Given the nervous breakdown of America, epitomised by the election of know-nothing Donald Trump as President, it is altogether understandable and human that elites are desperately casting about for a new champion of western stability. There are precious few other candidates for the job, so largely by the process of elimination analysts (particularly on the left) have hit upon Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany as the last, best hope for the western order.
This would be a laughable thesis if people were not taking it seriously. For in truth, Germany cannot save either the wider world or Europe. In fact, it is an open question as to whether Germany can even save itself.
In her endless intellectual confusion over the basic fact that caution is not the same thing as wisdom, it is all too easy to point the finger of blame at Merkel for this. Yet Germany’s problems, and the weaknesses that spring from them, are far more systemic and deep-rooted. A simple look at the unholy trinity of crises facing Berlin—the endless euro crisis, the war in Ukraine, and the refugee crisis—makes it clear that Germany is more supplicant than driving force on the world stage.
More than the others, it is euro crisis that provides the analytical key to understanding overall German weakness. The basic problem is psychological and moral. In Europe, what is truly going on is the end of economic life as it has been known. Europeans simply can no longer afford the serene, cosseted, not overly strenuous and very attractive way of life they have grown used to; government in European countries has simply grown unaffordable.
Having bought into the cult of endless leisure time as an inalienable right, it is devilishly hard to row back from this primary sign of decadence. But almost no-one wants to hear this, much less do anything about it. To do so would require a very painful, immediate retrenchment for millions. That is human and understandable, but it is also fatal. For it means that at present democratic politics in Europe is being conducted based on lies.
And lying—beyond the immorality of it–is a very poor basis for making sustainable policy, at least in any open society. With its wilfully ignorant populace, Germany is the primary example of how stubborn self-delusion fuels member states’ approach to Europe.
In essence, to survive, the euro-zone will either move towards a true federation, becoming a debt union complete with fiscal transfers (all done on largely German terms) or the euro will cease to exist. As such, Berlin will be the primary paymaster for such a new political constellation. As none of this appeals to much of anyone in Germany, best not to talk about it. And so Chancellor Merkel does not.
It is at this point that even the sleepiest German citizen will wake up, howling. It is also here that not levelling with one’s own people becomes as poor a strategy as it is immoral. By not making clear what is really going on, Merkel has been able for quite a long while to put off an awful lot of unpleasantness. But to imagine for a moment that the German people won’t feel fundamentally lied to once the check for this Kafkaesque party comes due, is not to be Machiavellian. Rather, it is to be hopelessly naïve.
Whatever Germany ultimately decides to do, there will have to be sacrifices. And any policy requiring those sacrifices that is not buttressed by public support stands no chance of success. Lying as a way to avoid the democratic deficit over the European crisis is not clever.
Meanwhile, Germany, like doomed passengers on the Titanic, has spotted the economic iceberg dead ahead, but made precious little effort to right the ship of state’s course. The demographic problem is especially stark. The old age dependency ratio—which evaluates the number of pensioners in a society versus the working age population—simply cannot be wished away. The German ratio was 34% in 2013, rising to an economically crippling 52% by 2030. Over this period of time, the number of pensioners in Germany will skyrocket by 5 million, even as the number of workers declines by 6 million. Who is going to pay for those endless vacations and for the overly generous social safety net?
The inconvenient truth about Germany is that it is strategically pacifist (with laughable defence capabilities for a serious power), politically ostrich-like in its stubborn refusal to even attempt to master Europe’s many policy crises, and—worst of all—economically very much living on borrowed time.
For all these reasons, Germany is simply not the answer to any serious strategic question there is.
Published in City AM London, January 16, 2017