Germany’s Precarious Path to Leadership

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


There were several milestones in October that reminded Germans and non-Germans again how much the past twenty-five years have changed the Federal Republic of Germany.

While October 3 is the formal anniversary of Germany’s unification, now twenty-four years later, Germans placed a particular focus this year on the demonstrations in Leipzig on 9 October 1989, which were seen in retrospect to have symbolized the brokenness of the GDR government and led to the fall of the Berlin Wall one month later. In his speech in Leipzig, President Joachim Gauck recognized that milestone as a decisive turn that was part of the end not only of Germany’s division, but also of Europe’s. Over these past two and a half decades, Germany has continued to invest in multiple ways in its eastern Länder toward the goal of integrating the two formerly divided societies. The legacies and scars of that division still remain for those who lived through it, but the generations born after 1989 have grown up in an environment that now takes both the unification of Germany and Europe for granted.

First and Foremost an Economic Power

While those moments twenty-five years ago were being remembered on October 9, there was another gathering in Washington that same day around the biannual IMF/World Bank Meeting, and Germany was also in focus there—but for very different reasons.

Amid the concerns about a fragile world economy, Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble took a good deal of criticism concerning Germany’s fiscal policies focused squarely on a balanced budget goal at home while others called on Berlin to boost investment spending to avoid being stuck in Japanese-style stagnation. Schäuble firmly rejected the critique, but what was clearly underlined despite the debate was the decisive importance of Europe’s largest and strongest economy in shaping the economic future not only of Europe, but also of a fragile world economy.

One might argue about the degree to which Germany’s economy is more important than the need for reform in other EU countries for the recovery in Europe at this point. As powerful as the German economic locomotive is, it still needs to have the other countries in the EU pull their own weight and sustain not only the euro, but the European economic platform as a whole.

Looking at the larger picture over a twenty-five year period, these two different settings underline the fact that the Federal Republic of Germany has emerged as the strongest and most influential country in Europe following the challenges of unification and the very difficult economic burdens it had to overcome in the process. Indeed, it has done that while having to confront some of the larger concerns about Germany’s unification around the continent right from the start. One need only recall the fears that Margaret Thatcher had about Germany resuming its dominant role in Europe or, for that matter, the famous statement by a French minister who thought that he loved Germany so much he was glad that there were two of them.

Balancing Perceptions and Action in Foreign and Security Policy

Throughout this past quarter century, Germany has always been mindful of those remnants of the past impacting the perceptions of its European neighbors. Indeed, there was a sense of reticence on the part of Germany to publicly aspire to any leadership role during the period after unification—even though the practical outcome of unification was to result in the largest and eventually the most powerful economy in Europe.

Consecutive German governments have tried to steer through this balancing act. Helmut Kohl once said that Germany needed to be strong enough to impress Russia but not intimidate the Dutch. The formula was always to wrap Germany tightly into the EU and NATO, along with a large range of other international organizations in which Germany could play a role either as a source of financial support or structural aid—but not necessarily a leadership role. The one primary organization in which it would be engaged militarily was still NATO. Under that umbrella, Germany expanded its engagement after unification, particularly in the Balkans and then in Afghanistan. In both cases, Germany assumed responsibilities even as the German public still harbored serious qualms about the military dimensions of foreign policy.

Yet it was to be increasingly apparent in the first decade of the new millennium that Germany was emerging as the economic leader of Europe, the world champion exporter on the global stage, and also profiting from the introduction of the euro. It was the strongest proponent of the more political process of European integration as the EU significantly expanded its membership and strengthened its institutions.

That role was only accentuated in the midst of the Great Recession after 2009 when Germany successfully steered through the storm, effectively transforming into the “chairman” of the EU when it involved setting the rules for the other countries struggling to sustain themselves. That generated much resentment in southern Europe, but Berlin was not budging from its position to couple reforms with assistance—referring to the painful reforms Germany had to go through to strengthen itself after the sluggish 1990s. Two consecutive finance ministers, Peer Steinbrück and then Wolfgang Schäuble, kept firmly reiterating that position.

A Path Forward: Rejoining Global Foreign Policy Leadership

The quarter century between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the emergence of Germany’s (economic) leadership, along with its power to shape the European agenda, has been accompanied by a continuing debate among Germans about the consequences of this new role. That debate was highlighted during the Munich Security Conference last February when three speakers in a row spoke of Germany having to assume more responsibility: President Gauck, Foreign Minister Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen. The fact that Germany had exercised responsibility for the economic direction of the EU was already accepted. The question was going to be where and how the debate would also involve the foreign policy challenges Germany now faces. Raising that question was indeed a metric of how much Germany’s role and the expectations around it has changed over the last twenty-five years.

But the question also raised the issue of whether Germany could generate the political and military resources for exercising more responsibility. In other words, how would Berlin operationalize its newly formulated ambitious goals?

In fact, Germany has been engaged for the entire period of the war in Afghanistan together with United States in the wake of 9/11. And several thousand troops have been dispatched in various different exercises and engagements around the globe in addition to the implementation of a significant portion of global development aid. Apart from its key role in other international institutions and organizations, Germany has also expressed interest in a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, assuming that needed reforms to make that possible were implemented.

German Attitudes toward the Military as a Tool of Foreign Policy: Still Reticent?

