Where is Germany’s soft power?

A lot has been said and written in Europe about Germany’s role in the eurozone debt crisis. Meanwhile in Greece, the land of hyperbole, criticism of all things German often appears to spin out of control. That said, it seems that every time the Germans are called upon to play a leading role in the affairs of the continent as a whole, they botch the job.

I am not talking about the old days: Even in Europe’s recent history, Germany’s behavior has been far from consistent. Berlin’s insistence on recognizing the former Yugoslav republics over Washington’s objections, for example, created a vacuum in the Balkans that played a pivotal role in the events that followed.

The Germans have clearly learned how to use their so-called “hard power,” but have little understanding of the benefits of applying “soft power.” They learned nothing from the way the Americans went about establishing their hegemony in the western world by promoting the American way of life in the aftermath of World War II.

Berlin, in contrast, wants to impose its hegemony not by selling a lifestyle, as it were, but by implementing a business plan that lays out what each country will produce, which countries will operate as financial centers and so on. The leadership of the European Union, meanwhile, appears uninformed and uninvolved in the process. On the other hand, Berlin has failed to present an attractive vision of the future that could sway the people of southern Europe and convince them that it is worth making sacrifices for. Instead, it seeks to address people that have a completely different mindset with a Calvinist rulebook: “the rest of your life will be hard and then you’ll burn in hell.” Naturally, this does not work.

Whether it likes it or not, Europe will from now on have to learn to live without the US which is shifting its focus on Asia. The weight of the European project inevitably falls on Germany and the early signs are not good. German politicians often appear paralyzed and their decisions get postponed. The German people feel that their peers in southern Europe do not understand them and that EU leaders are blaming their country for every wrong turn. Geopolitics seems to have passed the Germans completely by.

It would be a pity to see the European project fail because it was constructed for the good times only. With the right vision, leadership and planning, Europe could compete for a place in a multipolar world. Without these, it will turn into a collection of small and medium-sized nations with little influence or power on the global map. In order to avoid this, Berlin must change the way it views Europe and the world – though history allows little room for optimism.

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