New Government, New Responsibilities: Will Merkel’s Team of Rivals Do Anything Differently?

It has become commonplace to refer to Germany as the “reluctant hegemon” – its own president Joachim Gauck asked if it was a “sleepwalking giant” in his recent Unity Day speech. The Grand Coalition sworn in this week represents the best chance for a change in course in a decade. Will Germany finally take up its responsibilities as a traditional world power?

German foreign policy has lately concentrated on eurozone management and shrugged off military aid requested by NATO allies in Libya, Mali, Syria and the Central African Republic. But the revitalized composition and foreign policy agenda of the new government signal a more assertive role in European and world affairs. This year’s legislative contract on foreign policy is titled “Germany’s Responsibility in the World.” Merkel has also reinvigorated the Defense Ministry’s morale and prestige by placing a major party figure, Ursula Von der Leyen, at its head.

By contrast, in 2005 the same Grand Coalition reduced German foreign policy goals to being “in the service of peace.” In response to taunts that Germany has become a big Switzerland, the new posture is now stated in black on white: “We want to actively help shape the global order.”

Germans usually reserve such aspirations to describe the rise of the rest: Brazil, South Africa or Iran. In other words, they finally count themselves among the rising powers – what Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s old boss Gerhard Schröder used to call German medium-sized power (Mittelmacht).

The 2013 platform announces the expansion of “military instruments” and “military capacity” in EU and NATO contexts. Notably, this is not only for “crisis prevention” but also for “participation in conflicts.” Defense Minister Von der Leyen, moreover,born in Brussels, is a die-hard European integrationist who envisions a Europe where social policy is harmonized and a real European government will be held accountable to the European Parliament.

While anchored in the EU and NATO, however, the Berlin Republic shows other signs that it is growing into its shoes. The “semi-sovereign” Federal Republic of the postwar period has established its sovereignty beyond doubt. The Grand Coalition formalizes this more assertive Germany, more activist and self-assured, and less beholden to traditional expectations.

For example, the Franco-German relationship that was deemed “indispensible” in the 2005 agreement is described in 2013’s platform as merely “unique.” Ten years after “Old Europe’s” common front against the American-led invasion of Iraq, Germany has begun to question French wisdom of where to exert military pressure too. Libya and Mali were hard calls, but Syria and the Central African Republic were not.

The new platform makes a similar gesture of independence vis-à-vis the USA. Transatlantic trust in 2005 had been tested by the failure to find WMD in Iraq, and the platform then mentioned the need to revive a “relationship of trust”. But that pales in comparison to the feeling of betrayal over NSA spying, and in 2013, the government uses sharper language to demand a “credible and verifiable” intelligence mechanism with the United States.

But will this newfound declaration of security independence only be expressed by asserting Germany’s right to abstention and indignation? There is certainly no change in German aversion to military solutions. Willy Brandt’s adage that no war should again emanate from German soil is still in vigor.

For now, the kinetics of German foreign policy remains, in the government’s words, “the means of diplomacy, peaceful conflict resolution and development cooperation in the foreground.” When President Horst Köhler was pushed to resign in 2010 after defending the military protection of “free trade routes,” the most telling aspect was what he left unsaid: that no consensus exists to use the armed forces for much else.

In that sense, the coalition agreement is an unsatisfactory answer to President Gauck’s October 3rd question: how can Germany remain a “spectator of world events” if it is in a position to “secure” freedom, peace and well-being? The new German government does not pledge to play a role in doing the “securing”, per se, but rather in training local police and justice authorities in the arts of security. Germany is making the same commitments that have always been on offer: ”building democracy, the rule of law and a capable administration.”

The new German brand of soft power should not be underestimated. Indeed, As France digs itself deeper in post-Mali chaos and suffers casualties in the Central African Republic, its misadventures reassure Germans in their decisions.

When the war powers backed down on Syria they justified German misgivings. They also confirmed Germany’s advantageous position of non-combatant, allowing it to be a champion of religious minorities in the Levant while warning against the spreading Muslim Brotherhood influence. And, perhaps, to eroding the French lead in extraction and infrastructure contracts in developing economies in the Muslim-majority world. The policy of absence from military action is not the absence of policy.

This is not to say Germany will simply allow others to make mistakes and clean up after them. But foreign policy under the Grand Coalition will be less of a soft touch and will have more of a national-interest edge. Even Defense Minister Von der Leyen may not convince the new Bundestag to alter its strict oversight of overseas deployment, further distancing Germany from the position of military ally. And the government’s message leading up to this week’s EU summit was to loosen the binding nature of Europeanizing of military resources.

But Merkel recognizes she cannot have it both ways in the future. When France wanted help to make Syria safe for Syrians earlier this year, the German contribution to world peace came not by shaping the international environment but by granting temporary haven to Syrian refugees. The new coalition agreement suggests an end to the nearly-free rider approach of development aid and asylum.

The new government could seize this moment to live up to its real strengths as a broker and bridge-builder, actively exploiting its network of intermediaries and party foundations for early warning and crisis prevention around the world. Germany’s unique contribution to international security is more self-determined than it has been in 65 years, and clearer than it has been in the decade since the Berlin Republic first started to find its own voice.