As anyone who reads this blog probably knows, I’m quite fond of Germany and its culture. I read and speak the German language with some degree of proficiency (though I really should spend more time practicing) and spent a large part of last summer in the country. That said, Germany has really failed to live up to its potential and, despite its ostensible support for centrist liberalism, has done much to contribute to the unstable world in which we now live. This may sound harsh, and it may sound Trumpian. That’s because it is and it does. While I certainly don’t condone the reckless and gratuitously offensive approach Trump has taken when dealing with Germany, he is not entirely wrong. And while this post might annoy our German readers, it’s worth noting that Germans have never hesitated to criticize the U.S. and are, by some measures, the most anti-American of any European population. Therefore, I’m merely returning the constructive criticism.
Germany’s central problem is that it has absolutely no vision yet is the most important power in Europe. In other words, Germany is much like the interwar U.S. – it has the capability to shape the EU and, to a lesser extent, the world in a positive way, but it maintains a parochial and inward-looking attitude that prioritizes internal stability and economic growth over global stability and the durability of the international order. Ironically, therefore, Germany is not that different from Trump’s America. German Ph.D. student Marcel Dirsus summed this up well when he tweeted, “Too many people in Germany want to have it both ways. They want solidarity from European partners when it suits them but fail to provide it when others need it. Let me use refugees and defence/Russia as an example”…”Germans to Central/Eastern Europeans: Can’t believe you won’t help us with refugees! Show some solidarity! Europe needs to stand united! Also Germans to Central/Eastern Europeans: I know Russia threatens you every single day and some of you are literally occupied by Russia or at war with them. We will build a pipeline that enables the Putin regime as it works to dismantle European unity! Also Germans to Central/Eastern Europeans: We are way more prosperous than you and we could use some of our money to build an army that could contribute to meaningful deterrence and thereby help you. We don’t want to. We refuse to meet our alliance obligations. The Germans that shout loudest for Europe on the topic of immigration are the very same people who refuse to show solidarity when it comes to security. They are more than happy to ignore what Russia is doing to Georgians, Ukrainians, Balts and Poles.”
But it isn’t just on questions of defense and immigration that Germans are hypocrites, as they also have a history of refusing to show solidarity with those facing financial distress. Indeed, while Germany was one of the first countries to openly violate the Eurozone’s Stability and Growth Pact it proceeded to moralize and excoriate other Eurozone economies caught up in the 2010 sovereign debt crisis. Instead of acting decisively and quickly to write-down Greek debt, Germany, through the Troika, obstinately refused, moronically treating a solvency crisis as a liquidity crisis. Instead of easing the suffering of the Greeks and bolstering investor confidence in the Euro more broadly, Germany demanded creditors be paid. Of course, this might be because a large portion of Greece’s massive government liabilities was funded by German banks so, by continuing to loan Greece money, Germany was actually just indirectly bailing out its own banks that had irresponsibly poured money into the Greek economy. Some might argue that this is unimportant, as some kind of nightmare crisis was inevitable with a half-baked monetary union. I don’t think this is necessarily true, but it’s worth pointing out that it was a German, Helmut Kohl, who was the most vocal in pushing for the Euro while concomitantly pledging that no fiscal transfers would be permitted, even though most macroeconomists believe this would be the only way to ensure the long-term viability of the monetary union.
Sadly, it seems that Germany will continue to disappoint. Take defense spending, for example. Germany continues to spend a pathetically small amount on its military, though this is slowly beginning to change. Currently, Germany’s air force has only four operational Eurofighter jets, half its tanker fleet is inoperable, it needed to return the first of its Baden-Württemberg class frigates because the ship was so poorly built, and it has mountainous equipment shortages. Thus, Trump has a point, even though he articulates it in a particularly poor and ill-informed manner. Instead of addressing these problems, Germans seem unwilling to put their house in order. And while they understandably don’t want to be seen as caving to Trump, they would do well to consider the fact that their free-riding is part of the reason Trump’s message of a ripped-off America has such currency here in the states. Germany has also utterly failed to seize the unique opportunity presented by the election of Emmanuel Macron. As many now realize, the EU needs to reform if it wants to survive and thrive. Indeed, Merkel herself noted that Germans and other Europeans can no longer rely on others. Nevertheless, when Germans are actually asked to take risks and put some skin in the game, they shy away. It’s no wonder that Americans and Europeans alike are rapidly losing patience with Germany and its leaders.
Germans would be well served to remember the words of French political theorist Raymond Aron: “the strength of a great power is diminished if it ceases to serve an idea.” Currently, Germany has no ideas. It’s facing internal political chaos as extremist groups like the AfD continue to rise in the polls and centrist parties face instability while continuing to hemorrhage votes. And while Germany’s leaders vaguely praise the liberal, rules-based order, Germans can’t be bothered to actually sacrifice to sustain that order. When the EU’s Eastern flank is threatened by Russia, Germany yawns. Of course, this is after Germans elected Gerhard Schröder, a man so entranced by the Russians that he makes Trump look like Ronald Reagan by comparison. When the Euro was brought to the brink by banking crises, Germany issued stern lectures about following the rules and forced debilitating austerity measures on struggling economies (quite rich given that Germany still refuses to follow NATO’s spending guidelines). This kind of attitude is simply unsustainable. Germany needs the EU, and the EU needs Germany.