German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced on January 30th: “As correct as the policy of military restraint is, it must not be misunderstood as a culture of standing aside.” In a full-page interview under the headline “Germany and the World,” released later the same day, Steinmeier emphasized: “Germany is too large, just to comment on world politics.”
When asked if that meant use of military force as the “ultima ratio” (last resort) of foreign policy, he warned: “No foreign policy in the world can banish the ultima ratio from its political thinking.” In response to questions about America’s diminished sway in the world, Steinmeier added: “The US has not lost its interests in Europe and the world. But America cannot be everywhere. Whether we like it or not, that shifts more of the responsibility for security in Europe onto our shoulders.” With the hundred-year anniversary of the start of World War I just months away, Germany’s announcement of its intention to rearm is a very problematic development.
Germany has been the big economic winner since the Financial Crisis began in 2008. While the rest of Europe is suffering 12% unemployment, the export-led growth has driven down German unemployment from 8.4% to a record low of 5.1%. As the architect of the euro currency, the highly competitive German manufacturing enjoys the equivalent of a 25% undervalued currency. Coupled with growing demand for high-quality goods from emerging economies such as China, Germany has boosted its international competitiveness, according to a study by the World Economic Forum.
A key factor to sustaining this prosperity has been the German Bundesbank’s control of the political and economic policies of the European Union through its dominance of the Frankfurt-based European Central Bank (ECB). Roughly 40% of German exports go to the 253 million in the other European countries that rely on the euro currency. But despite this German prosperity, the Bundesbank, through its control of the ECB, has forced the weakest continental economies of Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, and Spain (PIIGS) to implement austerity spending cuts that have resulted in dramatically higher unemployment. With the Financial Crisis continuing, the ECB is now beginning to force the traditionally strong economies of France and the Dutch to also pursue austerity cuts.
But across Europe, nationalist parties are now uniting with the French National Front to challenge German dominance. Recent polls indicate the right wing could win control of the European Parliamentary elections in May. Such a victory would allow the nationalists to wrench control of the ECB away from Germany by appointing the President of the European Union and Board Members of the ECB. Loss of ECB control would represent an existential threat to Germany’s predatory economic advantage.
Germany has pursued a relatively unassertive foreign policy since its defeat of the Third Reich at the end of World War II. Despite being utterly destroyed, occupied, and partitioned, West Germany’s highly competitive manufacturing sector was quickly rebuilt as a bulwark against communism. When their arch enemy, the Soviet Union, collapsed in 1990, Germany reunified with the East, and the modern industrial and economic powerhouse of 81 million people emerged. But what did not survive two crushing defeats was “Lebensraum,” the Teutonic belief that it was the inevitable law of nature for all healthy and vigorous peoples of superior races to territorially expand to displace people of inferior races.
Through the Cold War and the modern era, the United States military, economic, and political power guaranteed free access to sea-lanes and security for Germany and the European Union (EU). The American military umbrella acted as a substantial subsidy that allowed Germany to maximize its focus on economic ascendency. But Germany is increasingly aware U.S. security guarantees of global order may lack credibility. To Germany, the Obama administration’s disastrous Arab Spring initiative, loss in Iraq, humiliation in Syria, and pending defeat in Afghanistan have created an international power vacuum as the American foreign policy appears to be in a major retrenchment.
Germany now finds herself once again confronted in the East by a resurgent Russian economic and military capability under President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB leader. Instability in North Africa and the Middle East has resulted in the European Union being forced to increasingly rely on Russia for oil and gas imports. Russia’s state-controlled energy company Gazprom enjoys a near-monopoly position supplying natural gas to the EU. After attempts to economically align with the Europe Union, Russia threatened to suspend natural gas shipments to Ukraine this winter. Such an action would also harm Germany, which receives 25% of Russian gas via a Ukraine pipeline.
A BBC World Service poll found that Germany is the most favorably viewed nation in the world. Of 26,000 people surveyed across 25 countries, 59% felt that the European nation has a constructive influence upon the globe. This positive perception is built on respect for Germany’s robust economic recovery and an understanding that the German Constitution limits the number of troops in the standing defense force and prohibits the Bundeswehr, the nation’s federal defense force, from being used inside Germany’s borders or anywhere Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht had previously occupied.
The New York Times recently quoted Germany’s Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere: “For decades, we Germans have benefited from the fact that our partners gave us the feeling of reliable security … Now we are in a position and have the duty, even, to make our impact felt.” In the past, when Germans started talking in the same sentence about doing their duty and making an impact, other countries were wise to be concerned.