Much of the discussion about the causes of “populism” that is currently taking place seems to me to be hopelessly binary. The term is now used to describe an extraordinarily diverse array of figures, movements and parties (and even, in the case of Brexit, outcomes) in different geographical locations. The causes clearly differ in each case – even within Europe. But even many of those who recognize this seem to think it is possible to make the claim that, in a specific case, populism can be explained by either “economic” or “cultural” factors rather than a complex interaction between the two. A good example is Timothy Garton Ash’s essay in the current issue of the New York Review of Books, in which he claims that the success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is caused by culture rather than “economic factors”. It seems to me the reality is much more complex.
“If you want to understand the RAF [Red Army Faction], you have to read Moby Dick”, Stefan Aust said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that was published in 2007. Herman Melville’s great American novel was an important text for the West German terrorist group, about whom I write in my book, Utopia or Auschwitz. The members of the group seemed to have imagined themselves as the crew of the Pequod, the whaling ship in the novel – though it is not clear how many of them had actually read it apart from Gudrun Ensslin, who had studied German literature. It was Ensslin who came up with the idea of giving them codenames taken from characters in the novel, which they used in correspondence with each other while they were in prison in the early 1970s. Paraphrasing Andreas Baader, one might say they saw whaling and shooting as the same thing. But what exactly does reading Moby-Dick actually tell us about the RAF?
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?