Friday, March 24, 2017

Can Germany Really Lead Western Democracies?

Can we expect Germany to be the bearer of global morals and norms, such as human rights and free trade? Normally, hardly anyone asks a question like this, but the advent of “America First” Trump administration terrifies foreign policy pundits around the globe. If America were to withdraw from the world order that she made, someone else needs to replace. In such a destabilized global security atmosphere, it is nothing odd that people anticipate German Chancellor Angela Merkel to stand out the most vocal critic against nationalist US President Donald Trump to defend Western democratic values. Merkel impressed the global public with her steadfast attitude to deny Trump’s fake claim of Germany’s freeride on NATO, while advocating immigration tolerance and free trade, at the last US-German summit (“Opinion: Clumsy Trump meets confident Merkel”; Deustche Welle; 18 March, 2017). Shortly after the visit to the White House, Merkel met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to address a joint message against protectionism, and even launched a new plan for an EU-Japanese free trade agreement (“Abe, Merkel take stand against protectionism”; Nikkei Asian Review; March 21, 2017). Prior to these diplomatic successes, former Assistant Secretary of State James Rubin in the Clinton administration commented that Trump’s self-interested nationalism and naïvely pro-Russian views are eroding American leadership, while boosting experienced and consummate Merkel’s reputation in the Western alliance (“The Leader of the Free World Meets Donald Trump”; Politico; March 16, 2017).

However, Germany is by no means a superpower candidate. In terms of sheer hard power, Germany is far smaller than the United States. American GDP is 6 times larger than German one in 2016. Military power is no comparison. Germany’s real power lies in multilateral diplomacy. Aligned with France, Germany has been the anchor of European integration. Also, Germany is a vital nation in the age of NATO and EU expansion to Mitteleuropa. More importantly, the euro is the second largest IMF Special Drawing Rights currency, owing to the German economy. We can see the euro a de facto Deutschemark. Therefore, it is nothing strange that people expect Germany to counterbalance Trump’s America through leading a coalition of Western democracies, if this administration infringes on liberal and democratic values. But if Germany is so reliable, British Prime Minister Theresa May would have taken much softer Brexit. Above all, May would not have been so flattering to Trump when she visited the White House. This is also the case with Abe, though he raised the case against Trump’s protectionism with Merkel at the bilateral talk. Above all, he even met Trump before the presidential inauguration. Pax Germanica cannot replace Pax Americana, even if Trump abolishes all the global engagement, and simply pursues his perceived national interests. Therefore, it is necessary to assess current German weaknesses to assume proactive roles in the world.

The most evident weakness is defense contribution to the trans-Atlantic alliance. Germany’s defense spending is far below the NATO requirement of 2% of GDP, which erodes her credential to lead Europe against Trump’s poorly rooted skepticism to NATO. Moreover, security challenges have been diversified since the end of the Cold War, such as Islamic extremism in the Middle East and Africa, cyber warfare, and resurging Russia. But after the Ukrainian crisis, Germany has become more aware of regional security, and she is re-boosting defense expenditure since Cold War heydays. This is irrelevant to Trump’s pressure (“MP claims increased German defence spending would alarm European neighbours”; UK Defence Journal; March 14, 2017). The biggest economy in the EU, Germany can boost European defense a lot, once she is determined to build up her military capability. However, Germany’s defense augmentation is too modest to meet the NATO pledge, because she is still in pacifist mindsets like Japan (“Amid Growing Threats, Germany Plans to Expand Troop Numbers to Nearly 200,000”; Foreign Policy --- Cable; February 23, 2017).

