In May 1989, U.S. President George H.W. Bush gave a speech in Mainz, West Germany, inviting—or challenging—Germany to be a “partner in leadership” with the United States. Many Germans greeted the American president’s words with trepidation, fearing in part how others in Europe and in Moscow might react to the American charge to Germans—in a still divided land—to help lead. A scant six months later, the Berlin Wall was breached; the Warsaw Pact dissolved; and soon thereafter, the Soviet Union crumbled into fifteen separate states. In July 1990, as German unity was being negotiated and the Kohl government was arguing for European economic and monetary union (EMU) lest its neighbors fear an independent, resurgent Germany, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s Trade and Industry Minister Nicholas Ridley told The Spectator that EMU was “a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe” and that to surrender such sovereignty to the European Union was as bad as handing it over to Hitler. Ridley’s caustic admonition recalls a remark made years ago by the pre-eminent American historian of Germany, Fritz Stern, who once noted that “when Germans think of their future, others think of their past.” Ridley resigned, followed four months later by Thatcher, herself no friend of either Germany or its conservative chancellor Helmut Kohl.1

Twenty-five years have passed since Germany was “re”-united and since both Bush’s and Ridley’s comments caught much attention in Germany, Europe, and beyond. Did either of them hit the mark with their comments or allegations? In the ongoing euro crisis, has it now come down to “my way or the Autobahn?” Are the Germans now in need of finding and retaining their own “partners in European leadership” or is Berlin content—or condemned—to manage Europe’s key non-military issues from on high? Where is France in all of this, and what has become of its balancing, indeed at times perceived civilizing, role vis-à-vis Germany? Does the echo of Ridley’s comment help explain British reticence to embrace the EU and to perhaps even abandon its membership should the proposed 2017 EU referendum occur and register majority rejection? (In November 1991, Ridley called on British voters to embrace anti-European candidates regardless of party. In May 2014, many in the United Kingdom seem to have recalled his advice in the European Parliament elections.)

Germany—At Your Throat or at Your Feet?

Political scientists, when examining the phenomenon of hegemonic states, tend to watch surrounding, secondary powers to detect moves to either balance against hegemony or to bandwagon with that kind of discomforting Gulliver. In today’s Europe, one observes the rarity that none other than Radoslav Sikorsky, the foreign minister of a Poland that has long been the victim of German power and aggression, has termed Germany to be Europe’s “indispensable” nation. Indeed, he asserted that today’s Germany would be more troublesome if it shirked its leadership responsibility than if it exercised it. Gazing across Europe’s contemporary politico-economic landscape, candidates for balancing Germany are both few and feeble. The United Kingdom is self-absorbed and financially challenged; and, if Scotland votes for secession, it may even shrink. Even with U.S. reminders that Britain’s “special relationship” means more and has more value with the UK remaining integrated in Europe than living outside the EU, the David Cameron-led Tory government sends off largely negative signals concerning its EU future and investment.

For its part, France suffers weak, unpopular presidential leadership and appears no longer equipped to “balance” Germany, even if it wanted to do so. Years ago, Francois Mauriac expressed a widely-held French view when asked if he liked Germany. His response, during the latter stages of the Cold War, was that he liked Germany so much he was happy there were two of them. The leverage afforded France by Germany’s division and its dependence on NATO allies and EU partners for security and defense has since disappeared. Moreover, while Berlin has led the admittedly cautious efforts to right the EU’s financial ship, France’s economy has rendered full partnership with Germany in the effort unworkable.
Elsewhere in Europe, such as Spain, Sweden, Italy, and Poland, the notion of balancing Germany is, seemingly, never entertained. All of them fall into the second tranche of European powers, and two of them—along the Mediterranean littoral—find themselves in major economic and fiscal trouble. Italy continues to see its political divisions fester and its financial straits remain precarious. Moreover, Spain, and its issues with Catalonia, is in a similar boat as is London vis-à-vis Edinburgh and the Scots. That leaves no one on the European landmass to exercise decisive influence on Berlin and the pro-EU, moderate conservative Merkel government, now in “grand coalition” with the Social Democrats. However, is balancing German power and assertiveness really a concern in most of Europe?

Is It Arrogance?

German leaders have long intoned the mantra of pursuing “kein Sonderweg” (or “no special [German] path”). Harmony with its nine geographic neighbors and beyond—to the whole of Europe, to Israel, to the United States, and to Russia—has long been the goal and foreign and security policy approach, emanating first from Bonn, now from Berlin. Indeed, this was Helmut Kohl’s motivation for embracing EMU—in partial answer to the clarion call from Mitterrand’s France in 1989-90, that there had better be more Europe if there was to be more, meaning a larger and united, Germany. Against the good judgment of his ministers and central bank chief, Kohl not only agreed to exchange minimally useful East German marks for that solid West German currency but then also to forego the Deutschmark—probably the strongest point of national pride among Germans—in favor, eventually, of the euro. In so doing, he knew full well that, had there been a national referendum on the issue, no German majority for EMU and the euro would ensue. Kohl proceeded anyway, largely to placate fellow Europeans, to heed the concern inherent in Fritz Stern’s premise alluded to above, and to prove Ridley and his like ill-informed and biased by history.

