Weekly Review In a dangerous world, Germans need to get real on foreign policy

Since World War II, German elites have retreated comfortably, and sometimes hypocritically, into a mindset that amounted to absenteeism in global diplomacy. This is no longer tenable.

It was a German journalist and politician, Ludwig von Rochau, who in 1853 -- well before Germany was even unified -- coined the term Realpolitik. He would feel completely estranged from his descendants today. That’s because Germany’s foreign-policy elite remains stubbornly stuck in the mental and moral asylum it sought after World War II and the Holocaust. This is a mindset unsuited to today’s world, in which America is forfeiting its traditional leadership role, China is asserting its claim to rival America, and Russia is playing willful spoiler. In this world, with crises festering from North Korea to Iran that could one day culminate in mushroom clouds, German elites are at a loss.

The postwar German stance in diplomacy is psychologically easy to fathom. To themselves and others, Germans after Hitler averred that never again must might make right. In effect, they disavowed the legitimacy of power as a tool in world politics and elevated morality to the position of arbiter. Outwardly, Germans thus disowned a tradition of realism that stretches from Thucydides to Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Kissinger.

Germans instead threw themselves into the intellectual embrace of Hugo Grotius, the Dutch thinker who in the 17th century formulated the idealistic vision of international law. And they sought ultimate salvation in the “post-national” project of European integration, as embodied by the Frenchman Jean Monnet. Co-operation rather than confrontation, positive-sum rather than zero-sum games, and above all dialogue rather than war: these were the only instruments German diplomats accepted as properly belonging into their toolkit.

This German attitude was always a luxury that required allies to discreetly overlook two hypocrisies. The first was that German idealism, and even the entire European project, were only tenable under the American military and nuclear aegis. To invoke Thucydides again: The Germans were like the islanders of Melos in 416 BC, but in this version the Meleans are building an Aegean Community with the other little islands around them after getting Sparta to station troops on Melos and forming a protective ring around it against Athens. It always takes a lot of Thucydides somewhere to afford even a bit of Monnet anywhere.

Germany represents the quintessential European free-rider. Peter Rough, Hudson Institute

The second hypocrisy was that German idealism in the diplomatic and military realms has always coincided with Realpolitik on the mercantile side. In effect, Germany outsourced defense to its allies while trading with, and especially exporting to, the world, including its trouble spots and irrespective of “values”. Germany vies for third place as the world’s largest peddler of arms -- behind the US and Russia, and about even with China and France.

This is why German elites, defiantly isolated in their own intellectual bubble, should ponder an essay published this week in the National Review by Peter Rough, a fellow at the Hudson Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington. Mr. Rough proposes a new kind of German-American alliance -- but only after doling out a good spanking.

“More than any other country, Germany has profited from the post–Cold War international system,” Mr. Rough begins, and “has had the luxury of abjuring hard power.” The aim of German foreign policy, he continues, is “to defend this advantageous position from the forces of change. All around, however, centrifugal pressures are cracking the liberal international order on which German strength depends.”

German policymakers, Mr. Rough acknowledges, blame this deterioration on the US under Donald Trump. But their “view is amplified by a sense of cultural superiority that sees in the president all of the boorish qualities of American materialism. This obsession has blinded Germans to their own shortcomings.” To many Americans, and even other Europeans, Mr. Rough charges, “Germany represents the quintessential European free-rider.”

There you have it, Germany. But what can we do?, the Germans reply. Angela Merkel is taking her time to form a government, and may be on her way out anyway. Viewed from Beijing, the mantle of European leadership has already passed to Emmanuel Macron of France.

All true. But Germany is a middle-to-great power in the complex system that replaced the simple binary world of the Cold War, and thus plays a vital role. Sigmar Gabriel, the foreign minister, often appears unaware of this responsibility, sticking to talking points deemed safe in domestic politics. He is right to urge Mr. Trump to support rather than axe the West’s nuclear deal with Iran (Mr. Trump is slated to decide later tonight). But he offers nothing beyond waffle on the subject of North Korea. And he dabbles in a dangerous mix of dovish talk toward Russia and hawkish tones toward America, one that evokes pre-World War I demons of German “equidistance” between East and West and even another Sonderweg (“separate path”).

Now that “old-fashioned power politics has returned to the 21st century,” Josef Janning of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote on our site this week, German policymakers “have no clue” what to do. “Berlin needs a new foreign policy,” he thinks. Otherwise, before long “Hobbes will have prevailed over Monnet.”

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