In my book, The Paradox of German Power, I argued that, since the euro crisis began in 2010, EU member states seemed to have adopted a mixture of bandwagoning and balancing in relation to Germany. In particular, I suggested that the countries of central Europe, whose economies had been integrated with Germany’s since reunification, seemed to be forming “a kind of geo-economic equivalent of a German sphere of influence”. Meanwhile, the eurozone “periphery” seemed to be under pressure to form what George Soros called a “common front” against Germany. In short, the east was bandwagoning and the south balancing. However, since then, I’ve started to wonder whether perhaps I underestimated the complexity and fluidity of coalition building within the European Union. Instead of two blocs within Europe, there seems to be an even more complex and fluid dynamic of shifting coalitions.
I can still remember how, in a late-night discussion at the Brussels Forum in March 2013, Estonian President Toomas Ilves urged the audience to read an article entitled “Why Poland is the new France for Germany” that had been published a few months earlier by my former ECFR colleagues Ulrike Guérot and Konstanty Gebert. The Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk – which the article said was “committed to joining the Euro around 2016” – had put behind it the fraught relationship that had existed between the two countries while Jarosław Kaczyński was prime minister between 2006 and 2007. As a result, the article suggested, some in Germany – which, in the context of the euro crisis, was increasingly frustrated with France’s perceived failure to reform its economy – increasingly saw Poland as its closest and most important partner in the European Union.
Since my book, The Paradox of German Power, came out, I’ve had some interesting discussions about the implicit assumptions about the nature of international relations in Europe on which it is based. In particular, especially in Germany, some have questioned whether the concepts I use make sense in the context of the European Union. The EU, they argue, has transformed international politics into domestic politics. So does it make sense to use concepts like hegemony in this context? Thus discussion of the “German question” – a phrase that implies continuity with pre-World War II Europe – inevitably raises broader questions about how to understand the way in which international politics in Europe has changed. How exactly has European integration transformed relations between European states?
A few weeks ago I attended a conference in Berlin, organised by the European Council Foreign Relations (where I worked for five years), on relations between Europe and Japan. What particularly struck me as I listened to the discussions during the course of the day was the lack of common ground between the German and Japanese participants. There are striking parallels in the histories of the two countries – one in Europe, the other in Asia – that go back a century and a half. As a result, policymakers in the two countries now face similar challenges. But instead of creating a sense of empathy between participants from Germany and Japan, the history they share seemed to create tension between them. I wondered whether, because the history that the two countries share is such a difficult one, it may separate them rather than bringing them together. In other words, perhaps Germany and Japan are divided by their parallel pasts.
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?
Over the last few weeks, as Greece has edged closer to leaving the European single currency, there has been much speculation about the different positions of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. Schäuble, who is generally thought to be more “pro-European” than Merkel but has paradoxically taken a tougher line towards Greece, is usually said to believe the single currency can only succeed if everyone abides by the rules. Merkel, on the hand, is said to worry about more the geopolitical costs of “Grexit”, particularly in the context of Russian revisionism since the annexation of Crimea in 2014. Others speculate that the difference between the positions of Merkel and Schäuble is merely tactical: a good cop/bad cop routine in order to extract concessions from Greece.
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.