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The Boston Globe

Opinion

Daniel Benjamin

Germany’s foreign policy: Time to step up

The Germans are stirring. The question is whether Europe’s economic superpower will rise to the occasion.

At issue is Germany’s global role. For most of time since World War II, the word to describe the country’s foreign policy has been Bescheidenheit — modesty or restraint.

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In the wake of Hitler’s aggression and the Holocaust, West Germans rightly felt the only good option for them was to bury themselves in the key institutions of the West — NATO and, as it was called for most of this period, the European Economic Community. German leaders let the United States, the United Kingdom, and France handle the big military and diplomatic issues of the time while they focused on building their economy and wrote checks to support the integration of the poorer EC members and global security efforts. With the exception of a brief period of activism that began with the Yugoslavia crises of the 1990s and ended with deployment of forces to Afghanistan, German troops stayed home.

More recently, under Chancellor Angela Merkel and hapless Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, Berlin has pulled back, abstaining on a 2011 UN Security Council vote to authorize a no-fly zone over Libya — to the astonishment of allies — and shying away from supporting military action after Syria’s use of chemical weapons. Meanwhile, German defense spending has declined to 1.4 percent of GDP — far below NATO’s agreed standard of 2 percent.

Now, though, since elections last fall brought a new coalition to power last fall, some of Germany’s leaders believe this has gone on long enough. Germany’s new Defense Minister, Ursula van der Leyen, with an eye on the problems of Mali and the Central African Republic, declared earlier this year, “We can’t look away when murder and rape are taking place daily.” Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also signaled his desire for a more active policy, noting, “The world has changed, and we need to do a few things differently.”

Perhaps the most striking call for a new approach came from the country’s much admired President Joachim Gauck, a former dissident clergyman in East Germany and the first head of the archive on East Germany’s “Stasi” intelligence agency. Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, he acknowledged that many view Germany as a “shirker” and that the time had come for the country to “do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it for decades.”

So the stirring is clearly coming from above, from the upper levels of the German elite who know better than most about global realities. (Chancellor Merkel hasn’t been heard from yet, but it is hard to imagine she’d allow her ministers to take this route without her tacit support.)

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Building support in the German public will be more difficult, however. Decades of being sheltered from direct engagement in most of the world’s hotspots has left the German citizenry cosseted and comfortable. It may be a cliché — though one validated by years of polls — but Germans want their country to behave more like Switzerland than a great power.

Nonetheless, this effort to refit German foreign policy should be welcomed, however overdue. To begin with, it comes at a moment when the lights have been dimming on America’s partnership with Europe. US policymakers have been chafing for years at declining defense budgets across the Atlantic, the feeling that Europe has been free-riding on America’s global security presence, and the continent’s persistent introspection. With staggering bills for wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — conflicts not paid for in the traditional way by taxes — US patience is a low point, even if all agree that Iraq was our mistake.

Perhaps the Ukraine crisis will change European thinking, but few analysts are holding their breath. Over the long term, the much-discussed pivot to Asia may reflect an understanding that the East promises both more economic dynamism and potentially more vigorous, globally engaged partners.

Germany, with its robust economy, could be an exception, even if Berlin is saddled with much of the cost of European economic recovery. A Germany that steps up to global responsibilities commensurate with its stature would help resuscitate the Western project of promoting democracy, strengthening institutions, and integrating outsiders into the international economy. Good luck to Germany’s leaders: Building support for this new role would be an historic achievement.

Daniel Benjamin served as ambassador-at-large and coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. He is now director of Dartmouth’s John Sloan Dickey Center for International Understanding.

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