Germany Cannot End Up as the Global Powers’ Plaything

Washington has grasped the need to think about the acute threat from Russia and challenges in the Indo-Pacific realm together. Berlin has not — and runs the risk of becoming the global powers’ plaything.

Russia’s offensive war is making brutally clear how vulnerable the international order is. That apparent certainties — peace in Europe — can be destroyed overnight. And once again, the strategic confrontation with Asia is relegated to the background.

As with the pandemic, an immediately pressing challenge is blinding us to other factors that will shape the 21st century. As a result, debates since that fateful Feb. 24 have focused exclusively on Europe’s political reorientation with respect to security and are limited to Germany’s immediate neighbors. And Asia is fading somewhere into mental oblivion.

This German tunnel vision, this provincial mindset, is in stark contrast to the politics of the Biden administration. The United States is having much more success thinking about the urgent threat from Russia and the long-term challenges in the Indo-Pacific area together. The U.S. is already where the EU, with Germany leading the way, should have been long ago.

You can see this in the clear commitment to Taiwan and the U.S. president’s recent trip to South Korea and Japan. In addition, the QUAD alliance countries – the United States, Japan, Australia, and India – are committed to a free Indo-Pacific realm. The proposed Indo-Pacific Economic Framework is also reason to sit up and take notice. Apparently, after an erratic Donald Trump phase, U.S. politics has found its way back to the “pivot to Asia” policy proclaimed by Barack Obama.

Dialogue with Asian nations is critical for stability and well-being, precisely because Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is throwing the multilateral order into question and China remains a systemic rival.

In Germany, in contrast, we are looking in vain for strategic answers to a China and Russia riding in tandem and the unmitigated appeal of China’s development model for developing countries. The German chancellor’s mini-trip to Tokyo in late April and meetings between the German and Indian governments are at best a beginning, but they are by no means sufficient — unless we believe in the benedictory power of symbolic politics.

But politics is not the only thing that has lost sight of 21st century challenges. It is obvious that almost no one among the German public cares about the implications of elections in South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. It’s the other side of the world, after all; what does it have to do with me? Unfortunately, the same can be said about supply chain problems, the Shanghai lockdown, the concentration of semiconductors in Taiwan and the distancing by many Asian nations from Russia’s criminal aggression to the point where they are practically nonexistent.

And that’s so despite numerous experts who are noticeably and persistently clamoring for people to finally — finally! — take these developments seriously. But “listen to the science” apparently applies in Germany only when the problem is right at our front door and not when it is brewing thousands of miles away.

In this sense, nothing less than another “Russia moment” looms on the horizon, when the rubble of another miscalculation will become glaringly apparent. When alliances prove to be less durable than expected, for example; or political priorities shift in our disfavor without apparent warning; or economic and scientific dependency on China becomes so great that Germany and Europe can no longer write the rules of the game, and instead, others must dictate the rules to them.

Limited Knowledge of Asian Power Relations

For economic reasons alone, Europe can’t concern itself only with Europe. Anyone can read about the goals the People’s Republic of China has set for 2049 and with those goals, our future problems. Will fair globalization that is based on quality and innovation win out, as we dream about in the West? Or will Communist Party-ruled China be able to dictate the rules of world trade in the future?

Furthermore, why hasn’t the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement been finalized yet? Are we having an honest discussion about whether the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership is being conducted honestly, or are we gambling away our well-being with embarrassing debates about chlorinated chickens? After all, the German foreign ministry’s policy guidelines about the Indo-Pacific region still provide that “the Federal Government firmly believes that rules-based free trade enhances prosperity on both sides.” But what about implementation?

If we are being self-aware, we must realize that we still know too little about conflicts and dependencies in Asia, and that we have a huge problem even understanding Asian culture, let alone the conclusions that must be drawn. This is even more regrettable given that Germany as president of the Group of Seven major industrialized nations could certainly push for a more nuanced Asia strategy.

For Germany, it is high time that the “expansion of relations…with important partners who share our values” mentioned in the current coalition government’s mandate move ahead. If we do not manage to establish institutionally guaranteed partnerships between Europe and Asian nations, preferably with Germany leading the way, our country, our continent, will end up as a cute museum village, a plaything for other nations.

It doesn’t have to be that way—but we will have to overcome our own provincial mindset and focus on our immediate neighbors. If not now, when?

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