Think Global, Act Regional

Germany is neither ‘new leader of the free world’ nor ‘captain of the European football team’.  The country’s global role can only unfold through Europe

By Timothy Garton Ash, Professor of European Studies, University of Oxford, Oxford


I was asked to write about the international role of a “new Germany”. But what does “new” mean? Since 1945? Since unification? Since Brexit and the election of Donald Trump led Chancellor Angela Merkel to observe that the times are “somewhat over” in which Germany could “fully” rely on others? Or since the German election brought the right-wing populist Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) into the Bundestag, with a shockingly large vote? 

The wise and much missed historian Fritz Stern famously wrote about “Five Germanys I Have Known”, the Weimar Republic being his first Germany and united Germany, his fifth. We are still in Stern’s fifth Germany. There has been no historical caesura since 3 October 1990 large enough to justify talking about a “new” Germany.

To consider the international role of the Federal Republic today is therefore to consider a gradual process of growing power and responsibility since 1990, partly as a result of Germany’s own policy and intentions, but also because of external developments which Germany did not intend and could only influence to a limited degree. The election of Donald Trump, the Brexit vote and Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Ukraine are obvious examples of such developments. But so, less obviously, is the eurozone. For the great irony of the history of the eurozone is that a project which was decisively advanced by the French and Italian leaders in 1989 / 90 in order to bind united Germany more closely into the European Union, and therefore preserve the leadership role of others, has in fact been one of the main forces pushing Germany into its unique leading role in Europe.


In an essay published in the New York Review of Books in 2013, I formulated the “new German question” thus: “can Europe’s most powerful country lead the way in building both a sustainable, internationally competitive eurozone and a strong, internationally credible European Union?” Since then, expectations have soared even higher. It is seriously debated in some quarters whether Chancellor Merkel is now the “leader of the free world”, a suggestion made as early as 2015 by the Die Zeit columnist Jochen Bittner, but more widely discussed since the Brexit vote and the election of Trump. I even saw an article in the New York Times suggesting she might help to mediate between the USA and North Korea. Like the Chancellor herself, I think this is greatly overdone.

Germany’s global role will emerge above all through Europe, and through Germany’s leading role in Europe. This was the conclusion of Frank- Walter Steinmeier’s excellent and admirably self-critical2014 review of German foreign policy, and nothing is likely to change it, at least in the next few years. Hans-Dietrich Genscher once said of German foreign policy “the more European it is, the more German it is”. Today one might add, “the more European it is, the more global it is”. The path to a global Germany leads through a global Europe. Of course Germany has its own distinct commercial interests, in China and elsewhere. But only in the wider European framework does that commercial relationship become also a strategic and political asset – or liability.

In this context, the familiar observation that the sharp distinction between domestic and foreign policy has increasingly broken down is more true than ever. That is the case, self-evidently, in the linked questions of refugees, immigration, and relations with the Middle East and the world of Islam. Germany cannot demonise Islam at home, in the manner of some AfD leaders, and imagine that has no consequences for its external relations with majority Muslim countries, including Turkey. Those relations in turn have an impact on minorities in Germany. Managing the flow of refugees to Germany involves securing the external border of the whole Schengen area, diplomacy in the wider Middle East and, as Germany’s G20 presidency usefully emphasized, development policy in sub- Saharan Africa.

It is also true in relation to the eurozone, which will constitute some 85 percent of the EU economy after Brexit. A key dimension of European power has always been its “soft power”, accurately defined by Joseph Nye as the power to attract. Magnet Europa, to recall Konrad Adenauer’s phrase, will only be magnetically attractive to its neighbors, and people across the world, if the eurozone can be enabled to flourish again, in southern Europe as well as northern. This is not a matter of economic theory or dogma. It is a question of what works. Some more pragmatic, results-oriented flexibility from Germany in relation to the eurozone is therefore a key component of building a stronger global Europe.

At the same time, one must hope that Germany will avoid what might be called the neo-Carolingian temptation. This is the tendency, sometimes detectable in countries immediately to the west of Germany, to argue somewhat along these lines: “With Brexit and Trump, the Anglo-Saxons are off on their own non-European trajectory, as de Gaulle always said they would be; the Poles, Hungarians and other East Europeans are falling back into their old authoritarian nationalist ways, as we always knew they would; therefore we must concentrate on building once again the right, tight core Europe of Charlemagne”.

This cannot be the right answer for Germany. What Richard von Weizsäcker once memorably called die Erlösung von der Mittellage, the salvation from the geopolitical curse of Germany’s central geographical position as the gift of post-1989 German and European unification, depends on Germany’s eastern neighbors being in the same economic, political and security communities as its western neighbors.

But nor can the neo-Carolingian solution be the right answer for Europe as a whole. How can one forge an effective European policy towards Russia without the full, constructive participation of Poland and the Baltic states? The impact of Brexit will be bad enough on the foreign policy capacity of the EU; it would be foolish in the extreme to spurn Prime Minister Theresa May’s promise that Britain, with troops newly stationed in Estonia, will remain fully involved in the security of Europe. 

The three main dimensions of state power are military, economic and soft power. German foreign policy is, for obvious reasons, particularly strong in the second and third dimensions (it has a notably well-developed cultural diplomacy), and reticent in the first. But can Germany be a serious global player, in the European context, unless it steps up its military spending towards the NATO target of two percent of GDP? Will German politics and public opinion allow that? Even if they do, Berlin will surely want to work very closely with those more used to projecting military power, such as France, Britain and the United States, while playing a leading role in the other two dimensions of power. 

If I had to summarize all this in a single metaphor, it would be that of the Global Europe football team. Germany may not be explicitly recognized as the captain or the coach. But in most great teams there is a special, central player who holds the whole team together, giving it direction, flexibility and strength. A player like Zinedine Zidane or Franz Beckenbauer. In short, Germany should be the Beckenbauer of Global Europe.