In his June speech at the Brandenburg Gate President Obama challenged Germany to engage more abroad outside the European Union.

German business, of course, has been opening new markets and investing outside Europe for over half a century. Today the Federal Republic is the second largest exporter in the world — after China, which has 16 times the population.

Politically and militarily it is another story.

For reasons of history – the disasters of two efforts to dominate Europe in the twentieth century – Berlin shies away from political leadership on the continent, preferring to work in tandem with France.

Defeats of the Kaiser’s armies and Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the end of the Cold War threat from Russia two decades ago have engendered near-pacifism in the German public.  Out of loyalty to its closest ally, the United States, attacked by terrorists Germany did send several thousand Bundeswehr troops to Afghanistan in 2001. But it refused to support America’s attack on Iraq two years later or British and French intervention in Libya after that. So a United States that itself has just withdrawn from Iraq, will soon be leaving Afghanistan, and is hyper-cautious about military involvement in Syria cannot easily call for a  German military engagement in the Middle East or elsewhere outside Europe. The sole exception would be an attack on Israel, to whom Germany, again for reasons of history, would be compelled to render assistance.

Are there issues where a robust German international engagement could pay off without arousing fears that it was once again bent on political dominance?

There are indeed worldwide problems of great magnitude in which Germany could mount a vigorous leadership role without arousing fears that it is again seeking to dominate.  It would be exercising “soft power,” which produces outcomes through attraction rather than coercion, and creates goodwill through legitimacy.

Such an undertaking abroad would involve in joint effort government, business management and labor, which coordinate much better in Germany than they do in most other countries; it would draw on the country’s recognized strengths in the sciences, technology, and engineering.

Four issue areas come to mind:

Climate Change.

The environmentalist movement has long been strong in Germany; it is the only country with a major environmentalist party, the Greens/Alliance ’90. While there is general international agreement that climate change is an urgent threat, progress at the United Nations toward a successor to the Kyoto Protocol has stalled. Obama last month put climate change at the top of his priorities for his second term.

Germany should fall in with the president’s priority. With good relations with China and India, two of the world’s greatest carbon and other gas emitters, it may be better positioned than the United States to help overcome the developed world-developing country impasse about climate change.  Its environmentalist activism at home,  shared by all political parties, and its technological preeminence may enable German contributions to  greenhouse gas reduction and  to resiliency planning for cities threatened by flooding In the future.

Renewable Energy.

Related is the need to diminish industrial countries’ reliance on fossil fuels. German inventors, engineers, and technicians have been in the forefront of developing solar and wind energy sources, an effort that is being accelerated since Chancellor Merkel announced her decision last year to turn away from nuclear energy.  Despite price-cutting competition from China, German manufacture of solar panels continues strong. Windmill farms are spread along the seacoast of Schleswig-Holstein, Lower Saxony, and Mecklenberg-West Pomerania. Germany leads in the clean energy race.

Linkage of Employment and Jobs. 

Germany’s longstanding apprenticeship system that links vocational training with jobs has been one reason why its unemployment, at about 6.4 %, ranks lowest among European Union countries.  Interest in the German system is growing in the United States, where Siemens, the huge manufacturing giant, is working with a community college in North Carolina and where the governor of Ohio has expressed enthusiasm for a German companies’ “skills initiative” in his state.

Arms Control.

During the 1970s, West Germany displayed a strong interest in arms control to accompany Ostpolitik, the policy to improve East-West relations in Europe. That effort soon lapsed. It should be revived and intensified. Unlike the three issues above, this is one which involves mainly government initiative. Were Germany again to become an activist exponent of the control of nuclear arms this could rekindle a sense of international urgency and also be seen as striking evidence of its peaceful and peace-making intentions. After all, foreign countries all know well that with its technical heritage, should Germany ever to want to build its own nuclear weapons it could easily do so.  A strong German effort in this field might even help persuade America and Russia to accelerate their long-standing obligation in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (1968) to cut their nuclear weapon arsenals.

These four issue areas offer opportunities for Germany to assert vigorous leadership around the world without arousing anxieties about a new German “hegemony.”  No matter what German government emerges from next September’s elections it should seize them promptly.

  • R.G. Livingston

    Why are there two copies of this article in this message, the first on pages 1-2 and the second on pages 3-5?