gathers excellent short essays from a remarkable range of people who have thought deeply, and care deeply, about Germany and its future. Those are valuable perspectives on how Germany can find its international role between ambition and ambiguity.

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