Thus, in our opinion, Germany now finds itself in the brief period, dramatic in consequences, of undertaking a grand strategy orientation for the predictable future. A decision that will mark not only the future of Germany but also that of the EU, of the Old Continent as a whole, even the future of the international order. Will Germany undertake the role of European leader, a status justified – if not even legitimised – by its economic weight, by its geopolitical position at the centre of the continent, even of the Euro-Atlantic space as defined from Vladivostok to Vancouver, as well as the current power configuration within the top global echelon of great systemic powers?
Or, on the contrary, will Berlin try to maintain a low profile to avoid the rebirth of the “German problem,” as a traditional issue of systemic instability that the Old Continent and the world has faced in the last centuries, maybe even since the birth of the Westphalian system in the 17th Century?
Let us compare, in a simplified manner, the two options. The first one, that of decidedly undertaking European leadership and propelling the EU as a global actor which has the duty to take part in the construction of the new international order so as to promote its own fundamental interests – from liberal values to the joint sovereignty of EU states –, seems the most tempting for Berlin today.
United Kingdom, the element of balance, along with France, in a European Union overwhelmed by German economic power, has withdrawn from the organisation. London is trying to build a European balance based on NATO, necessary against the backdrop of a resurgent Russia, thus consolidating the transatlantic relationship that has maintained continental peace in the last 70 years. French President E. Macron’s proposals to reset the EU, which include economic solidarity at least at the level of the Euro Area, namely of the EU’s core, can only be based on German economic force, and here the political establishment in Berlin is very divided in opinions. The current systemic threats to the EU, more or less perceived as such, are numerous and extremely pressing. Not only has resurgent Russia shown, through military force, that the former Soviet space is the place reserved for its exercise of hegemonic power – in recent years, Georgia (2008) but especially Ukraine (since 2014) have fully demonstrated this –, but it tends to expand in the surrounding areas – Western Balkans, Eastern Mediterranean –, exhibiting a restraint that becomes in itself a reason for concern and preoccupation at the centre of Europe. In this latter space – largely coinciding with the former space of the Warsaw Pact – Moscow shows openness to a partnership historically validated in the 19th-20th Centuries.
Didn’t the existence of the Habsburg Empire after the Congress of Vienna (1815) show the possibility of a decades-long continental balance through such a partnership with Russia? On the other hand, the EU’s southern near abroad is the generator of the most robust threats from the standpoint of the security and coherence of the EU. The Syrian civil war – which tends to become more complex soon enough, with the reopening of the dossier of the nuclear agreement with Iran, to which Germany is a signatory – represents for Europe, hence for its most powerful actor alike, an own problem in which the positions to access are yet to be discovered in Berlin. From an unstable Middle East on the verge of a generalised war comes the threat of waves of immigrants (from its own reservoir, but also from the African and Central Asian ones for which it represents a mandatory transit point), an experience still alive in Germany following the triggering of such a wave of major dimensions in the summer-autumn of 2015. This wave of more than 1 million migrants was back then an element that stressed, if not generated, an internal crisis within the EU, still ongoing, and that prompted a reset of domestic political equations in various countries, including in Germany, but also at the level of the EU. Coming on top of the things described above, is also the fact that the U.S. and Russia have a negative attitude toward the EU. In the case of the former, a hostile position was stressed once the UK withdrew from the organisation, encouraging that the British example be followed – hence dissolution –, but also a certain EU division along the lines of defenders/opponents of neo-liberal values, which basically threatens continental unity.
It is obvious that the debate on undertaking a grand strategy, which means a more visible and efficient international role to match its economic-geopolitical weight, is ongoing in Germany. Public opinion has already started to call for the undertaking of such a role. An opinion poll conducted in October 2017 shows that 59 percent of respondents support a more active international presence, not just through ‘soft power’ (diplomacy, as favoured by most – 84 percent; and international aid – 71 percent) but also through military power (training – 59 percent; stabilisation – 56 percent; policing operations – 55 percent). The question is not whether that figure is high or low, but whether the trend thus noted is upward in the direction of what we are discussing here, namely Germany’s grand strategy option in the direction of a European Union as a single global actor.
Of course, in 2017, the EU undertook a global security strategy that aims to coalesce systemic status of a global type for the organisation, but in today’s competition for power the military instrument turns out to be decisive in establishing the global hierarchy. The emphasis that Brussels – Germany in particular – has until now placed on ‘soft power’ has proven to be insufficient and, in contrast to the behaviour of other great powers, already outdated. As we were mentioning, this global positioning of the EU – and, through assumed consent, of Germany – is tempting but dangerous alike. Not only would it worsen the already obvious hostility toward the EU on the part of other great powers – U.S., Russia, UK –, even if others would be favourable – China, Japan –, but it could also entail more ample actions toward this aspiration, especially on the economic plane, as demonstrated by certain trade wars already ongoing or about to be launched. Faced with this growing hostility toward the EU, the undertaking of the status of global actor by “The 27” would entail the assumption of elements without which it would not be possible, ranging from the military instrument – including its nuclear component – to an active, dynamic presence in the global echelon.
This ‘hard power’ construct and building of European political consensus in this field are processes that require relatively long time, and in the current systemic power configuration they seem to be already fatally late, less so in the case of exemplary mobilisation. So then the question remains open: in what way will Europe, the EU, basically Germany, contribute to the construction of the new international order and what will be their place in it? And the answer can be outlined accurately only once Berlin’s option will have been made. However, it is overdue.