Germany: economic giant reluctant to lead

Published on NewsOK Modified: September 18, 2013 at 6:45 am •  Published: September 18, 2013
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BERLIN (AP) — Germany boasts the world's most powerful woman, Europe's most powerful economy and an industrial machine that's the envy of the planet.

With all that muscle, it seems natural to assume the mantle of Europe's undisputed leader. But Germany is a reluctant giant — and this Sunday's national elections are unlikely to change that.

If the political debate ahead of the election proved anything, it's that neither incumbent Angela Merkel's conservative forces, nor her center-left rivals — nor indeed the German people at large — have any appetite to take center stage as a European or global leader, despite the unmistakably German flavor of the continent's response to its debt crisis.

Germany seems content to lurk in the shadows, perhaps quietly pulling strings or exerting pressure, but unwilling to assume the risks that true political leadership entails. That fact has been reflected on the campaign trail, with little discussion of Germany's role in Europe and the wider world, or the future of the common euro currency.

Such issues have taken a back seat to more mundane matters such as higher taxes for the rich or a national minimum wage. And both Merkel and challenger Peer Steinbrueck were quick to rule out German participation in any military strikes against Syria.

To be sure, since Greece's debt troubles ignited Europe's debt crisis nearly four years ago, Germany's economic firepower has made it the country without which few significant decisions can be made in Europe. Sixty-eight years since the collapse of Adolf Hitler's Nazi regime, Berlin is in a novel position of pre-eminence after decades of being on equal terms with France as the continental heavyweight.

But with Europe often seen as rudderless, some — even among former victims of German World War II aggression — would like Germany to embrace its leadership role openly.

Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski of Poland, a country traditionally wary of its bigger neighbor, has said that "nobody else can do it."

"I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity," Sikorski told a largely German audience in late 2011.

Merkel is fond of saying that Europe must become more competitive as China and other powers rise. "The world doesn't sleep," she said recently. However, she hasn't coupled that with any grand visions for a continental revival.

In Europe, Merkel — an instinctively cautious politician — concentrates on what she calls her "step-by-step" approach of methodically tackling the continent's debt and competitiveness problems, keeping a tight hold on Germany's purse strings.

And if Germany's allies want it to exert more than economic "soft power," they are likely to be disappointed.

"Berlin quite simply lacks the political ambition to provide clear leadership in turbulent times," Ulrike Guerot of the European Council on Foreign Relations wrote in a research paper this month.

"Rather, it hopes to influence events by force of example, getting others to transpose the German model of thriftiness at home and competitiveness abroad into their own financial, economic and political cultures."

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