Since the end of World War II, German foreign policy has been based on two pillars. One is commitment to the transatlantic community through its NATO membership and strong bilateral relations with the United States, while the other is its staunch support for the European Union integration process and the intensification of Franco-German relations through myriad multilateral and bilateral channels.
In order for Germany to leave behind its Nazi past, be exonerated from its previous crimes, and gain legitimacy in the eyes of its neighbors, leaders of mainstream German political parties, namely, Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, have taken great pains to prove their country's commitment to the transatlantic community and EU integration. If Germany could pursue a pro-EU and pro-Atlanticist foreign policy at the same time, the project of rebuilding the German national identity on the basis of secular, cosmopolitan, multicultural, and liberal-democratic values would be much easier to accomplish.
Rather than weakening this consensus, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent reunification of Germany in 1990 have further strengthened these characteristics of German foreign policy. This effect has continued in this manner despite the way the gradual estrangement of the U.S. from Europe in the absence of the existential Soviet threat and Germany’s increasing power capabilities in the wake of its reunification might ease the way for Germany to play hegemonic roles in the middle of Europe and increasingly adopt realpolitik attitudes in its “normalization” process.
Germany seeking right balance
Over the last quarter century, alternative voices in Germany arguing in favor of the “normalization” of German foreign policy have not been able to take the center stage. Europeans have mainly failed in their attempts to successfully cope with the security problems in the continent absent the U.S. NATO has preserved its primacy and the U.S. remained committed to European security. In the struggle between the “Europeanists” and “Atlanticists,” Germany has tried to do its best to strike the right balance.
Whether the issues at stake were strengthening the EU’s strategic autonomy vis-a-vis NATO, speeding up the EU integration process in a more supranational manner, institutional cooperation between the EU and NATO, accommodating Russia in European security order as a great power, or supporting the globalization of NATO in the name of securing the American commitment to European security order, Germany has primarily adopted midway positions very much reflective of the gist of the postwar era consensus in German strategic thinking.
Liberal world order
Germany has immensely benefited from the postwar liberal order in Europe and beyond and tried to do its best to ensure that it would continue uninterruptedly. As a civilian power deriving its wealth and power from free trade and the enlargement of the liberal world order around the world, Germany has paid close attention to whether the U.S. would remain committed to the liberal world order and whether President Vladimir Putin's Russia would see its future inside the West or the rejuvenation of the Russian empire dressed up in realpolitik clothes.
Defense cuts in Europe rattling US
Germany had its most important crisis with the U.S. in the post-Cold War era during the first term of President George W. Bush, during which neoconservatives largely shaped American foreign policy. It is noteworthy that Gerhard Schroeder won the parliamentary elections in Germany on the ticket of anti-Americanism around the same time. Even though German leaders and people breathed a sigh of relief in unison when Barack Obama moved to the White House, certain structural factors have continued to mar the transatlantic cohesion. Obama's adoption of multilateralism did not change the fact that the United States has grown quite uneasy with the continuing defense cuts in Europe and that it began seeing East Asia as more vital for its national security interests.
US interests shift to Asia-Pacific
It was Obama’s Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who first voiced the “pivot to Asia” strategy in an influential article published in Foreign Policy magazine in 2011, and Obama’s Defense Secretary Robert Gates who continuously warned European allies of the negative consequences of their reluctance to increase defense spending. For the Obama team, the picture was quite clear: If the European allies wanted to be taken seriously by the U.S., they would need to increase defense spending and take on more security responsibilities in Europe and its peripheries. Obama made it clear that the 21st century would be shaped more by the developments taking place in the Asia-Pacific region than Europe and the Middle East. The sooner the European allies adjusted themselves to this reality, the better.
Common liberal values at stake
The British decision to withdraw from the EU and the electoral victory of Trump in the U.S. presidential elections seem to have aggravated German concerns. For the first time in the last 75 years, the U.S. and the United Kingdom elected leaders who seriously questioned the foundational pillars of the liberal world order, from which Germany derived immense benefits. This seems to explain why Chancellor Angela Merkel encouraged Trump not to overlook the common liberal democratic values underpinning the transatlantic alliance. In the face of Trump’s salvos against the liberal order and Brexit, many commentators have rushed to the conclusion that Merkel is now the only leader capable of defending the moral foundations of the liberal order against the rising appeal of authoritarianism and populism across the globe.
In the short speech she recently delivered in Munich while campaigning for September’s parliamentary elections, Merkel unequivocally stated that Germany and European allies in general can no longer entrust their security with the good intentions of the Anglo-Saxon allies. The message is that the time has finally come for Europeans to prove their strategic maturity by strengthening the EU integration process, and, if possible, endow the EU with strong institutional capabilities in the fields of foreign policy, security, and defense.
Merkel seems to be supported in this endeavor by the majority of German politicians, and most notably by Martin Schultz of the Social Democracy Party, who will be her rival in the upcoming parliamentary elections, as well as the new French President Emanuel Macron, whose election win in his country was owing to his pro-EU integration, globalization, and anti-populism ticket.
Merkel got to spend quite some time with President Trump recently on the occasion of the NATO summit in Brussels and the G7 summit in Rome. Trump took these opportunities to urge European allies to radically increase their military spending to 2 percent of their GDPs and allow NATO to formally join the international coalition against Daesh.
European support for transatlantic security
Trump’s aversion to multilateral solutions to environmental problems, particularly global warming, also occupied the agenda of the Rome summit. Even though NATO’s European allies acquiesced to such American demands, it is no secret that Germany and the U.S. hold different position on such issues. From the German perspective, Germany and other European allies have been contributing to transatlantic security by other means, notably development aid and civilian power instruments.
Besides, despite the deterioration of security environment across the continent recently, Europeans are still quite reluctant to agree to the transfer of huge sums of money from social and economic sectors to the military one.
It remains to be seen whether Merkel’s latest speech will produce a revolutionary impact on the strengthening of the EU integration process in a more autonomous fashion or go down as an inconsequential moment during the electoral campaign in Germany.
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