The global spotlight was on Germany last month, as the Ukraine war and dealings with Russia were discussed at the Munich Security Conference. But the political discussions in Germany deserve closer attention than they have been given, especially on the other side of the Atlantic. This is despite Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s obvious efforts to shed light on the German position, including via a keynote article titled “The Global Zeitwende“ in Foreign Affairs.
In German discourse, China seems to dominate all relevant issues: political, economic, ideational, and ideological. This is supported by something extremely rare that is currently unfolding in Germany: that in no less than three important government papers currently being drafted and causing heated controversy, China should be either one of the most important topics or even the exclusive subject. It is known that the German coalition government has been working on both Germany’s first National Security Strategy and the first China Strategy since taking office in December 2021. The media surprised the public at the end of 2022 with a report that the Ministry of Economics had preempted both the Federal Foreign Office and the Chancellor’s Office with a separate, independent, and more comprehensive China Strategy.
The Ukraine war has opened up additional dimensions to the China discussions. Now the German debate is also arguing that Germany’s past mistakes in regard to Russia must not be repeated with China. In German perceptions, there is a frightening parallel both between Germany’s economic dependence on China and its energy dependence on Russia, and between the Ukraine war and the potential for conflict that could emanate from China’s Taiwan policy.
The Same Triad, Finely Nuanced Differences
The German debate certainly seems to be in the interest of the United States. Since Donald Trump’s presidency, the U.S. has explicitly identified China as its greatest “systemic rival.” It is a position that has paradoxically been adopted by President Joe Biden, who otherwise does not have much in common with his predecessor. In May 2022, Secretary of State Antony Blinken described U.S. China policy as “compete, cooperate, and contest.”
Interestingly, this formulation of the triad has a German origin. The Federation of German Industries (BDI), in a policy paper in 2019, pointed to the ambivalent relationship between the German and Chinese economies. That formulation was further differentiated in the same year in a strategy paper of the European Union, which stated that China is for Europe “a cooperation partner, a negotiating partner, an economic competitor, and a systemic rival” at the same time. In the coalition agreement of the current German government, the relationship between Germany and China is defined three-dimensionally as “partnership, competition, and systemic rivalry.”
Even if there is an apparent harmony between the U.S. and German formulations of China’s role, the crucial difference in the essence of the matter must not be overlooked. In the German context, there is a warning about the all-encompassing Chinese challenge, whereas the U.S. sees the rivalry with China as a struggle for world hegemony or its defense. An interesting question can be derived from this, namely how the U.S. claim regarding China is perceived in Germany.
Historical Experience Counts
Indeed, the German debate talks about three dependencies that could threaten Germany’s autonomy or security in a comprehensive sense: one on Russian energy, another on the Chinese market, and a third on the U.S. security guarantee. How can it be that in the German perception, the United States represents a similar danger as Russia or China? What is behind the German effort to maintain equidistance from the most important players in world politics? To get to the bottom of such questions, one has to look at the psychology of postwar Germany.
After the defeat in World War II, the majority of Germans came to the conclusion that no more war should emanate from Germany. The “Never War Again” discourse, which has a long tradition in Germany, has played a significant role in the changes in the political sentiments of Germans. It has led to Germany’s (almost) definitive abandonment of the global political ambitions that had brought great turmoil to Europe and the world since the second half of the 19th century and, in the first half of the 20th century, two world wars with all their devastation.
In parallel, the military is strictly rejected as the “tool of politics,” across all political parties. Conscientious objection is a fundamental right enshrined in the Basic Law of the Federal Republic. In the perception of the world public, Germany is now regarded as a model student of democracy.
It is precisely the departure from the limelight of the world stage and the retreat to modest private happiness that guaranteed Germany’s economic resurgence. A model of society has emerged that calls itself the social market economy, Ordoliberalism or Rhenish capitalism, and confidently distinguishes itself from the Anglo-Saxon model of free market capitalism. In such a world view of postwar Germans, the military issue had no place.
Under U.S. protection, Germany was able to prosper economically and socially and eventually achieve German reunification. With the end of the Cold War more than a few are interested in developing a viable political model of civilian power based primarily on the German historical experience. The German discussion of that time was characterized by a euphoria that the Kantian idea of perpetual peace had been given the historical chance to be realized. The subtext of this vision of the future is that the U.S. model of world domination has fulfilled its historical mission and thus has had its day. Under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, Germany thus refused to follow the United States into the Iraq war.
