The Berlin Republic: An Independent Germany Faces the 21st Century


With the era of Germany’s role as Cold War protectorate receding into history, the Federal Republic has steadily gained in confidence and assertiveness. It is growing into its large shoes, acting less beholden to traditional expectations and engaging in more independent reasoning. Germany’s recovery of self-confidence is leading to the gradual discernment of its unique role in world affairs. To paraphrase Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Germany’s friends and allies need not fear its “inaction” and should begin the learning process of how to engage Germany on its own terms. This winter’s venting of transatlantic dissatisfaction is healthier than the alternative of festering silence. What was true about European integration also goes for transatlantic relations. The era of “integrationby- stealth” is past, so the case for cooperation needs to be made directly to Congress, the Bundestag and to the German and US publics.

For decades after the end of the second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany, with Bonn as its capital, was known as a “semisovereign” state. Its defining traits – corporatism, federalism, strong institutional veto points – habituated German governments to cooperation at both subnational and international levels – from the federal constitution through the European Union (EU) and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) treaties. Germany’s “reflexively multilateral” foreign policy gained the trust of fellow Europeans and the rest of the world in record time. Moreover, it accomplished this all while  under Allied occupation. The contribution to international security came from its economic and monetary stability – and by hosting troops and weapons. West German ballast kept a divided Europe on an even keel.

This role was sometimes deferential, but it was never apolitical: postwar foreign policy has existed in a state of perpetual tension between the two World Wars’ seemingly contradictory lessons: “Nie wieder Krieg” (“never again war”) on the one hand, and “Nie wieder Auschwitz,” on the other. Indeed, in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s speeches on the EU campaign trail and before the US Chamber of Commerce in May, she emphasized this year’s 100th and 75th anniversaries of the starts of those two wars, both as a way of prefacing her Ukraine policy and to explain Germany’s cautious stance towards military options – what former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called a “culture of military restraint.”

This belies a critical new development: German governments in the 21st century will be much more likely to question the judgment calls of their friends’ military deployment, fiscal policy, sanctions regimes, and, of course, intelligence community practices – issues that they previously considered outside their remit. German politicians now recognize that their power has increased relative to European partners, and their evaluation of American power is ever more nuanced. This reassessment concerns basic questions like: why should we leave Africa to the French? Part of Germany’s charm, it has come to realize, is that there are ample roles to be played just by the default good fortune of not being either France or the US!

The world should expect to hear a more vocal expression of Germany’s national interests around the globe – trade, regional stability and human rights – and of its strong commitment to the international legal order. This past winter witnessed the busiest frenzy of internal German debate over which leading politician could articulate the most robust vision of how to use German power to help shape the world order in its own image. But it is easy to get carried away with the headlines and personality clashes: Is Merkel 3.0 truly a different foreign policy animal than her earlier incarnations? Or, do the restraints that Germany places on itself conspire to keep it artificially “small,” as President Joachim Gauck put it in his Reunification Day speech last year? Although this is the third governing coalition led by Chancellor Merkel, she is only the 2nd Federal Chancellor to rule from Berlin and not Bonn.