Philipp Rösler is in a position where he needs to master the art of creative double-hatting. He is not only Germany’s Minister of Economics and Technology, but also Chairman of the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and Vice Chancellor. Going by the rule of thumb that ‘where you stand depends on where you sit’, it will be hard to determine where he stands in the present debate on how to deal with the Greek debt crisis in the short run, as well as how to stabilize the Euro in the long run.

As Chairman of his Party he has reason to be concerned about the recent drop from 6.7 to 3.4 percent in municipal elections throughout his home state of Lower Saxony. All the more so, since projections for the upcoming elections in the city-state of Berlin are similarly discouraging. As Vice Chancellor, however, he would have reason to be concerned about the widespread sense of befuddlement among observers, both domestic and foreign, and those both scholarly and political or journalistic, as to where Germany stands on all of this. Giving the impression that Germany’s stance is in no small part determined by the internal logic of a domestic (and intra-party) power struggle, i.e. what appears to outsiders as a common incarnation of petty bickering, would then be a very bad idea.

Hence, it should not come as a surprise that Rösler’s recent proposal to ‘think openly’ about the possibility of an ‘orderly Greek insolvency’ has drawn a lot of heat. It has done so precisely because Rösler’s innocent justification – there really shouldn’t be any taboos right now – did not stick. Too obvious were the undertones of domestic despair. Next to voices from the opposition parties jumping happily at the opportunity to point out cracks in the coalition government, Angela Merkel chimed in, emphasizing that easy solutions, be it some form of ordered insolvency or a common Eurobond (an idea abhorred by those flirting with insolvency), are not available. Instead, the immensely complex situation could only be resolved patiently, proceeding step by step.

True as that may be, it doesn’t go too far in clarifying the general direction of the many small steps to be taken. In order to better understand the intricacies of Germany’s (non-)position, it may thus help to look beyond the points of explicit disagreement and into what is commonly taken for granted. Indeed, both critics and defenders of Rösler’s intervention demand, with similar airs of self-evidence, that ‘the Greeks must do their homework;’ FDP general secretary Christian Lindner said it when he came out in defense of Rösler, CDU party whip Peter Altmaier said it when he was among the first to criticize Rösler’s proposal, and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle made the headlines with it shortly thereafter.

‘The Greeks must do their homework’. This may seem self-evident enough not to warrant any further attention, if there weren’t voices who disagree. Former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt, for instance, points to the respect due to Greece currently administering the harshest package of social and economic reform to be faced by any industrialized society in history. To be sure, the Greek crisis is to no small extent homemade. To be sure, Greece does not stand alone (although it may stand out) in its ‘creative’ accounting practices. And to be sure, the current stages of escalation can only be understood in terms of the logic of financial markets − the setup of which lies clearly beyond Greek culpability. On the contrary, part of the ongoing dynamics of escalation is precisely the sense of insecurity as to which states would actually be capable of warding off a similar kind of sustained speculation against them.

There is no reasonable doubt that the solution, however difficult it may be to achieve, can be only a European one. To this end, it may be telling to look more carefully at the commonsensical demand that ‘the Greeks must do their homework’. The language itself is quite telling. Who does homework? Schoolchildren do. Who takes care of whether or not the kids do their homework? Parents, teachers, and possibly headmasters do. The homework metaphor thus establishes a formal inequality. Why does this matter? Because it is one of the bedrock principles of the game of diplomacy and European politics that, obvious differences in political and economic power notwithstanding, states encounter each other as formal equals. Especially in a time of crisis, when a partner is asked to undergo a lot of duress, paying attention to such rules becomes more important than ever. The point here is not what Greece may or may not have to do. The point is that symbolically disenfranchising a partner whose co-operation is required may not be a good idea.

Given the widespread sense that Germany needs to step it up in order to tackle the crisis, such observations may seem like a somewhat nostalgic reminiscence of a code of conduct fad long gone. Indeed, the vocal support for a decisive bail-out from both Helmut Kohl and Helmut Schmidt indicates that dynamics of generational change are at play. In assessing their consequences, however, it is important not to confound two fundamentally different dynamics of change. Yes, Germany needs to be more pro-active in developing a position and clarifying where it stands on the current crisis. Clarifying a position, however, is different from merely adopting a more assertive tone. The more subdued routines of the Bonn Republic may have been in place not out of mere convenience in a situation where key decisions were made elsewhere, but simply because they worked well in keeping at bay ever-present concerns about German hegemony among its European partners.

The homework metaphor is not a spectacular incident of showing rhetorical muscle. It is a subtle, quotidian example of a potentially more far-reaching pattern. Struggling still to find a new role in Europe and the world, post-Cold-War Germany has been exhibiting a tendency to privilege style over substance. The question then is not whether such a more assertive posture is legitimate. Rather, the problem is that it is detrimental to solving the problem at hand.

Benjamin Herborth is a current DAAD/AICGS Fellow.
This essay appeared in the September 16, 2011, AICGS Advisor.