Germany has been the deciding factor in calling the shots on how to deal with the post-2008 EU financial and economic crisis. Greece, for one, clearly would have preferred others to balance this German hegemon, but to no avail. Athens never seriously sought allies in such a move, knowing there were few, if any, willing candidates. Merkel and her long-serving, savvy finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble have had the predominant roles and voices in dealing with indebted EU partners; in salvaging the euro; and in suggesting an evolutionary, building block approach to EU-wide banking standards and more. Neither of them, nor their other German colleagues, would see those stances and demands as anything arrogant. Those perceptions may originate and fester beyond the German borders, but among Germany’s national-level counterparts they remain muted. Even the likes of Francois Heisbourg has described Germany, in the event of a post-euro European Union, as a “preponderant but anti-hegemonic” state, poised opposite his own France “with its assertive strategic culture….”2 On the contrary, the German leadership sees its own insistence on discipline, on enforced legal and regulatory norms and the like as self-evidently appropriate, not only in Germany but universally. If it is practiced with visible success in Germany, why would it not be both advisable and incontrovertible to apply the same attitudes, policies, rules, and procedures across all of the EU, or at least in all euro-zone member states? Such an attitude, seen from their German-centric perspective, is not the least bit arrogant; it is merely intelligent, thoughtful, proven effective, and thus beyond reproach and without alternatives. When an accusation of arrogance arose, it tended to be occasioned by German suggestions that German bankers be dispatched to Athens to “teach” the Greeks how to do proper, sound banking.

Commenting on the same divergence of perspectives between self-assured German advice and others’ sometimes visceral reactions, Josef Janning of the European Centre for Reform think tank has observed: “The German political elite is disappointed. It sees itself as pragmatic, even as ‘British’ in its approach to the EU…But Britain sees Germany as too orthodox on EU integration.”3 Of course, Britons tend to also believe that Germany’s orientation is to put federalism way too high on the EU’s construction agenda. While Germans have tended to believe an over-concentration of power led to Germany’s plummet into two world wars—something federalism at home was designed and imparted to cure—the British and French see no such required treatment for their own highly centralized forms of governance. After all, no Hitler came to power in Paris or London, they would emphasize.

Or “Dominant by Default”4

German leaders, first and foremost Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, are clearly not jealous of world power nor zealous in seeking to attain or exercise it. While Vladimir Putin recoiled in anger from hearing Russia consigned to a major regional power status by Barack Obama, Germans are quite content with that characterization of their own country, true or false. Germany remains a reluctant leader, but it has found itself no longer able to “lead from behind,” to borrow another assertion of President Obama. Given the EU’s internal challenges, from issues of national indebtedness threatening the viability of the euro to obstacles impeding an EU region-wide energy or immigration policy, Germany cannot rely on pre-occupied France or the United Kingdom to provide initiatives, the power to give them momentum, nor the money to make them viable.

Externally, Germany observes with trepidation and frustration the neo-colonialist drives of Putin’s Russia vis-à-vis Ukraine, and other former Soviet states, knowing full well that, again, Paris and London are less able to lead and less focused on the Russia challenge. Moreover, while the United States continues to mount efforts to bring Moscow to heel using sanctions and pulpit diplomacy, Berlin knows that Washington needs and expects German backing for that careful, high-risk strategy. And, given their shared languages and experiences, Putin and Merkel find it easier, if increasingly painful, to engage in straight talk one-to-one about Russian expansionism as well as Moscow’s fears of Western encirclement and intrusion.

In essence, then, the question for an extremely circumspect, gradualist leader like Merkel is this: if not Washington, or Paris, or London, who is to fill the critical transatlantic leadership void and role? While not dominant in any historical sense but a powerful and vibrant economy, Germany has found itself the victim of having its leadership made necessary by the omissions or pre-occupations of others. To lead has not been and will not be the objective of a German quest anytime soon. Being in a leading role has been thrust upon it and the evidence to date indicates that playing such a cautious, but more assertive, role at the West’s steering wheel has been more successful for Germany than not. What neither Germany nor the Atlantic community can withstand at this juncture, however, is an over-reaction by outsiders to that German ascendancy into a more pronounced role in the EU and in Western diplomacy. Germany needs to hear more positive grace notes from the likes of Poland’s Sikorsky, but no catcalls from the likes of Nicolas Ridley and Greek protesters—too many of them eager to portray Germany in the caricature of firing V-2 rockets and wearing jack boots.


1. Dr. Bowman Miller is a non-resident Senior Fellow at AICGS, now teaching at the National Intelligence University in Washington after a career in European analysis in the U.S. Department of State. The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the view or policies of the National Intelligence University, the Departments of State or Defense, or any other U.S. government entity. This author had the privilege to discuss Germany at length with Pamela Harriman before she took up her duties as U.S. Ambassador to France, in what was another unsuccessful attempt (understandably, perhaps) to encourage someone who had lived through the Blitz to view postwar Germany and its evolution in a new light.

2. Francois Heisbourg, “The EU without the Euro,” Survival, Vol. 56, No. 2 (2014), 40.

3. Quoted in Stefan Wagstyl, “Juncker dispute shows German frustration with British tactics, The Financial Times, 7/8 June 2014, 2.

4. See Stefan Wagstyl, “Dominant by Default,” The Financial Times, 6 August 2014, 5.