Since the inauguration of President Donald Trump, the United States has been performing what seems to be a partial withdrawal from the international stage.
This retreat is sometimes purposeful, as when the administration realised its campaign promise to exit the Paris climate agreement. But is is also sometimes uncertain, as when Vice President Mike Pence offered a conciliatory endorsement of NATO’s Article 5 in early June, just days after Trump failed to do so during his speech in Brussels.
Despite such efforts to reassure allies, concerns remain that the US has taken an isolationist turn. The Trump administration has failed to fill numerous international positions, proposed cuts to the State Department’s budget and seen several members of its diplomatic corps resign.
On May 28, German Chancellor Angela Merkel plainly expressed her view that America is no longer a reliable international partner. In a noteworthy speech in Munich, she recast Trump’s “America first” doctrine in a European light, saying that “we Europeans really must take our fate into our own hands”.
Germany in the lead?
Though it’s likely a temporary vacuum, American withdrawal from the international stage may present an opportunity for countries to play a larger global role, defending the liberal world order while the United States is on a break. Merkel’s pointed response to Trump’s wavering signals on NATO and the Paris accord suggests that Germany may be among them.
But it seems unlikely that even a large and economically strong European country will be able to wield international influence across the many areas the US has traditionally dominated. To become a truly global player, Germany would likely need to leverage the power of a supra-national platform such as the European Union.
This has traditionally been Germany’s favoured approach. Rather than unilaterally pursuing their own goals, its officials have preferred to collaborate with European allies, defending their interests through negotiation. This was so even back when those partners, in post-Cold War Europe, were leary of potential German leadership (as demonstrated in the Kohl administration’s resolute negotiation stance in preparing the Maastricht agreement).
This historically rooted German self-constraint has been weakening over the past decade, so that today, the country’s allies demand greater German leadership. The role of Angela Merkel’s government in negotiating with Russia after the Crimea annexation and in leading European migration policy during the 2015-2016 international refugee crisis are two high-profile forays into that kind of international leadership.
Still, the preferred German approach is to work multilaterally, which Merkel made clear every time she emphasised Europe’s shared fate at a Bavarian bierfest after Trump’s European tour. Though she could easily mobilise voters by appealing to a German – or regional – identity, the chancellor instead defaults to a European identity whenever possible.
That leaves two paths through which Germany can exert influence: either through the European Union or via a less structured multilateral environment. The former would be a preferred path, but grassroots Euro scepticism may drive Germany to pursue other options.
Anti-EU sentiment has moved from generally Euro-sceptic countries, such as Denmark and Poland, to the traditional Franco-German engine of Europe, with parties like the National Front and Alternative für Deutschland arguing against regional integration.
Then, of course, there’s Brexit, the first time an EU member has chosen to leave the union. Before the EU can serve as a credible European voice abroad, it will first need to formulate a convincing, positive identity and raison d’être.
With Whitehall no longer participating in EU decisions, not just Germany but France, too, stands to gain regional influence. In the short term, it is likely that the European Union can only be a channel of influence on matters where all 27 remaining members can agree — and these are in short supply.
The second path for increased German influence would be though more multilateral European projects. Both the Euro currency zone and the Schengen area, which requires no passports or border controls, demonstrate the viability of this approach in the absence of consensus.
A recent project with the potential for large impact is Germany’s proposal of the NATO Framework Nation Concept, which is now in progress. The plan allows smaller European countries to integrate parts of their army into the chain of command of a larger country – namely, Germany, which has already integrated two Dutch brigades into the Bundeswehr armed forces and will incorporate one brigade each from the Czech Republic and Romania in 2017.
This ground-breaking project, a response to criticism of Germany’s lack of leadership, serves both to increase European military capacity within NATO and to create a European defense force that could eventually stand on its own.
Pragmatic foreign policy
Considering that not three decades ago, European leaders, such as Margaret Thatcher and François Mitterrand, needed substantial convincing to agree to German unification, the project is astounding.
It demonstrates the success of the European peace project — a source of legitimacy for European influence across the world — and confirms that countries with regional influence can indeed play a larger international role today.
This shift was underway since well before the Trump presidency, but the current gap in US global leadership will likely spur on a broader range of multilateral projects, both in Europe and beyond.
Whether Germany can translate this opportunity into expanded international influence depends on its ability to play a regionally integrating role, either at the European Union or in other multilateral fora. With her brand of low-key, diplomatic and pragmatic foreign policy, Chancellor Merkel may be the right woman for the task.