What Berlin Can and Can’t Do for the Liberal Order
With U.S. President poised to pull the United States back from global leadership and with the United Kingdom mired in a messy withdrawal from the European Union, Germany has emerged as the central economic and political power in Europe. Since German President Joachim Gauck’s much-lauded speech at the Munich Security Conferencein 2014—“Let us thus not turn a blind eye,” he intoned, “not run from threats, but instead stand firm”—the country has shown its commitment to ensuring its own security and the continent’s. It has agreed to gradually increase its defense spending to reach NATO’s target of two percent of GDP and to create a credible European defense system. It made a unilateral decision in early 2015, for example, to send the Bundeswehr on a training mission to the north of Iraq and to join the military campaign against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) after France invoked the mutual defense clause of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty following the terrorist attacks on Paris in November 2015. Berlin has continued to help manage the crisis on Europe’s southern periphery, in Syria and Iraq, becoming a reliable partner to Washington at a time when the United States had significantly retrenched under former President Barack Obama.
The hope among many anxious Europeans and Americans, worried about the fate of the liberal order and the transatlantic relationship, is that Germany will take the United States’ place as leader of the liberal order. But that is wishful thinking.
Germany is already overwhelmed by crises at home and on its borders. And it cannot replace the United States as the world’s liberal hegemon for the simple reason that it isn’t one. In 2015, it had a defense budget that was one-twentieth the size of the United States’, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies. It is not a nuclear power and has comparatively smaller ambitions to provide for the common good on the global stage than the United States.
But neither is Berlin complacent, and there is much it can and is willing to do to ensure that Europe stays united, particularly on defense. For the first time since reunification, Germany is set to increase its defense budget, a rise of eight percent from 2016. And it is also moving to advance EU defense cooperation. In fact, even though Germany is unlikely to take over for the United States on European defense, it and its partners may find much opportunity in Trump’s threats to overcome their own political malaise.