THE Munich Security Conference - Europe's top annual gathering for military officials and policy wonks - follows a predictable routine. The Europeans and Americans get together to renew their marriage vows. Nobody ever knows until the last minute who will represent Russia at the conference, although everybody knows what the Russians will say.
The Asians occasionally drop by, bringing with them territorial and historical disputes which, supposedly, the Europeans have long left behind. And everyone claims either that the United States is too domineering or that it is too timid in world affairs.
But this year's conference did spring a surprise, from none other than its German hosts who, in one official speech after another, expressed a desire for a more assertive and global German security role. "Germany should make a more substantial contribution, and it should make it earlier and more decisively," argued the country's President Joachim Gauck; "Germany is really too big to just comment from the sidelines," added Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
There is no question that Germany's emergence as an international strategic player could transform the global security map: Germany is not only Europe's biggest state, but also the world's fourth-largest economy. But the real questions are whether the Germans themselves understand what this rise actually means, and how much they will need to change before they become true global players.
Rising from wartime ruins
LIKE Japan, Germany emerged from World War II pulverised. It was spared a nuclear attack, but for the tens of thousands of Germans burnt alive each night in the "fire storms" created by US and British bombing, dying as a result of conventional rather than nuclear bombs was a distinction of no significance; the horrors of the war linger in the collective memories of both Germany and Japan.
Like Japan, Germany was also forced to accept a "peaceful Constitution", in which it forswore any intention to wage war. And both countries ended up relying on their old arch-enemy the US for military protection. Tucked away under America's security umbrella, Japan and Germany devoted themselves to economic growth, with spectacular results.
The biggest difference between Japan and Germany is, of course, that while the Germans have never ceased apologising for their responsibility in waging war and perpetrating genocide, the Japanese remain famously reluctant to confront their comparable deeds in history.
The result is that, while any rearmament move by Japan immediately attracts unfavourable responses from its neighbours, the pressure on Germany is in the opposite direction: Its allies frequently beg the Germans to adopt a more assertive security policy.
The most poignant appeal of this sort came in 2011 from Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland, a neighbour that has suffered centuries of repeated German invasions but which now, as Mr Sikorski put it, fears German power far less than "German inactivity".
THE Germans are no longer as timid as they once were. While other key European countries are reducing their overseas footprint, Germany is expanding its network of embassies. It lavishes money on its "soft power" activities, such as the Goethe institutes and the educational foundations of various German political parties.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel also dominated the handling of Europe's financial crisis: Countries on the verge of bankruptcy either had to swallow the bitter economic medicine prescribed by Dr Merkel, or risk getting no cash at all.
Nor have Germany's armed forces been idle: 4,500 German soldiers are stationed in Afghanistan, with many dispatched to the Balkans, Lebanon and Africa. And, although German politicians prefer not to talk about it, their country is now the world's third-largest exporter of weapons.
Still, none of this amounts to a coherent strategic vision, as Germany's recent behaviour indicates. The Germans, for instance, demanded the removal of Muammar Gaddafi, the Libyan leader, but then actively opposed the international military operation launched against him without offering any alternative.
Like the rest of Europe, the Germans claimed to be horrified when Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against insurgents, but then took no part in the subsequent debate about what should be done to stop the carnage in Syria.
In almost every major international crisis, Germany took the high road on principles but the low road on action. One of the most controversial topics during last year's general elections was not the growing turmoil around Europe's borders but, rather, a proposal from the local Green ecological party that public canteens should not serve meat for one day each week. The daily sausage became Germany's existential question.
Guarantor of security
DEEP down, Germany's political elite accepts that matters cannot continue like this. Their initial hope that Germany would not have to make any serious strategic choices because the European Union would acquire its own army and international security policy has evaporated: No such thing is likely to be created for decades.
Meanwhile, the US is no longer prepared to shoulder the burden of Europe's defences. But Germany cannot continue to sell goods to the world without, as President Gauck neatly put it at the Munich conference last month, switching from "a beneficiary to a guarantor of international security and order".
Unsurprisingly, the guests present at the conference were delighted. "We need a Germany able to contribute to world order in ways commensurate with its global power," responded Mr Ivo Daalder, who served until recently as the US ambassador to Nato and currently runs the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
However, the real audience that German politicians need to charm is not that of the foreign pundits but the German public itself. And that remains a huge political challenge.
No greater footprint on the international stage is conceivable if Germany continues to pretend that it has no national interests, that whatever it does is just for the good of the world or, at the very least, of Europe.
But, given the country's history, reasserting a specific German national interest will be controversial: As recently as in 2010, a German president was forced to resign for having the temerity to suggest that German troops in Afghanistan were fighting for Germany, rather than just for the United Nations.
German politicians argue, with some justification, that there is more to exercising international responsibilities than just being prepared to send troops around the world. Nevertheless, it is still a fact that for a country to be a great power, it must be prepared, however occasionally, to dispatch its troops overseas. Yet, the German forces are not configured for such expeditionary operations: Far too many of them remain tied to a strategy of territorial defence in the heart of Europe, against enemies that no longer exist.
Germany has an army that ranks 30th in the world in size, with only 183,000 active troops. It also spends only 1.3 per cent of its gross domestic product on defence, half of what Britain allocates yearly, and a quarter of the US budget.
Would Germany's population, which is rapidly ageing and therefore in greater need of health and social welfare expenditure, approve of increased spending on the military?
And would it approve of at least the possibility that, at some point, Germany may decide to act without the legal backing of a UN Security Council mandate? According to most opinion polls, the answer to both questions is "no" and, as long as that remains the case, Germany's international footprint will remain questionable.
Not just economic interests
AN INFLUENTIAL German global presence would also mean a need to treat China and Russia as more than just customers for German exports. In the past 10 years, trade between Germany and China has shot up from €36 billion to €145 billion (S$251 billion), yet the only momentous decision Germany took regarding China was to veto an EU move to slap anti-dumping restrictions on Beijing. That is not a strategic approach but a commercial one that is unsustainable: If Germany wants to become a global player, it will have to get embroiled in wider questions about how to handle China's rise, the sort of delicate questions the Germans have hitherto avoided and to which they have no particular answer.
Over time, there is no doubt that Germany remains the country to watch, especially since both Britain and France are in decline. But the process of Germany's rise to global pre-eminence will be nowhere near as smooth nor as fast as some of the country's politicians are currently suggesting.
For, as Dr Merkel herself once memorably put it, when she thinks of her beloved Germany, she instinctively imagines "well-sealed windows". The kind of windows that provide a perfect view of the turbulent world outside with total insulation.
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