The German Question Resolved

By Schafer, Werner | Harvard International Review, Summer 2001 | Go to article overview

The German Question Resolved


Schafer, Werner, Harvard International Review


Making Sense of Schroeder's Foreign Policy

Henry Kissinger once described the Federal Republic of Germany as "economically a giant, but politically a dwarf." While the first part of the description is still fairly accurate, the latter seems questionable today--over 10 years after reunification. Since Gerhard Schroeder became Chancellor in 1998, Germany has increasingly made itself heard on the world stage. It is no longer "America's favorite colony" or the ever-compliant

EU member that pays all of the bills. At the same time, there is no danger of Germany aspiring to be a "giant" once again. The "German question," which arose from the possibility of that aspiration coming true, has been resolved by European integration. The evidence for this phenomenon can be drawn from the seemingly incoherent foreign policy record of Schroeder's Red-Green coalition.

A Newfound Assertiveness

Although the stability created by European integration has been celebrated for decades, it was not until the current government rose to power that the strength of the integrative bonds were seriously tested. Until 1990, Western European countries had been held together by the common threat of communism from the East and hegemony from across the Atlantic. Moreover, unlike the aftermath of World War I, the post-1945 era in West Germany had seen a complete acknowledgment of the country's guilt for World War II. From this guilt arose a sense among political elites that it was only appropriate for Germans to be modest in their external relations. Furthermore, the goal and raison d'etre of the Federal Republic, according to its own constitution, had been the eventual achievement of reunification of the entire German people. As the victorious powers of World War II retained partial sovereignty over the whole of Germany until 1990, the goal of reunification necessitated German good will and moderation. In the years after reunification, Chancellor Helmut Kohl continued to be guided by a sense of history that prescribed a moderate and conciliatory attitude in the conduct of foreign affairs. However, when Schroeder rose to power, his administration was composed of men and women who had no recollection of the war and its immediate aftermath and who had grown up in an economically thriving liberal democracy. They were leading a country that was once again the largest in Europe in both population and economic output. It was soon clear that under these circumstances Germany would no longer settle for being a political "dwarf."

Instead, the country was finally beginning to exert its full political weight in the world. This emergence manifested itself in a variety of ways. In the spring of 1999, German troops saw battle for the first time since World War II in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's (NATO) intervention in Kosovo. Unlike previous multinational interventions of the 1990s, Germany did not invoke its past to stay out of the fray. Instead, a sense that it was time for the country to take on greater responsibility in the international arena prevailed.

Along with this new sense of responsibility came a stronger demand for influence, as shown by the renewed demands for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and by German efforts to push its nationals into high-level positions at international institutions. Schroeder's near-unilateral decision to make his chief of staff Bodo Hombach Special Coordinator of the EU Stability Pact for South Eastern Europe and his insistence on a German Managing Director for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are the most prominent examples.

Moreover, the Schroeder government early in its term aggressively demanded reductions in its contributions to the European Union's budget and made it clear that it would pursue its national interests within the institution much more vigorously than its predecessors. Unsurprisingly, this caused suspicion and resentment in the rest of Europe.

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