“Change Through Trade” and the German Fear of Loss of Prosperity
In German discourse, German reunification was not possible without the approval of Mikhail Gorbachev, the last leader of the Soviet Union. This was preceded by the New Ostpolitik introduced by Chancellor Willy Brandt, according to which change was to be brought about by rapprochement.
The same logic was later applied to China after its opening. The result of this development is that the economies of Germany and China have become closely intertwined and largely complementary. Both countries have benefited from this cooperation. According to French historian Emmanuel Todd, Germany and China are among the two winners of globalization.
Political relations also became good despite ideological differences. Longtime Chancellor Angela Merkel is considered particularly trustworthy in China and has been popularly nicknamed “Aunt Merkel.” Nothing comparable has happened to any other foreign politician in China in the recent past.
The fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression has brought an abrupt end to Germany’s experience of success caused a state of general uncertainty and disorientation. It is a considerable challenge for Germany to abandon its self-image as a civilian power and to shift instead to the expansion of military power. Above all, the people fears the impending loss of prosperity that rising inflation and declining competitive advantages could lead to. Why should Germany, of all countries, open a second front in the middle of the looming military confrontation with Russia and turn away from its largest trading partner, China?
The Idealists’ Dilemma
Under the current German government, it is primarily the Green Party that verbally shies away from no military confrontation with Russia and loudly calls for a “tougher” kind of China policy. But they also embody the typical German ambivalence.
The Green Party’s commitment to environmental, peace, and feminist issues, Global South countries, and alternative lifestyles has profoundly changed German society since the 1980s, giving it a sense of finally being on the right and forward-looking side of history.
The aforementioned three government papers on China are all the responsibility of Green Party politicians: Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Economics Minister Robert Habeck. According to information leaked via the media, they are essentially calling for a values-driven policy of interests for Germany and want to try out a delicate balancing act between ideals and realpolitik.
The political demarcation from China on the one hand and the tolerable reduction of economic dependence on China on the other could be mastered. Human rights should take center stage instead of trade relations. It is not hard to see surprising similarities with the U.S. position in this. Have the German Greens suddenly become better transatlanticists on the China issue?
A hasty “yes” could be a fallacy. After all, the Greens are currently in danger of losing their identity because of their political responsibility in the role of the governing party. As a peace party, they call for arms deliveries to Ukraine; as an environmental party, they encourage the use of fossil fuels and have the village of Lützerath cleared and dredged away because of coal mining. Many supporters of the Greens feel betrayed.
The tradition of the Greens also includes pacifism or antimilitarism, which not infrequently sees its enemy in the great military power of the United States. Even if support for Ukraine currently appears to be without alternative, how long will the Greens’ supporters be willing to go along with the discursive contradiction between the ethical claim and the harsh reality?
Meanwhile, German business, and especially large industry, which until now has benefited greatly from business relations in and with China, feels unrepresented, if not patronized, by the Greens. Some large companies have even massively increased their investments in China. One can imagine that a China policy demanded by the Greens would divide rather than unite German society.
Old and New Mistrust of the U.S.
The Germans’ image of the United States is thus highly ambivalent. It is characterized by fascination with American modernity, gratitude for liberation from Hitler’s dictatorship, and antipathy that bears historical traits and is rooted in the specifically German dichotomy between higher, spiritual “culture” (Germany) and material, technology-centered “civilization” (the United States).
In addition, the domestic unpredictability in U.S. politics has led to a certain reserve. The mixture of isolationism, protectionism, and exceptionalism that periodically returns in U.S. history – most recently represented by none other than President Trump – poses a test of trust for the Germans: How stable is the United States, with its polarized political system, and how reliable is its support for the liberal international order? And who can rule out with certainty a return of Trumpian policies in the U.S.?
A side effect of the Ukraine war is that Europeans are being shown their deep dependence on the United States for security. As a result, the autonomy or sovereignty often invoked by Europe is receding further into the distance. At the same time, Germans are very concerned that the United States is causing great damage to German industry through its Inflation Reduction Act. All of this can only be interpreted to mean that the political and economic interests of the value partners do not necessarily coincide.
German political scientist Werner Weidenfeld has noted that the “traditional goods cultivated until now” in the relationship between Germany, Europe, and the United States have been “largely used up.”
Is there a clear solution for Germany in the complicated competitive situation between Germany or Europe, the United States, and China, as there was during the Cold War? Back then, Germany was given the grand strategy, which it only had to follow. Now Germany is expected to think strategically at a rapid pace. Quite a few Germans quarrel with the word Weltpolitik (world politics), which ushered in the German nightmare in the 20th century.
The fact that the three central German papers on China have not been elaborated as promised and announced can only be understood in this context.