With emotions running high in Ukraine, in Russia, across Europe, and in Washington, it has never been more obvious that the world needs Germany to accept more of the costs and risks that come with global leadership. As threats increase from all sides, the famously circumspect Chancellor Merkel is better placed than any other international leader to help Russia’s impetuous president and Ukraine’s fragile new government avoid a costly escalation of violence that serves no one’s interests, just as her foreign minister joined his counterparts from Poland and France in brokering a deal between the ousted president Yanukovych and Ukraine’s opposition leaders. She can also help bridge gaps between Russia, European governments, and Washington.
Yet, the need for Germany to accept a more high profile role in international politics extends well beyond the crisis in Ukraine, and there are signs that the German government is ready to take this step. At the Munich Security Conference in January, German President Joachim Gauck detailed how far his country had come from the days when the Nazis “brought suffering and war to the world.” He asserted that Germany “has transformed itself from a beneficiary to a guarantor of international order and security,” and that his country has more to offer. He’s right.
Germany’s president does not make policy, and Merkel has said little about any new willingness to deploy the German military into conflict zones. Other officials have played down expectations that Berlin’s attitude toward troop deployments will change. But Gauck’s comments echo signals from the country’s defense and foreign ministries that despite Germany well-known “culture of restraint,” these questions are receiving serious discussion within Merkel’s government. The Bundestag’s February authorization of more German troops for Mali was encouraging.
That said, military capacity is just one aspect of this story, because Germany has much to offer in areas that don’t involve soldiers or weapons. Greater investment in infrastructure in the developing world, stronger leadership in coordinating projects to develop new technologies to make food, communications, and the environment safer; and more direct support for diplomatic efforts to resolve conflicts in places like Sudan, Somalia, and the Central African Republic would all be welcome.
The hint that Germany might have more to offer comes at a critical time in international politics because, as the muted US reaction to events in Ukraine again makes clear, a war-weary American public and its elected officials are increasingly wary of new international responsibilities and want other governments to share more of the heavy-lifting. Even as the Obama administration talks up its expanded commitment to East Asia and its determination to cut a nuclear deal with Iran, its reluctance to engage more deeply in Middle East trouble spots like Syria, Egypt, and Libya as well as its intense focus on domestic policy and election-year politics make clear that America is not looking for new foreign policy challenges.
Nor are other major powers stepping forward to fill the breach. The delicate work of redesigning the Eurozone and its rules while maintaining domestic support for painful and unpopular changes within individual countries keeps European governments plenty busy. France has been the most active in combatting Islamic militants in Mali and elsewhere, and Britain is a vital source of security support, but most other European governments lack the means to take on new burdens.
Don’t expect China to volunteer for a heavier international lift as its leaders undertake one of the most ambitious (and riskiest) economic reform programs in history. India, Turkey, Brazil, and other emerging countries are now grappling with slowing growth and looming elections. Russia’s failure to diversify its economy away from over-reliance on energy exports saps that country’s long-term strength.
The result is a shortage of governments willing and able to do more to manage the world’s trouble spots and contribute to efforts to create a safer and more predictable global marketplace.
How can Germany help? It can accept new responsibilities that advance multinational goals. When Muammar Qaddafi announced plans to massacre a large number of his rebellious subjects in 2011, Britain and France stepped forward. Risk-averse Germany stepped back. Certainly, Merkel has risks to manage–inside Germany and across Europe. So far, she has handled them with remarkable effectiveness, and the risk of Eurozone collapse has been averted at least in part by her work. Germany has also played a valuable role in international negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program.
But Berlin can now afford, as Gauck argued, to do more in concert with other governments to help resolve conflict and to invest in a more predictable and prosperous global economy. Even if this sometimes includes a more active role for the German military.
Finally, let’s dispense with one more post-war taboo: To extend its international influence, Germany should work with Japan whenever possible, pooling their collective resources for the common good. Both the German and Japanese governments will face significant resistance to these changes at home. Recent polls find that a clear majority of Germans oppose a more active international role for their military. Japanese voters have likewise made clear that they care much more about Abe’s bid to revive Japan’s economy than its international prestige.
Despite the continued reluctance, it’s time for Germany and Japan to accept heavier international responsibilities, burdens appropriate for countries of their size and wealth. The world’s traditional powerbrokers could certainly use the help.
*Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of “Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.” You may follow him on Twitter @ianbremmer.