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The New Berlin Republic

Author: Walter Russell Mead, Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy
October 7, 2002


A transatlantic rift with America. Strains with France and Britain. Murmurings of a new German Question. The problems facing the Berlin Republic are serious— and familiar.

Bismarck would sympathize. Too big to fit comfortably into the European state system, too small to dominate, Germany has always had to manage extremely delicate relationships with suspicious and nervous neighbors. The Iron Chancellor did it by weaving a diplomatic web balancing commitments to Britain, Austria-Hungary and Russia. When political upheavals threatened to pull its partners apart, Bismarck's Germany sought to intercede as an "honest broker," trusted by all. The system worked, but there was a price. German restraint turned into constraint, the frustration of a geopolitical Gulliver bound by countless Lilliputian ties. Germany had to give up ambitions to play an independent role in the Balkans, like other Great Powers. It surrendered dreams of colonial empire, like those Britain, France, Belgium and Italy enjoyed. Ultimately that angered a new generation of ambitious leaders, who correctly considered their country the richest and strongest in Europe. So it was that Kaiser Wilhelm II fired Bismarck and opened a new era of an assertive Germany. It scrambled for colonies in Africa, demanded a navy and forged a new relationship with the Ottomans. Along the way it antagonized Britain, frightened Russia and triggered the first world war, in turn setting the stage for the second.

After that the great postwar chancellors— Adenauer, Erhardt, Brandt and Schmidt— followed Bismarck. The Bonn Republic was a responsible, conscientious partner, allying with old friends in the west and building bridges to new ones in the east. With France, it built the European Union, carving out a place and role that even Bismarck could never achieve. But once again there was a price. The Germany of the Bonn chancellors was a modest place. It let others savor the prestige of leadership, even as its prosperity outstripped theirs. Above all, Germany paid, quite literally. For the Bonn Republic, diplomacy was done by checkbook. German taxpayers have long been by far the largest financial contributors to the European Union, subsidizing everything from French farmers to Greek highways. Germany paid more into the NATO alliance than any other European country. Throughout the cold war it provided help and reparations to its eastern neighbors. From the old East Germany to Russia, the Deutsche mark was the currency of detente.

Here is the real crisis of German foreign policy. Today's Berlin Republic can no longer afford checkbook diplomacy, even as it begins to insist on more prestige and recognition. And unfortunately, its newly re-elected chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, seems to have learned the wrong lessons from history. He believes that postwar Germany kept its head down only because of the legacy of the Third Reich. As that legacy fades, Germany must now become a "normal" nation, by which he means one that seeks power and prestige like all the others.

This hunger for a larger German role is not just a response to U.S. threats against Iraq. To cite but one other example: besides raising eyebrows by aggressively promoting a distinctively German constitutional vision for the future of the EU, Schroder humiliated France at the December 2000 Nice summit by insisting that Germany receive more seats in the European Parliament to reflect its larger population. He was right about the numbers— but Bismarck (and Brandt) would have spared French feelings, believing that in the long run Germany had more to gain from a close partnership with France than from a few extra seats in a weak legislative body.

Meanwhile, Germany's checkbook is running dry. The eastward expansion of the European Union benefits Germany more than any other current member, and in the old days Germany would have quietly picked up the lion's share of the tab. Now it can't. Nor can Germany afford to assuage the United States by taking the lead role in the military upgrades needed to assure NATO's continuing relevance.

Germany's new assertive and tightfisted policy is popular with voters. That's bad news. When Wilhelm II fired Bismarck, a famous British cartoon showed the kaiser "dropping the pilot." In abandon-ing the modesty of Germany's traditional Bismarckian foreign policy, seeking instead glory and prestige, is Gerhard Schroder following Wilhelm's lead?

Walter Russell Mead is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and the author of Special Providence.