The Reluctant Giant: Why Germany Shuns Its Global Role

The world admires Germany and would like to see more active engagement from the country. But Germans themselves are reluctant and Chancellor Merkel has steered clear of taking on more global responsibility. Berlin should rethink its role in the world.

When a German reads current travel guides about Germany, written by foreigners clearly enamored of the country, he feels noticeably better afterwards. The travel guides praise Germany as a colorful, high-energy, beautiful country, a European power center in every possible way, a miracle world of culture and technology, inventive and with an entrepreneurial spirit, “truly … a 21st-century country.”

That’s what Rick Steves, a Germanophile American, writes in the latest edition of his “Germany” travel guide, published at the beginning of the year. Of course, he doesn’t omit the clichés about schnitzel and the Oktoberfest, the Black Forest and Neuschwanstein Castle, but he is most enthusiastic about the modern, bustling Germany, which has “risen from the ashes of World War II to become the world’s fifth-largest industrial power.”

‘Most Popular Country’

Today, 68 years after the end of the war and 24 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we Germans are respected, admired and sometimes even loved. The fact that we generally don’t know what to do with all this admiration, because we collectively still seem to assume that we are not likeable and therefore must be unpopular, is a problem that very quickly becomes political. It’s obvious that Germans’ perception of themselves and the way we are perceived by others differ dramatically.

Even if some would not consider a travel guide to be the most credible basis for political reflections, it’s easy to find other sources of praise for Germany and the Germans. The BBC conducts an annual poll to name the “most popular country in the world.” Germany came in a clear first in the latest poll, and it wasn’t the first time. Some 59 percent of 26,000 respondents in 25 countries said that the Germans exert a “positive influence” in the world (and not surprisingly, the only country in which the view of Germany is overwhelmingly negative at the moment is Greece).

In the “Nation Brands Index” prepared by the American market research company GfK, which surveys more than 20,000 people in 20 countries about the image of various nations, Germany is currently in second place, behind the United States. This index is not some idle exercise, but is used as a decision-making tool by corporate strategists and other investors. GfK asks questions in six categories, including the quality of the administration and the condition of the export economy, and Germany is at the top of each category. But when Germans do acknowledge their current standing in the world, they always seem to be somewhat coy or even amused.

The positive image we enjoy worldwide is fed by a large number of widely dispersed sources, but it’s obvious that Germany’s accounting for its Nazi past, its clear acknowledgement of historic culpability and its development of a model democracy in the West laid the foundation for the Germans to be given a new chance in the 20th century.

But it is also clear that Germany’s reputation has received its biggest boost since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German reunification. Since then, the Germans have managed to demonstrate repeatedly that they are capable of producing economic miracles, which is precisely what reunification and the development of the former East Germany are. At the same time, Germany was able to dispel widely held fears of the return of a gloating major power in the middle of Europe. To everyone’s relief, especially that of our European neighbors, Germany has kept its feet on the ground, only waving its black, red and gold flag during football matches.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Westerwelle have taken us back to the tired 1990s, and our “history” must serve, once again, as justification for German inaction that extends all the way to denial of assistance. Listening to Westerwelle, one would think Germans were a bunch of narrow-minded people whose love of peace knows no bounds.

In fact, we are repugnant hypocrites. We like to talk about our pacifism, and we even use it to generate a warm feeling of moral superiority, and yet we supply large numbers of German weapons to buyers all over the world. Those weapons often end up in countries where regime critics are suppressed with armed force.

What is missing in Germany is an understanding of obvious geopolitical circumstances, an understanding of the fact that obligations, demands and hopes arise from a country’s economic and military importance without any political assistance, and that there is clearly a need to consider at length our role in the world. But that doesn’t happen, or at least it happens far too rarely.

In Germany, foreign policy is a specialized, niche subject, even at universities, which is downright absurd. In light of our situation and our leading global position in so many fields, and in light of our ongoing title as the world’s export champion, foreign affairs ought to be a top issue at all times. And yet in Germany foreign policy is viewed as a burdensome nuisance and cost factor within the context of managing our wealth.

Being a Role Model

In the second decade of the 21st century, Germany has to get used to the idea of being a model for other countries. We will never be able to see our country as a model society for the entire world, as the United States and France, with their more fortunate history, do as a matter of course. Today, other countries and peoples want us to be a role model, a teacher and a partner. That demand cannot be satisfied with a few Goethe Institutes, with posters by political graphic designer Klaus Staeck hanging on the walls, or with endless screenings of the film “Goodbye Lenin!”

Germany’s fans in the world want more involvement than that, and they hope that we don’t just export our machines, but also our knowledge about government or our experience with ecological renewal. African countries, as well as nations in South America and South Asia, are no longer waiting for benevolent aid workers, but would rather see people with ideas and investors, and are looking for momentum. They want to know how government administration works, how to organize an education system, how to plan factories, how to decentralize a country, how to write a constitution and how a democratic police force works. They want to learn from us, the Germans, because we have acquired so much authority in these fields.

There is enormous potential in this. In the course of a more active foreign policy, Germany could promote and disseminate throughout the world the values and principles it has recognized as right. At the same time, it could also network internationally in a way that would make the future less daunting.

Full article: The Reluctant Giant: Why Germany Shuns Its Global Role (Spiegel Online)

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