Since the euro crisis began five years ago, there has been much discussion of a return of the “German question” – though few of the commentators or analysts who have used the term have explicitly defined the new version of “German question” or clearly explained what it has to do with the original (that is, pre-1945) “German question”. The argument in my book, The Paradox of German Power, is that what defined the “German question” between 1871 and 1945 was Germany’s position of “semi-hegemony” in Europe. It seems to me that since reunification in 1990 Germany has returned to something this position of “semi-hegemony” – as some German historians such as Dominik Geppert have also argued. At the same time, there is no danger of war as there was between 1871 and 1945. So does it even make sense to speak of a “German question” in the current context?
In a recent article on relations between China and India by the historian Srinath Raghavan, I was struck by the following line: “Not since the late 19th century has infrastructure been so prominent an issue in great power relations.” Raghavan had in mind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s new alternative to the Asian Development Bank, which will be used to fund projects such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. China presents them as futuristic projects that exemplify a “win-win” logic in international relations. But perhaps, as Raghavan’s reference to the late nineteenth century suggests, they are more old-fashioned and zero-sum than China’s liberal rhetoric suggests. In particular, the Silk Road Economic Belt – which will run from China through Central Asia to Europe – reminds me of nothing so much as the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
Since taking part in a study trip to Tokyo (which prompted me to write another post on Japan and the concept of “civilian power”) over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of collective memory in international relations in Asia. In Tokyo, where we spent a week in discussions with policymakers and analysts from all over Asia, we talked a lot about history and the role it plays in tensions between Asian countries. In particular, there is an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Nanking massacre in 1937. This is particularly important because it plays into the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. There are also acrimonious disputes between Japan and Korea over issues such as the “comfort women” the Japanese forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
In an essay I wrote in 2011, I argued that Germany should no longer be thought of as a “civilian power” but rather as a “geo-economic power”. I argued that the weakening of the Federal Republic’s commitment to multilateralism during the previous decade and its increasing economic assertiveness, particularly within the eurozone, undermined its claim to be a “civilian power” – that is, one that used multilateral institutions and economic co-operation rather than military power to achieve its foreign policy goals. The concept of “civilian power” was originally used by François Duchêne to describe the European Union and was applied to the Federal Republic by Hanns W. Maull, who, in one of his first essays on the subject in the early 1990s, described Germany and Japan as “new civilian powers” – “prototypes” of “a new type of international power”. So if Germany is no longer a “civilian power”, what about Japan?
Last week I spent a few days in Helsinki, where I took part in a panel discussion about European foreign policy organised by the Finnish Institute of International Affairs. It was an interesting time to be there. The issue on everyone’s minds, just like everywhere else right now, was the Ukraine crisis and in particular the implications of the Russian annexation of Crimea last month. St. Petersburg is less than 200 miles away from Helsinki and Finland was part of the Russian empire for 108 years until it became independent in 1917. Russia still feels very present in Helsinki – for example a statue of Tsar Alexander II stands in front of the neo-classical Lutheran cathedral in the centre of the city. So during my time there, I was particularly interested to hear from officials, analysts and journalists about the complex relationship between Finland and Russia.
Europeans, particularly “pro-European” Europeans like me, often make the argument that it is only by pooling their collective resources that can they compete in the emerging world of continent-sized powers such as China, India and the US. By jointly pursuing their interests, the 28 member states of the European Union – the world’s largest trading bloc – can have greater impact than any of them can have individually. In particular, this argument is often deployed to show why it would be a mistake for the UK to leave the EU: to do so would commit it to “geopolitical oblivion”, as a French official put it to me. The idea, in short, is that size matters, as Peter Mandelson put it at a dinner I attended a year or so ago. But interestingly (and perhaps slightly worryingly), this discourse about size echoes the one in Europe at the end of the nineteenth century.
I spent the weekend at a conference at Wiston House in Sussex, where you can’t help think about history. Wiston House is owned by Wilton Park, a foundation set up after the end of World War II that was originally based at an estate near Beaconsfield, where German POWs (including Helmut Schmidt) discussed democracy with British intellectuals. Kingsley Martin, the editor of the New Statesman, called Wilton Park a “prisoners’ university” that was “the nucleus of what might become a new democratic Germany”. It was set up by Heinz Koeppler, a Jewish-German émigré and in 1948 was taken over by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to hold conferences. In 1951 it moved to Wiston House, parts of which date back to the sixteenth century. In such surroundings, it’s hard not to think in historical analogies – especially when it comes to Germany.