Is Germany ready to assume a global role?

Far from the main events — the balloons, the speeches and the 25th-anniversary celebrations of the fall of the Wall — last weekend I joined a panel discussion about the future of Europe, as one does so often in Germany. Asked to say a few words about “threats to the West,” I spoke about the relative weakness of NATO, about the failures of European foreign policy, about Russia’s use of money and disinformation to divide Europe and the United States.

These are all subjects that many outside Germany now debate quite often. The crowd and the other panelists nodded — and then almost immediately changed the subject. Instead of NATO, the German audience wanted to discuss genetically modified food and chickens washed in chlorinated water. If the transatlantic trade treaty under negotiation is ever passed, many speakers said they feared that these things might be forced upon German citizens by U.S. corporations. That, to them, was the greatest threat to the Western alliance.

It made for a stark contrast. Over by the Brandenburg Gate, Angela Merkel was acting like the major world figure that everybody outside of Germany assumes her to be. Alongside the mayor of Berlin, the chancellor congratulated Germans on the role they had played in the peaceful, democratic revolutions of 1989 — those events that prove “we can change things for the better” — and expressed the hope that others in Syria, Ukraine and elsewhere would one day enjoy the same transformation.

A few days later, Merkel returned, once again, to her role as the West’s chief negotiator with Russia. Since late last spring, Germany — not the European Union, and certainly not the United States — has convened all of the important meetings, pushed through sanctions and conducted most of the diplomacy designed to allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to “de-escalate,” or to “give him an off ramp” or whatever formulation is currently fashionable. Although it isn’t clear that this diplomatic effort has borne fruit, no one doubts that Germany has played a central role and will continue to do so.

No one doubts it — except, of course, the Germans. As the United States began to play a greater world role in the mid-20th century, a class of politicians, civil servants and journalists emerged who were willing to think about the world, act in it and write about it. No parallel class has yet emerged in Germany, a country that would prefer not to lead, thank you very much. My panel was just an insignificant example, but when I described the experience to a range of people, almost all nodded in agreement. “When I think of politics,” a German friend told me, “I think about my neighborhood, streetlights, construction permits. Not foreign countries.” Of course Germans want to talk about the grave threat posed by transatlantic trade, another Berliner told me: It’s a lot easier to stop chlorinated chickens than it is to stop the Kremlin.

This national dislike of grand strategy is reflected in opinion polls. Support for sanctions against Russia — the policy Merkel has pushed hard — was quite low in Germany until the Malaysia Airlines crash gave the policy an emotional lift. Even now, the support for a “greater world role for Germany” is higher than it used to be but still not overwhelming. More than half oppose the suggestion that NATO should move some of its bases to the eastern edge of the alliance, where they might actually help deter Russian aggression.

Merkel and her cabinet are now caught in an odd trap. France and Italy are struggling to fix their weak economies. Britain is struggling to decide whether it wants to stay in Europe at all. There isn’t a strong E.U. foreign policy, in part because Germany hasn’t wanted to create one. This makes Merkel the de facto spokesman for Europe — as well as the chancellor of a Germany that doesn’t want to be the spokesman for anything. How long can that paradox last?

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