At the dawn of 2015, Germany could look back and clearly identify its inheritances from 2014. As always, there were many surprises and challenges in the past year and their legacies will last well into the next twelve months. But the questions most pressing for the new year are: Will Germany confront those challenges in 2015 differently? How would that look? And, if it doesn’t, who will?

During 2014, Germans experienced some high points in celebrating their victory in the World Cup in Brazil and marking the emotional twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They watched their newly elected government get to work under a popular chancellor, who had recently won a third term handily. There were to be some economic bumps in the road but, on the whole, the outlook was good: unemployment was decreasing and surpluses were rising. The euro crisis seemed to have been overcome. Germans could feel good about themselves.

But then came the crisis in Ukraine, the Russian annexation of Crimea, the surge of a murderous group called ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the spread of Ebola. At home, signs of political protest emerged in regional elections in the form of the Alternative for Germany party, which has managed to get into three state parliaments as well as the European Parliament. Toward the end of 2014, the protests morphed into an uglier form in the streets of Dresden, Munich, and other cities under the umbrella of the so-called Patriotic Europeans against the Islamization of the West (Pegida). Their messages were a kaleidoscope of anger, hate, and fear but they have proven capable of mobilizing a large number of people who are afraid of their own futures or simply attracted to rioting. There were also massive anti-Pegida demonstrations in response to these challenges. Germany thus joined other European neighbors coping with this blowback against governments and the anxieties of many who feel that they have been left behind in their societies and seek a scapegoat to explain their anger.

Continuing Issues from 2014: German Response to the Ukraine Crisis

The German debate over the Ukraine crisis was another controversy which was illustrative of Germany’s struggle with its role as the current leader of Europe. Putin’s invasion and annexation of Crimea and his demonstrative support of the rebels in eastern Ukraine shocked Europe and Germans, in particular in the wake of the fiendish shooting down of a passenger airliner with Russian-supplied weapons.

But it also generated a backlash in certain quarters of German society that accused the West—and in particular the United States—of provoking Russia with its push to expand NATO and its alleged condescension toward Moscow, then winding up with a defense of Russia and Putin himself.

In some ways, the criticism fit clearly into a long trail of right wing attacks against the United States—not surprisingly connected to similar attitudes on the far left. In both cases the strategy is to criticize the national leadership for “capitulating” to the White House and not representing the real interests of Germany. Yet this also connected to a backlash against the European Union and NATO, and assembled a motley group of those protesting against gay rights, immigrants, and other cultural trends they reject. Furthermore, all of this was supported increasingly by a Moscow-driven media campaign complete with large financial infusions designed to target Germans in particular. The introduction of a German-speaking cable program—RT—opened new propaganda access to the public debate. The anti-U.S. sentiment in Germany continued to be nourished by the fallout from the Snowden affair and the media coverage of U.S. intelligence activities in Germany. That sentiment is still circulating around the margins of the larger question about German leadership and how it should be exercised.

Amid these arguments there was another set in motion in early 2014 at the annual Munich Security Conference, where Federal President Jochim Gauck, foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and defense minister Ursula von der Leyen all heralded the necessity for Germany to assume more leadership responsibilities in the world. Although it was not entirely clear what the operational significance of those appeals were to be, those speeches were received positively outside of Germany. But the domestic debate quickly formed around the issue of Germany’s ability and readiness to apply hard power—military force—in defense of its interests and those of its allies. For fifty years, the Federal Republic had been a member of NATO and had committed itself to the Article 5 requirement to defend its NATO allies if attacked—just as the other NATO allies had committed themselves to defending West Germany while it was divided. Germany honored that commitment further by engaging with the United States in Afghanistan for over a decade following the 9/11 attacks. But the limits of Germany’s engagement were also illustrated by its decision not to engage in Iraq and Libya and by its continuous debates about supplying weapons to war zones. These debates could all be framed in terms of serving German interests and policy objectives. But what we more often see is a clash over moral imperatives or the inclination to want Germany to abstain from such engagements in a messy world marked by often ambiguous choices. Germany’s responses to its global responsibilities still lack a strategic framework that can be injected into these public debates. That remains a work in progress.

German Leadership in 2015: A Focus on Finance, Security, and Energy

As 2015 begins, all of these issues continue to shape the agenda in Berlin. The next Munich Security Conference is scheduled for early February and it will be a platform to review just how the speeches of 2014 will be evaluated a year later. This time Chancellor Merkel will address that important gathering. Given her recent speech in Brisbane around the G20 meeting, and her address to the nation on New Year’s Eve, one can expect her to lay out where she sees Germany’s priorities in the new year.

Where Germany has assumed responsibility can be seen in the government holding the line on sanctions on Moscow and calling Putin’s annexation of Crimea what it was—an illegal land grab, a violation of international law, and a danger to the stability and security of Europe. However, she is encountering resistance from the German business community on long term sanctions and the impact they are having on Germany’s economy. How long Merkel can hold that line against sources of opposition in Germany as well as in some countries in the EU is the question for 2015.

Despite initial hesitation followed by clumsy tactics, Germany has also been in the lead to hold the euro zone together. While the upcoming national election in Greece threatens that fragile structure, Germany remains committed to the euro not only for its own interests, but also for those of most of its European partners. During the coming year, sustaining both trust and consistency amid volatile European markets and in her own domestic political camp will be critical. But that job will also include encouraging a somewhat confused and anxious United Kingdom to maintain its membership in the European project before its referendum.

Germany will host the G7 meeting in June and that platform will draw the spotlight to a key strategic challenge for Germany and Europe: energy security, with particular reference to the need to reduce dependence on energy resources from Russia. Shaping that path will be of critical importance, especially given the controversial decisions behind Germany’s energy polices. Given Russia’s absence from that meeting, Germany’s presidency takes on additional importance in keeping international pressure on Putin in dealing with Ukraine while seeking to steer the assembled partners in facing a range of other global challenges and choices. These G7 meetings can be about serious policy choices or simply about posturing. The chancellor has an opportunity to highlight the former.

Chancellor Merkel holds a strong position in Europe and on the global stage. She will mark a decade in office in 2015. She stands uniquely with that record in comparison with most of her partners, including in Washington. Indeed, she is on course to work with a third American president before her current third term is over—and a fourth term is not out of the question.

She works for the second time in a coalition with a foreign minister and a finance minister she can trust. In turn, she has the trust of most of the country. That is a good platform to begin a year with confidence.

A Precarious Year Ahead

2015 can be a precarious year for Europe. The combination of economic uncertainty, the anxiety generated by an unpredictable confrontation with Russia, and the shaky foundations of many key European governments only underscore the critically important role Berlin plays. Germany is not exempt from the problems others face.

As it marks its twenty-fifth anniversary of unification in the new year, Germany is confronted with challenges at home and in the foreign policy arena. There is no avoiding engagement in difficult choices. That goes with the job of leadership. It also comes with the consequences of hard confrontations, often withering critique, threats, and tough negotiations. And the leadership job can’t be outsourced.

One thing is certain, however. There is an expectation that Germany has to do the job. How well it performs remains to be seen.

  • K Bledowski

    JJ is right to single out Germany’s role in the Ukrainian
    crisis. Merkel is clearly the linchpin here and Washington will have room for maneuver
    only to the extent that Germany delivers leadership.