By Fabrizio Tassinari, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Fabrizio Tassinari is head of foreign policy at the Danish Institute for International Studies and senior non-resident fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. The views expressed are his own.
Once again, the world is populated by two German entities. You cannot draw them on a map this time, but their contours are still clear.
The first Germany is heading for general elections on September 22. It is a nation self-absorbed by the bread-and-butter issues that form the baseline of economic livelihood. Politics being local, some of the items on the agenda appear quirky to outsiders, such as the discussion of a “veggie day” in state canteens. From minimum wages to rising inequality, this Germany is preoccupied with similar things to any post-industrial democracy, plus a touch of trademark Teutonic rigor and angst.
The second Germany doesn’t need to go to the polls to be crowned Europe’s paramount power. This is the country with an aggressive commercial diplomacy that dictates policy on the profligate nations of Southern Europe. The Economist recently wrote about Berlin’s reluctant hegemony; others call it a “geo-economic power.” The key question for this other Germany is whether and how it will take up the mantle of leadership, in Europe and beyond.
Each of these two versions has its detractors: The first version is mocked as an isolationist big Switzerland. The other has been the object of scorn throughout the euro crisis, with Chancellor Angela Merkel unflatteringly portrayed in Nazi fatigues. No one questions that Berlin has basically weathered the Great Recession relatively well. Still, rarely have the mentality of a nation and the world’s expectations of it seemed so far apart.
As a newcomer to Berlin – itself a unique blend of dazzling metropolitan diversity and cozy provincial frugality – it’s fascinating to observe how these two versions form the present German story. Consider the economy. The new German miracle is routinely described as a combination of manufacturing and export prowess, helped by decade-old reforms, particularly wage control. Germans themselves have mixed feelings about these reforms. Many economists here argue that both for its specificities and shortcomings, the German experience does not amount to a “model” applicable to others.
Still, other nations are understandably likely to want to emulate parts of what is working: President Barack Obama, for one, suggested as much in his last State of the Union address, with his reference to vocational training.
To be sure, German insistence on austerity has irked several governments in Europe. But structural reforms in Europe’s cash-strapped south are motivated by real imbalances and a chronic lack of competitiveness. Spain or Italy need to liberalize their calcified labor market for their own sake, especially that of their jobless youth, not Germany’s. That said, even a country with valuable practices to share can become the bully imposing its will on others.
Foreign policy is the other mirror of this dual Germany. Even by its anti-war standards, Germany’s abstention from the 2011 Libya intervention stood out as inconsistent with the Western mainstream. Today, Berlin’s stance on Syria remains typically studious: “Germany,” said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, “would be among those who consider consequences to be appropriate.”
Britain’s parliamentary debacle and Obama’s self-inflicted detour in Congress underscore how leaders are struggling to find foreign policy legitimacy. As in other countries, German politicians would rather steer clear of discussing complex international crises during an election campaign. Yet, Berlin is routinely accused of punching below its weight even when, as in Syria, the international community seems to be following a similar path.
Elections are usually the time to take stock of a country’s self-image. But if anything, the fact that the German campaign has been so restrained on this is a sign of a mature democracy. Indeed, the uneventful campaign may indicate that, in the eyes of many voters at least, the German position on fundamental economic and strategic issues has been largely vindicated.
For better or worse, Merkel herself is often described as the chief architect of much of the above. For sure, she is the perfect embodiment of it: her pragmatism makes her the champion of the first Germany and her poise an epitome of the second one. Yet because of the arcane arithmetic of the German voting system, even high approval ratings would not translate into a landslide victory.
Ultimately, though, the Chancellor’s enduring popularity suggests that these two imaginary Germanies can coexist just fine.