Germany: The Reluctant Superpower

Post-war Germany has pathologically kept its head below the parapet – preferring to steer well clear of holding a leadership role in Europe. But then came the Eurozone debt crisis and PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) threatening to implode left and right. As the wealthiest and most stable single currency country, Germany had no choice but to step in and help its neighbors.

But such financial assistance comes at a price. Berlin is increasingly becoming, as stated in the Financial Times: “ the de facto capital of the E.U.”, making decisions and devising laws on behalf of the rest of Europe. The Federal Republic has become Europe’s very own superpower.

And as if to underscore its power shift Germany, bypassing the E.U., is now offering a credit scheme for small and medium sized enterprises in crisis-hit Spain, Portugal and Italy.

Sound familiar? America took a leading role on the world stage when it executed its Marshall Plan after the end of World War II. The program provided financial support to help rebuild European economies and to curb the spread of communism. Germany’s mini-Marshall (or Merkel-Schäuble)Plan not only hopes to aid the reconstruction of the economies of its Eurozone partners, but also to halt the spread of extremist movements and the public’s growing sense of disenchantment with government.

How do you say kindred spirit in German?

It is any wonder that Barack Obama, in a long history of United States presidents visiting Berlin, made his second visit to the capital since 2008 (a rare third visit in total to the Federal Republic) because of the special relationship the two countries have?

The president’s June visit reaffirmed Berlin’s standing as what Charles Kaplan, Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations called: “Washington’s go-to capital in Europe.”

Britain has long believed that their “special relationship” with the U.S. was exclusive. Let’s face it, the Brits and the Yanks may be exceptionally close when dealing with political, diplomatic and military affairs – with Britain often being called the 51st state, but in terms of economic force, it is really Ger­many that is more like the U.S.

As an American living now in Berlin after almost a decade in London I should know.

Britain may seem like the more obvious dancing partner, ingesting many U.S. television programs, high street clothing stores, fast food outlets (and subsequent obesity rates) and of course (nearly) the same language, but in Germany the United States has a soul mate rather than a disciple.

Scratch beneath the surface and you’ll recognize various similarities between the U.S. and Germany: the two nations are bound by a disdain of small portions and kissing on both cheeks (air or otherwise) and a passion for directness, domestic beer, firm handshakes and not to forget each has a southern “state” with its own particular twang, love of all things big and which could be considered a country on its own. Don’t mess with Texas or Bavaria.

Like fruitcake, you either love us or hate us

But on a more serious note, when Germany was compelled to take the reins in managing the Eurozone’s financial crisis it became to Europe what the U.S. is to the world – the superpower you either love or hate but cannot do without.

Often the U.S. is called upon globally to sort out one crisis or another, and now Germany is enduring similar demands in its continental realm – with all the criticism any action (or lack of) entails.

There are flickers of the Ameri-CAN-do attitude of optimism and self belief (some may say arrogance) in some of the German response to this criticism. When two German MPs suggested that Greece sell a few islands as collateral for bailout funds, the tabloid Bild newspaper cheekily made plain what most of the public were really thinking: “We give you cash, you give

us Corfu.” This is the type

of joke one can only make if you believe you are too big to fail.

Germans – while you would be hard pressed to get someone to openly admit this – generally believe that they are number one: that many of their industries and activities are the best including manufacturing, cars, trains, soccer teams, accounting skills and driving prowess. There is a certain quiet confidence in their products and abilities that reminds me of home. And it feels good.

A very hegemonic coming of age

But it is in the national expression of satisfaction where the two countries hugely diverge.

Like the U.S., Germany is a collection of small and self-important states that has come of age as a mighty national hegemon. Unlike the U.S., Germany pretends not to like throwing its weight around. Modern Germany would never dream of unleashing “shock and awe” on another nation, even one run by a tyrant like Saddam Hussein. But do I detect a certain relish in Berlin for imposing iron economic discipline on those errant states in its sphere of influence (ably assisted by the Washington-based International Monetary Fund)?

Those Germans who invaded London for this year’s UEFA Champions League final certainly enjoyed their country’s sporting domination of Europe – one earned by Teutonic adherence to self-discipline and expert technique as much as to the power of the super-club checkbook. Politically, the veil was lifted by a triumphant Volker Kauder, parliamentary whip of Angela Merkel’s CDU party, when he said: “Now, all of a sudden, Europe is speaking German… Not as a language, but in its acceptance of the instruments for which Angela Merkel has fought so hard.”

It was a rare glimpse of Ger­many enjoying its dominance – a suggestion it could become comfortable as the European USA. It’s just a shame it would never admit to it.

Photo Credit: JVG

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