Though some people expect Merkel’s Germany to stand against ignorant, irresponsible, and unpredictable Trump, the landscape of international politics is not necessarily favorable to this country. Merkel herself comments such an idea “grotesque” and “absurd”. Despite Germany’s long-standing liberal foreign policy after World War II, Germanophobia is still prevalent throughout Europe. Due to the rise of right wing populism in Western Europe, and autocratic governments in Poland and Hungary, Germany is more isolated in Europe than popularly believed (“The isolation of Angela Merkel’s Germany”; Financial Times; March 6, 2017). In addition, Germany is not necessarily good at taking leadership in the economy, as typically seen in the Euro crisis. Particularly, the global public sees her remedy debt crisis in Greece and Cyprus somewhat bullying and reluctant (“Blame Germany for Greece’s uphill euro zone struggle”; Globe and Mail; April 24, 2015 and “Cyprus showcases Germany's clumsy leadership in Europe”; EUobserver; 19 March, 2013).

Germany may be a locomotive to sustain European and global order, but she cannot act alone. Her leadership rests on a staunch Franco-German axis. However, the international presence of France is weakening these days. I have been wondering why the third largest nuclear power in the world is so obscured, despite the power shift to the Indo-Pacific region in international politics. People take Brexit seriously, partly because France fails to live up to what they expect. Though France has the same number of votes in the IMF, her budget contribution to the EU is almost half as large as that of the United Kingdom. According to the budget survey of 2015 by the European Commission, the EU would have lost 12 billion euros if Britain had left, while losing 6 billion if France had done. In addition, the total defense expenditure of France was almost the same as that of militarily reluctant Germany, while Britain spent 1.5 times more than she did in 2016 (“How Brexit Means EU Loses Cash, Influence, Might: Six Charts”; Bloomberg News; February 27, 2017). The Franco-German tandem worked well when both countries in a mutually complementary relation. However, as German preeminence grew in European economic and monetary integration after the Cold War, France has been dwarfed precipitously. A revitalization France is necessary for Germany to exert more leadership in global and regional affairs.

The most imminent problem is the rise of right wing populism in elections in Europe, including Germany and France. Fortunately, the incumbent Prime Minister Mark Rutte defeated the nationalist opposition Geert Wilders in the last Dutch general election (“Steve Bannon’s dream of a global alt-right revolution just took a blow”; New Republic --- Minuites; March 15, 2017). This will be a critical damage to National Front leader Marine Le pen in France and AfD leader Frauke Petry in Germany. The French election will be held on April 23 and May 7, and it is most likely that the presidential race will be intensified between a centrist ENArque Emmanuel Macron and Le Pen (The Amazing Race: Tracking the twists and turns in France’s presidential election”; LSE Blog --- EUROPP; March 9, 2017). Meanwhile, in Germany, though Merkel is supposed to win in the September 24 general election, popular fatigue with established political parties is widespread, and frustration with tolerant immigration policy is growing. A coalition of Merkel’s Christian Democrat Party (CDU) and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) led by Martin Shulz may stop the AfD (“When is the German federal election 2017? Will Angela Merkel LOSE power? “; Express; March 16, 2017). However, SPD also suffers from anti-establishment sentiments among voters (“Socialist Schulz loses early momentum in German election race”; CNBC; 10 March 2017). On the other hand, it is noteworthy that GreenLeft leaped greatly to win 14 seats in the parliament from 4 before the last Dutch election (“GreenLeft proves to be big winner in Dutch election”; Guardian; 16 March, 2017). Greens are cosmopolitan by nature, though anti-business. They will be a strong counterbalance against right wing populism in Germany.

In view of international and domestic challenges as I mention hereby, Germany needs to adapt the Franco-German axis to the new age. In the past, Germany and France rivaled against the Anglo-American duo over the influence within the trans-Atlantic community. However, the axis needs to evolve. French Gaullism has become already outdated, and both NATO and the EU have expanded eastward. Therefore, it is no use for the Franco-German axis to assume themselves to represent the Continental interest against the Anglo-Saxon supremacy. Rather, the Franco-German tandem should be more inclusive to rebuild Western democracy, and embrace Britain, Japan, and bipartisan mainstream foreign policy architects in the United States who strongly oppose Trump’s vision of the world. Therefore, Germany has to improve relations with Britain over Brexit. As to Japan, Abe confirmed common values and commitment to liberal world order with Merkel on his visit. Let’s see how Germany and her partners will act in practice.