Germany Is Europe’s New Heavyweight. That’s A Good Thing.

By Matthieu Watson Santerre

“Poor old Germany. Too big for Europe, too small for the world.” — former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger

A united Germany has always proved a formidable force. This year marks 25 years since German reunification, and 70 years since the end of the Second World War.

A historical perspective is important in foreign policy. It can explain residual tensions from the Second World War in South-East Asia. It can explain fissures in the Middle East. German diplomacy in the twenty-first century is especially bound to history, as a recent panel at Harvard’s German-American Conference discussed. The link, perhaps more so than in other states, is strong and should not be ignored.

A quick look at nineteenth and twentieth century Europe gives a distinct picture of Germany. It shows a state bent on disrupting the international order.

Heir to the Prussian political unit, an army with a state attached to it, the nation that emerged united in 1871 was forged in war. The Germany which Bismarck had created defeated Austria-Hungary, Denmark, and France in three separate industrial slaughters to come of age. Truncated following defeat in the First World War and the 1919 Peace of Versailles, Germany united once more under military rule. This unification, under the heinous inhumanity of the Nazis, proved the greatest disruption to the international system in the twentieth century. Following military defeat, a united Germany was once more dismembered.

Until 1990, a united Germany had only occurred through war. Germany’s rise and fall followed a pattern of nationalistic warfare. It ended each time with dismemberment and defeat. But today, the great disrupter of the twentieth century, a strong and united Germany, has become the indispensable upholder of the twenty-first.

A united Germany exerts immense influence over the European continent. This has never been truer so far this century. Although it can be argued that the process of German reunification is still ongoing, notably economically, Germany is strong enough to be the European continent’s key player.

Whither Britain and France?

Europe’s two other traditional leading powers, the United Kingdom and France, have turned inwards, Britain more so than France. On the spectrum of introspection, Britain nears the self-effacing edge, while France lands in the middle.

The U.K., having escaped, as Dean Acheson, another former U.S. Secretary of State, said, “having lost an empire, and not yet found a role,” is suffering a bout of identity blues. The 2014 referendum on Scottish independence tested the notion of what it means to be British. The 2016 Brexit vote on Britain’s role within the European Union has now tested the notion of European belonging. Added to this are the experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, which have dampened a reflex for foreign intervention, diplomatic or military.

France, the other contender, does not suffer from the dampening that resulted from military involvement in Iraq; it abstained. For France, there is a sharper dichotomy between interior and exterior politics. President François Hollande, contrary to his image at home, where he is nicknamed flanby (a wobbly dessert — the kind that moves back and forth when flicked), has proven robust abroad.

For example, President Hollande has intervened in France’s former empire in Northern Africa, notably in Mali. The international effects of the Paris attacks on French foreign policy lay ahead. For now, France has intensified its air strikes in Syria. And President Hollande has been pursuing vigorous shuttle diplomacy between the P5+Germany and members of the Western Alliance. However, economic weakness, the constant need for reform, and no doubt the domestic effects of the Paris attacks (for now we know that the terrorists appear to be European — French and Belgian), will leave France turning towards introspection. This introspection will intensify as the 2017 French presidential election approaches. France is moving inwards at home, while pursuing strong diplomacy abroad. How robust remains to be seen.

Soft power and strong diplomacy

On an increasingly introspective continent, Germany is proving resolute in engaging the world. It is stepping into the vacuum left by Britain, and, to a lesser extent, France. At the same time, Germany is ever aware of its history and the special responsibility resulting from it. Its dominance has accordingly taken the form of soft power and strong diplomacy to uphold the liberal order.

Whereas, for the U.K., history has meant struggling with the three pillars of Commonwealth, the Anglo-American “special relationship,” and Europe, and has led to the renewed popularity of the little Englander, in Germany it has led to the primacy of diplomacy. Whereas, for France, history has meant a pride in the undefinable driving force that is grandeur, in Germany it has meant a special responsibility to uphold a classical ideal of Kantian liberalism. It is a policy based on lasting peace and prosperity.

Germany has proven a key player in the crises of our time, from the Crimean annexation by Russia to the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis. A diplomatically bold Germany is necessary to uphold the post-war liberal order, an international system that rests on the rule of law arbitrated through international institutions, and upheld by American military dominance. That order has channelled conflict into varying degrees of co-operation. It is a system which has provided peace — in a wide sense by avoiding a Third World War — and prosperity. Both are pillars of Kantian liberalism.

Germany is necessary to uphold the order wherever it is tested — especially when it is tested at Europe’s doorstep.

From what we know, Germany was bold in the Crimean annexation crisis in a way that the U.K. and U.S. chose not to be. German Chancellor Angela Merkel kept the channels of communication open with Russian President Vladimir Putin. She and Germany, learning from the Cold War experience, played the long game. Acutely aware of the dangers of escalation, Germany pursued economic and diplomatic tools with more vigour than any other member of the Western Alliance. The size of the German economy, and its strong linkages with Russia, meant its economic sanctions proved stronger, and had a greater domestic effect, than its other European partners’.

Britain wobbled on how far to restrict Russian influence in London’s immense financial sector, and France finally withheld, after much deliberation, the sale of two Mistral-class helicopter carriers. The United States’ sanctions focused mostly on select members of Russia’s oligarchy.

Western Powers have been involved in shoring up the Ukrainian state against implosion, both through military and civil service training, and with economic aid, but German diplomatic efforts were crucial in slowing down the conflict. It was Merkel who proved the heavy-weight at the Minsk Accord in February 2015, bringing Hollande along at the last minute.

In the unfolding Syrian refugee crisis, Germany has taken a leadership role coordinating the European response. It is a pragmatic response based on the assessment that the flow of refugees in Europe, the worst since the Second World War, cannot be stopped and should be managed. Against Britain’s resettlement of 20,000 refugees over four years, and the United States’ and France’s 30,000 over two, Germany has been accepting what will end up being hundreds of thousands of refugees. This is diplomatic boldness at its best.

Germany is stepping in where the United Kingdom, France, and the United States are less keen to engage. The increase in P5+Germany great power diplomacy recognises Germany’s importance. Nevertheless, Germany’s diplomatic power is just that: diplomatic. As a defeated nation in the Second World War, it was demilitarised along with Japan. Yet, whereas Japan, under the direction of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is seeking bolder diplomacy through neo-nationalism, and a great role for its Self-Defense Forces, military action is a non-player in German diplomacy.

The military might of the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, which is almost unique in its ability to project power throughout the world, is non-existent in Germany. German militarism, as a result of history, is dead. This gives German diplomacy part of its strength. It appears benign through a renunciation of unilateral military intervention. Its own security is effectively collective security; its military safeguard is NATO.

A bold, united Germany is a key partner in world affairs. It counters the U.K.’s and France’s varying introspection by providing European leadership on the European continent. A void filled by Germany in Europe is one that does not need to be fully filled by the United States.

For now, Britain and France have turned inwards. The U.S. may be in danger of doing so as well. Germany, strong and united, has become the indispensable upholder of the international world order. A force united, which paved the way to the past century’s inhumanities, will, in this century, uphold the international liberal order. The U.S. should encourage Germany’s new leadership role; the U.K. and France are no longer the sole leaders of Europe.

Matthieu Watson Santerre holds an MSc in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. He has worked for the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, and published several e-books, including In Through A Coloured Lens with Pat Watson. He also blogs at

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