Yet there was always a caveat, a reticence within the German public debate about the degree to which Germany should and could assume more of a leadership role in dealing with theaters of war and conflict. The decision to engage in the Kosovo conflict as part of a NATO campaign (without a UN mandate) was highly controversial, especially in light of the fact that the decision was made by Germany’s first SPD-Green government.

More than a decade later, there was still skepticism about the use of military force in dealing with regional conflicts, captured in Berlin’s decision not to engage in Libya in 2011. The more recent debate over supplying the Kurds with military weapons as they battle ISIL reflected that debate again, but in that case Chancellor Merkel’s coalition decided to offer some military assistance. Yet at the very same time, there was a controversy brewing in Germany about the desolate situation of the Bundeswehr and the ability of Germany to meet NATO obligations. If Germany was stepping up its engagement, did it have both the political and material resources to meet its own expectations and that of others?

More recently, the crisis in Ukraine during the past year has brought out more of this debate and added in particular the factor of German-Russian relations. The emergence of a sizable proportion of German attitudes critical of the Ukrainian leadership and more “understanding” of Putin’s actions in Crimea and eastern Ukraine was surprising to some and unsettling to others, especially in parts of eastern Europe. Calls for sanctions on Russia along with beefed up responses from NATO members to Russian aggression in Ukraine released a wave of critique among the so-called “Putin Versteher” (Putin apologists) who offered various explanations of Russian needs, interests, and concerns while accusing the western alliance—particularly the United States—of provoking Moscow by allegedly having expanded NATO and seeking to incorporate Ukraine into the EU and NATO fold. That would take another form with a somewhat dismissive attitude toward the Ukraine and its government.

While the impact of the downing of MH-17 by pro-Russian dissidents in eastern Ukraine was a Europe-wide expression of horror and disgust, it also generated additional backlash in the form of sanctions against Moscow and quieted the Putin apologists in the following weeks. And Chancellor Merkel was central to solidifying the EU response to Putin’s aggression. She also enlisted the support—for now—of the German business community, which has significant stakes in German-Russian commerce.

The Overarching Message from Berlin

Ever since unification, the message from Berlin about the future of Europe has been to follow a path of widening and deepening. The expansion of the EU to the east was greeted as a vindication not only of the end of the Cold War, but also of the values of the EU as a post-Cold War phenomenon in which the threat of war was abolished and the gradual transition to a common set of goals and standards was to be accepted on the entire continent. It was the course Vladimir Putin would take in annexing Crimea and then helping to foment the pro-Russian dissidents in eastern Ukraine, which ran directly counter to that narrative.

Yet there remained a dilemma for Germany and Europe. No one was willing to go to war to roll back the Crimean annexation or to confront the Moscow-backed dissidents in eastern Ukraine. Standing up to Moscow was going to take primarily the form of economic sanctions, but the question remains as to how long they would and should remain in place to deal with the long-term change going on in Moscow’s attitude toward the West. Berlin resists the default position of a Cold War redux. But if the standoff with Putin is a long-term confrontation, the consequences will impact Germany’s policies as well as its role in Europe for the foreseeable future.

The conclusion one might draw here is that Germany continues to debate within itself about where it is to assume its responsibilities and what resources it has to meet them. In some ways it is no different than many other countries struggling with these issues, including the United States. Yet the evolution of these past twenty-five years in that debate has changed the parameters a bit. At the beginning of the post-unification phase German leadership was primarily focused on making sure that Europe would continue to evolve toward more integration in order to deflect any concerns about a bigger and stronger Germany. In some ways that has happened, as can be seen with the introduction of the unified currency and more of Europe built as the union it aspires to be.

Yet as the EU remains a construction site with competing engineers and architects, Germany has become more powerful in some dimensions, while lagging behind in others. And as the parameters of the European project have become increasingly complicated, there have also been trends throughout Europe, including in Germany, where there has been a blow back among the publics, and indeed even in some governments, as to what the European future should look like. There has been increasing uncertainty about how far Europe can reach, where its borders and boundaries should be, how much democracy should/must be involved and how it should/can be implemented. This is a challenge for all of the members of the EU but it is increasingly a question Germany needs to answer for itself.

At this point Europe is in a phase of uncertainty. There are serious threats to its future both internally as well as externally. One of those external threats is the attempt on the part of Moscow to split the European Union on the issue of Ukraine. Another is the domestic fear of terrorism and another still is the uncertainty of the economic stability of the European Union.

Twenty-five years is only a blink in history and yet so much has been accomplished in this past quarter century when it comes to looking at Germany’s domestic and foreign policies and how they have evolved. Both individuals and issues that are currently on the agenda for Germany and indeed Europe were unthinkable twenty-five years ago. Who in 1990 knew that Germany would now be a leading force in Europe, that it would be in the forefront of maintaining the effort to keep the European project moving while some countries were beginning to question even their own engagement in that project? Who could have foreseen Angela Merkel as a chancellor who has been elected three times in the last nine years and enjoys the most stable parliamentary majority in Europe? Who might have expected Germans to have committed to a decade of war in Afghanistan?

This October has reminded Germans how far they have traveled from the heady days of 1989. It also came with a reminder that the challenges of today are even greater than those of yesterday. In 1989 then-President George Bush proclaimed in Mainz that the United States saw in Germany a partnership in leadership. At that moment—before Germany was even unified—that caught Germans by surprise. Leadership was not yet a comfortable concept. Today, in fact, Germany is a leader in partnership with the United States, but also with other partners. That turf comes with both critique and credit. Germany has to get used to both.

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