Sunday, March 22, 2015

The New Assertive Germany

By Joseph Puder 

The one area Germany has been particularly docile in is building a military presence in Europe and beyond.  Although Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr, intervened in 1995 in the former Yugoslavia as part of a humanitarian mission, it has been reluctant to send its army elsewhere. Now, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told the Welt Am Sunntag newspaper on Sunday (March 8, 2015) that forming an EU army would be one of the best ways for the bloc to defend its values, as well as its borders. Juncker posited that, “An army like this would help us better coordinate our foreign and defense policies, and to collectively take on Europe’s responsibilities in the world.” He added, “Europe’s image has suffered dramatically and also in terms of foreign policy, we don’t seem to be taken entirely seriously.” Britain and France reject the idea of an EU army, fearing it will jeopardize NATO. Germany though, favors it, and supports the idea. As NATO ties are weakening and a volatile and aggressive Russia looms large upon Europe, Germany is seeking a new national and regional defense framework, and an EU army appears to be its answer.
Hitherto, Germany has followed a rather benign foreign policy. Global circumstances however, have pushed Germany to assume a more assertive foreign policy. The Obama administrations lack of leadership in global affairs on one hand, and the aggressive policies of China and Russia on the other, has prompted German leaders to reconsider matters. Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen have all called for a new framework that sets aside the foreign policy restraints Germany has had since WWII. They want Germany to chart a new course by assuming a larger role in global affairs, both politically and militarily.
The reassertion of German power is naturally raising questions and concerns in all the major European capitals. The renowned British historian A.J.P. Taylor observed that Germany had to either dominate Europe or be dominated by it. In his book, The Course of German History, he highlighted the difference between England and Germany. The British have always been favored by their geography, being surrounded by the waters of the English Channel, the North Sea and the Irish Sea…On the other hand Germany sits in the middle of the North European Plain, bordered by other nations on all sides, especially east and west. Taylor wrote, “The Germans are the peoples of the north European plain, people without a defined natural frontier.”
A unified Germany in the heart of Europe has been historically a threat to its neighbors. After its first unification in 1871, Germany was a destabilizing force, too big to be subsumed into existing alliances yet too small to dominate Europe. Following Bismarck’s defeat of France, the Hapsburg Empire, and Denmark, its neighbors established security alliances as a measure against German aggression that in turn pushed Germany towards counter-alliances with the end result being the First World War.
The reunification of East and West Germany in 1990 has once again raised the concerns of its neighbors, albeit, today Germany’s strength is not military or geopolitical but rather geo-economical.  Moreover, Bonn’s multilateralist foreign policy orientation helped facilitate the unification. It reduced fears among European states that a united Germany would strive to be a hegemonic power, and it contributed to the evolution of strong European organizations.
Still, the euro-crisis presents once again the German dilemma of being big enough to force its rules on EU states i.e. Cyprus, Greece, Portugal and Spain, but too small to help them out of their economic malaise.  And, the apparent rise of a hegemonic Germany in Europe is once again raising old fears, creating a degree of uncertainty among Europeans.
Germany’s location in the center of Europe could have pulled it either West or East, but, after WWII the allies divided Germany into four zones of occupation: American, British, French, and Russian. The American, British and French zones became the Federal Republic of West Germany in 1949. The Russian zone became the German Democratic Republic (GDR) better known as Communist East Germany.  Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of West Germany anchored Germany firmly in the West.  Germany was re-armed in 1955, but its constitution limited the Bundeswehr to a defensive role, a legacy of its brutal Nazi past.
The two principles the new Germany enshrined in 1949 were, first, to become an integral part of the western alliance. The second principle was to learn the lessons of WWII and the Holocaust, and to rely only on a defensive army. It helped Germany focus on building its economy while receiving protection from NATO and the American troops stationed in West Germany. Germany’s defense expenditure during the Cold War was miniscule, and in 2013 it still stood at 1.3% of its GDP. Reuters reported (March 17, 2015) that “Germany plans to boost its defense budget by 6.2% over the next five years in response to growing global instability.”
The current conflict in the Ukraine reveals a disengaged Obama administration and active German mediation. Berlin is challenging Russia, which reflects Germany’s new found confidence. Ironically, not long ago, Germany was seen as Russia’s major partner in the West, which gave Germany a prominent position. Former Social-Democrat German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder was a close friend and ally of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s boss. Schroder and Jacque Chirac also opposed US President George W. Bush’s 2003 war against Saddam Hussein. Now however, with the apparent re-emergence of a “Cold War” with Russia, Chancellor Merkel is keener on solidarity with the Western alliance than with having the special relationship with Russia that Schroder had.
Chancellor Angela Merkel’s support for EU-wide austerity measures strained Germany’s ties with Southern Europe, especially Greece. Reuters reported (March 16, 2015) that “Merkel invited Greek PM (Alexis Tsipras) to Berlin as tensions simmer.” Germany is concerned at the prospect of Greece not honoring its financial pledges, and triggering a crisis that could force it out of the euro-zone. Germany’s powerful position in the EU is reflected by Pierre Moscovici’s, European Union’s Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs backing of the German position in its dispute with Greece. He stated that Greece could not expect to see any of its loans written off. At the same time, Greeks are calling for reparations from Germany over its occupation of Greece during WWII by Nazi Germany. Among many smaller EU members, especially in Southern Europe, the German past has not been erased. The question is what kind of a future the newly assertive Germany portends for Europe.
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