Germany has become the “leader of the free world.” It didn’t ask for the role and it doesn’t want it, but it was thrust upon Germany by the sheer lack of alternatives. The position was long jealously guarded by the United States, and the role fit it—albeit with a hefty dose of hypocrisy, like most other great powers. After all, the U.S. was the brave revolutionary country that stood up to British Colonialism; the rising power of the early twentieth century; the great victor against the Nazis in the Second World War; and, the superpower who stood up to—and eventually won over—the repressive Soviet Union. Germany boasts few comparable accomplishments. It is not the greatest power in the world. Nor even the second or third. It may be the fourth largest power in terms of gross GDP, but not in military terms. Even this economic advantage appears to be increasingly taxed/stressed. Whereas in the near past one could think of the European Union as an economic force multiplier for Germany, nowadays with Brexit and the domestic turmoil in so many European states, that proposition looks shaky as well. Finally, Germany has long been, in the words of Franz-Josef Meiers, a “reluctant power,” always conscious of its own terrible past. One look at Angela Merkel’s body language in any large international event reveals how reluctant the German chancellor still is assuming the role of the “leader of the free world.”
So why Germany? Because the U.S. has dropped the ball and there is nobody else to pick it up. Because the American contender for leader of “the land of the free” seems to be much more at ease in the company of authoritarian strongmen like the Philippines’ Duterte and Turkey’s Erdogan, than in that of democratic leaders. Because Washington has abandoned any pretense of caring for values like human rights, democratization, and the rule of law, in its foreign relations. And, because authoritarian regimes are taking advantage of this change of heart in White House. With initial leadership steps, Merkel’s Germany appears to be taking on the mantel, cautiously, gradually. From its welcoming policies on refugees to standing up to worrying international developments—including Erdogan’s bullying, Hungary’s slide to autocracy, and Netanyahu’s settlements expansion—Germany has demonstrated unique (something, pick your positive noun). It also (subtly) snubs the current American administration such as in Merkel’s congratulations to Trump after his election win: “Germany and America are bound by common values—democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views. It is based on these values that I wish to offer close cooperation, both with me personally and between our countries’ governments.”
Though it may be the new leader, Germany is certainly not alone in the fight to continue to uphold values of human rights and freedoms. First and foremost are the post-WWII international institutions, regimes, and organizations. These include the United Nations, World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and international human rights conventions and treaties. Even if the U.S. is taking a step back from the rule-based system that it helped to construct, these institutions have resiliency and a life of their own, which could ensure they remain a great asset to holding the fortress of freedom. Second are civil society groups. In the past, when the United States has encountered a hostile authoritarian regime it often tried to influence policy through influence, communication, and dialogue with civil society groups within that country. The majority of U.S. citizens have not voted for Trump, and the potential for mobilization for a population that supports human rights in all its forms is impressive, as proved by January’s massive Women’s March. Germany would do well to work with American civil society groups, and similar groups across the globe, to promote values of freedom and human rights.
Dr. Boaz Atzili is an Associate Professor at the School of International Service of American University in Washington. DC. He is a participant in AICGS’ project “A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation: Global Responsibility, Joint Engagement.”
This blog post is sponsored by the Transatlantik-Programm der Bundesrepublik Deutschland aus Mitteln des European Recovery Program (ERP) des Bundesministeriums für Wirtschaft und Energie (BMWi).
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.