Germany's ascent as world power

Germany's ascent as world power

"Weltmeister Deutschland!" screamed the headline in Bildt, Germany's highest-circulation newspaper, the day after the country won football's World Cup.

Seldom before have two words been chosen so carefully, to convey a deeper meaning. For "weltmeister" in the German language can mean either "world champion", which Germany indisputably is or, if literally translated, could also mean "master of the world", a status which at least some in Europe still accuse Germany of aspiring to.

Sport, as many would say, should have nothing to do with politics. But it is a fact that Germany has won Fifa's World Cup on three previous occasions and, each time, the victory underscored a profound shift in the country's political fortunes.

The first triumph in 1954 provided Western Germany with its first national cheer after the horrors of World War II. The second in 1974 came just as Germany rose to become a major international trader. The 1990 Cup was won months after the Berlin Wall fell and Germany's reunification became inevitable.

And the current win can be interpreted as putting the final seal on that lengthy process of unification. The top German cheerleaders in Rio de Janeiro last Sunday - Federal President Joachim Gauck and Chancellor Angela Merkel - both come from the old East Germany.

And the country they represent is now Europe's biggest, wealthiest and most influential nation, the world's fourth-biggest economy.

The behaviour of Germans mirrored this rapid transformation. When Germany won the 1990 World Cup, its then Chancellor Helmut Kohl looked bemused and embarrassed as his national anthem was being played.

But last weekend, millions of young Germans painted their faces in the red, gold and black national colours. And millions erupted in a spontaneous rendition of the national anthem. The old days when Germans instinctively hid their national pride are over.

It would be churlish to deny Germany its achievements. For everything it has accomplished, from its economy to its football, was achieved in the classic German way: through discipline, patience and hard work.

Still, many Europeans wonder whether the country which dominates the continent in every field is willing to shoulder the strategic responsibilities this entails.

The pressures on Dr Merkel are intense. Before heading to Brazil to cheer her national football team, she undertook a gruelling trade mission to China. And immediately after the World Cup, she flew back to Berlin to deal with France and Italy which refuse to tackle their national economic problems but still expect German cash to bail them out, and with a Britain which increasingly wants out of the European Union. And then there is the restless east Europeans, terrified of the new threat from Russia.

None of these problems can be addressed without Germany providing a lead. Yet none can be settled without ruffling feathers, without creating winners and losers, something the Germans are still loath to do. The result is, therefore, a curious wobble, a desperate German attempt to please everyone by avoiding realities, which only ends up in annoying most partners.

The Germans have certainly been generous in bailing out European nations facing bankruptcy. But they also continue to insist that their neighbours implement politically toxic economic reforms. Germany is also aware of the rising antagonism to the European Union, now seen as a massive bureaucratic centralising project. But Dr Merkel's response is to put forward even more complicated bureaucratic structures for the EU.

But Europe's biggest difficulty with Germany is that, although the country is the second-biggest contributor to the Nato military alliance after the United States, it remains a military pygmy.

Germany spends 40 per cent less on its military than Britain or France. And the first thing Dr Merkel did when Russian troops intervened in Ukraine earlier this year, thereby unleashing the biggest security crisis in Europe since the end of the Cold War, was to announce that, whatever happens, Germany would not increase its defence expenditure.

To all intents and purposes, Germany remains a free-rider in European security: It is content to allow others to spend money on the military, while it concentrates on what it does best, which is to export precision engineering products to the world.

Ironically, the Germany of today is precisely the country countless previous generations of Europeans prayed for: a nation economically strong, but militarily weak. Yet this dysfunction cannot last; normality will not return to Europe until its biggest nation also contributes to continental security.

That may come. But perhaps not until the next German win in the World Cup.


This article was first published on July 19, 2014.
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