Like a Conquered Nation

John Kornblum

AGI Trustee

John Kornblum is a senior counselor at the international law firm Noerr LLP and a former U.S. ambassador to Germany. He is a member of the AGI Board of Trustees.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Germany and AGI Trustee John Kornblum argues that German leadership in Europe is plagued by its impetus to react on the basis of past experiences. This behavior, “like a conquered nation,” must change for the transatlantic partnership to tackle diplomatic and security challenges and reap the reward of economic opportunities. This essay appeared in German in the November 15-17 weekend edition of Handelsblatt and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

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Has Angela Merkel thought of Willy Brandt in recent weeks? He defined the building of the Berlin Wall as “the moment when we lost our illusions.”

There was certainly enough reason to do so. Illusions have been shattering all over Germany in recent months. Most upsetting has been America. But harsh criticism by European partners is also starting to shake fundamental pillars of German identity.

Critics point to Germany’s export surplus, its insistence on austerity, and its role in turning the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) into a “shadow alliance,” as one recent commentator put it. Swastikas are being carried through the streets of Athens. The Neue Züricher Zeitung spoke of a new Biedermeier era in a country too selfish to share its wealth.

In 1961, Brandt was shaken awake by the realization that no one other than the Germans themselves cared to keep alive the dream of reunification. The result was Ostpolitik.

What sort of wake-up call is waiting for today’s Germany? The lesson of 2013 is surprisingly similar to that of 1961, or of 1913 for that matter. Despite NATO and the EU, Germany still finds it hard to harmonize its strong need for stability and security with the often contradictory goals of its partners.

For a country that has prided itself on its commitment to multilateralism, this is strong medicine indeed. Mixing their metaphors between anger and pride, German commentators are finding it hard to find a positive theme for their message. Condemning America has worked for a while, but even those most angry at NSA transgressions will run out of steam sooner or later. When they do, the fact will remain. Germany and its friends are at odds with each other and no improvement appears to be in sight.

What to do? A good way to gain some perspective is to remember all good things about the current situation. For the first time in its national existence, Germany has woken up on the right side of history. It is not only surrounded by friends and allies, but it also can be assured of protection by the world’s greatest power.

Threats to its security are of an indirect, global nature, which are harder for a continental European power to understand. American protection is welcome, but it comes at a price. Without a strong German or European voice, the United States will act according to its own rules. Ergo, the NSA affair. And the myth of American decline is already being disproved.

Germany’s economy is among the world’s best and Germany is regularly crowned by pollsters as the world’s most respected nation. But none of this respect has helped ease the transition to leadership. A country that has worked for nearly 70 years to become “normal” like everyone else is now finding it difficult to fit in with the “normality” of others.

The NSA affair provides a telling example. However clumsy American behavior has been, it is hard to understand how Germany can produce leaders who treat as a national hero a person charged with high crimes by their most important ally and protector. Sympathy for Snowden demonstrates a mentality closer to that of a conquered nation than of a leading defender of Western democracy.

Angela Merkel recently argued that as the “America of Europe,” Germany should learn to live with such criticism. This is true, but it is only part of the answer. Part of “being America” is to think also about the welfare of the community. Much of the anger aimed at Germany stems from its apparent inability to think in terms of solidarity rather than urgent national needs.

Partners increasingly shake their heads with disbelief as Germany’s leaders repeatedly justify their unilateralism with the twin traumas of history–war and inflation. Was the unilateral action that led to the “Energiewende,” for example, taken because Fukashima reminded Germans of their terrible past?

In other words, what the world wants from Germany is the one thing Germany’s leaders probably cannot deliver–that Germany “grow up” and act with the graciousness and self-confidence urgently needed from Europe’s most indispensable leader.

If that is indeed the case, there is no time to waste. A new era is fast approaching. If the West is to prosper in a globalized future, fitting Germany into the twenty-first century order will be as important as it was in the twentieth. And by now it seems clear that the answer to this dilemma is neither further hectoring of the Germans, nor acceptance by its partners of German “normality” as standard for the Western world.

Much better would be to understand that German prominence has come so rapidly that there has been little time to prepare either the Federal Republic or its partners for its new and difficult leadership role.

What is missing is a vocabulary that makes it possible for both Germany and its partners better to articulate how its version of “normality” can be harmonized with the goals of its others.

Ironically, an important key to understanding Germany’s psychology is the very characteristic so often criticized–restraint, impressed upon it by the tragedies of the past. Germany has for centuries been faced with the task of integrating across a complex cultural and political geography. And it has learned with great sorrow the lessons of overreaching.

But until it becomes more comfortable with its new post-Cold War role, today’s Germany will lack the resilience to apply these skills cooperatively with others. It still lacks the inner confidence to play openly in the risk and reward culture of a globalized world.

An excellent first effort to define this new paradigm was the transatlantic market place initiative launched in 2007 by Angela Merkel. It has now resulted in negotiations on a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

But it is not enough. Perhaps the most important illusion shattered in recent weeks has been German belief that it can build prosperity and stability on trade and financial cooperation alone. Even a TTIP agreement cannot deal with a growing sense that Western security is being endangered by the drift of central transatlantic institutions, NATO and the EU. Until the basic philosophical vision for a Global Atlantic economic and–above all–security partnership is worked out, the TTIP talks are in danger of being swamped by disagreements, such as those arising out of the NSA dispute.

There is a desperate need for “entirely new structures of organization and thought,” which Kurt Biedenkopf so eloquently proposed in the October 4 edition of Handelsblatt.

But defining “entirely new structures” requires a fundamental reexamination. What we do not need is yet another EU summit communiqué that describes goals, which most members have long since abandoned.

Fifty years ago, NATO dealt with the dark days following construction of the Berlin Wall by initiating a detailed examination of the future tasks of the Alliance. Known as the Harmel report, after the chairman of a high level group, the statement set the course for a new mixed strategy that combined strong defense with a readiness for East-West dialogue. It led ultimately to the reunification of Europe.

Repeating such an initiative for a twenty-first century vision is becoming an increasingly urgent task. Germany was the central focus of the twentieth century of war and collapse. It is now fated to become the defining center of a twenty-first century global Atlantic whose influence spans the earth. Germany will never be a big power in traditional terms. Instead, it could become something much more important: a unifying pivot of information and logistics networks which integrate the Eurasian landmass into a multidimensional world. Neither the United States nor Europe can allow this moment to pass unattended.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.