Expert Speak Atlantic Files
Published on Nov 17, 2016
Shock waves sent out by election of the new leader must have also shaken some otherwise clear minds.
No leader of the free world

The shock waves sent out by the election of Donald Trump as the US President through the world must have also shaken some otherwise rather clear minds. Foreign Policy, the US based magazine came up with the headline “The Dawn of Pax Germanica” and even The Hindu ran a story titled “Merkel, the new leader of the free world?” The question mark at the end is more than appropriate although I learned in journalism school that question marks at the end of a headline are to be avoided.

One might excuse the misleading term “Pax Germanica” with the fact that nobody knows Latin anymore today. But a few things need to be set straight here. The expression means “German peace” and refers to the well known concept of a hegemonial peace — “Pax Imperia” — that was derived from the model of a Roman peace — “Pax Romana” — under Emperor Augustus (and it is therefore sometimes called “Pax Augusta”). The idea is that a hegemonial state secures peace over a longer period of time, as Rome did during the reign of Augustus (63 BC to 19 AC) and beyond.

While some of us have been enjoying a “Pax Americana” for the last seventy years, others have probably suffered it. But the likelihood of it being replaced by a “Pax Germanica” is zero for three very obvious reasons:

  • Germany is not a hegemon.
  • Germany does not aspire to become a hegemon.
  • Nobody wants Germany to be a hegemon.
  1. Germany is a mid-size European power that economically plays in the first global league but is a military dwarf. The Federal German Army cannot even defend the Afghan town of Kunduz with a bit more than 200,000 inhabitants against the Taliban or its own territory for that matter, let alone create a “Pax Germanica”. Germany does not even meet the NATO demand for an expenditure of two percent of its GDP on the military and it has been rightly criticised for that even by President Barack Obama. It also has no nuclear weapons which would be a precondition to get anywhere near to hegemony in a region that has three nuclear powers (France, the UK and Russia).
  2. While the German government is clearly aware that its international role has grown significantly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there is nobody who wishes to extend this role beyond being a leading European power within the European Union. It is a lesson from German history that the country has been too small to dominate Europe and too big to be just an ordinary player among others. This was the reason for its division after World War II and it is one of the main reasons for the existence of the European Union.
  3. Containment of Germany therefore was and is a political aim of the US, France and the UK, although the Brexit advocates might have forgotten that the risk of an unravelling of the EU is not quite in London’s security interest. But that’s not the only thing they forgot. There is no reason to assume that the post-war consensus on Germany’s role in Europe has evaporated.

The acquisition of nuclear weapons though Germany is therefore unthinkable. Not only in Berlin, where the trauma of total destruction during World War II has made it politically impossible to even suggest a nuclearisation.

This should be enough to bury the idea of a “Pax Germanica”. But has Angela Merkel become the “leader of the free world”? I would rather assume that she has become a kind of “princess of hearts” although she is as much an antitype to the late Princess Diana as she is to Donald Trump.

While it is true that, “Ms. Merkel made by far the most dignified response to Mr. Trump’s election,” as the British historian Timothy Garton Ash put it, Merkel mainly relies on a strong economy and soft power.

“Germany and America,” she said, “are tied by values of democracy, freedom and respect for the law and human dignity, independent of origin, skin colour, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political views. I offer the next President of the United States, Donald Trump, close co-operation on the basis of these values.”

Merkel’s sober rationality combined with some bold and principled decision based on enlightened values (such as in the refugee crisis) have not only made her an outstanding leader but an anchor of sanity in a political discourse that has been spiralling out of control this year. In a situation where many believe that the ascent of Donald Trump marks “the end of the West as we know it,” Merkel offers at least some comfort, that not all is lost yet.

But if Merkel can be a counter weight to Trump highly depends on the European Union and it seems a bit premature to believe that Europe could “grow up fast” in the wake of the coming storm. The very term “growing up” implies that life has its own pace and that is true for children as well as for institutions.

A victory of the rightwing populist Front National in the upcoming French elections, for example would bury these hopes completely. And it is not a sign of hegemony to depend on elections in another country. It is bad enough and clearly a disadvantage of every “Pax Imperia” that too many depend on decisions that are made elsewhere. In fact, it contradicts the idea of democracy itself. It could therefore well prove to be the Achilles heel of the Western project as a “Pax Americana”.

Unfortunately, it needs much more than Merkel can do to secure the project of a norm-based world order that was bolstered by US military strength for seventy years. Even the idea of a European Army that EU Commission President Jean Claude Junker has recently brought up again has been scrapped by European leaders. Europe will therefore have to negotiate with Trump about the future of the US’ engagement in Europe and NATO.

Most likely this will lead to some not so nice compromises and it will be expensive. Whether this will help established political leaders in Europe remains to be seen, but it is possible that it will further erode their popularity.

Having said this, I will still vote for Merkel and hope for the best. If this reminds you of what people said about Hillary Clinton before the US elections, you are right. It is an awfully insecure political perspective.

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Rachita Misra

Rachita Misra

Rachita Misra Associate Director (Knowledge and Advocacy) SELCO Foundation

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