A "German Europe" that the Germans Never Intended to Create?
Few dispute that Germany has greatly increased its power within the European institutional framework and has become an unquestionable leader of the European Union. The current euro crisis has created a window of opportunity for Germany to increase its influence on the European agenda. The recent policy of Germany and its dominance of Europe can be effectively explained using political realism, giving precedent to structural, rather than individual determinants.
The rise of German power as recently not only caught the interest of researchers of international politics but, due to the crisis of the European integration, has also become a prominent topic in the daily press. Interestingly, the new German power position is described almost exclusively as unintended – a mere by-product of the current distribution of economic resources and capabilities among European countries. Consequently, many seem to believe that Germany has become a "reluctant hegemon" without having taken any intentional steps in this direction or against its own will, so to speak. The German sociologist, Ulrich Beck, in his latest book "German Europe" writes, "The fact is that Europe has become German. Nobody intended this to happen, but … Germany has ‘slipped' into the role of the decisive political power in Europe." Beck continues this topic in an interview with editors of European Politics and Policy at the London School of Economics, and as a response to the question of "How has Germany come to dominate the European Union?" says, "Well it happened somehow by accident. Germany has actually created an ‘accidental empire'. There is no master plan; no intention to occupy Europe."
As a consequence of history, German's see the argument of intentional economic dominance of Europe as bizarre and wildly inaccurate. Accordingly, it has become a common view to see Germany as reluctant to act alone without assuring a wide consensus with involved states, let alone dominate others, and to ascribe to it a genuine aversion for thinking (and behaving) in categories of power.
Indeed, debates about power, leadership, national interests or the need to be militarily involved in international conflicts were largely avoided for many decades. Recently however, some observers pointed out that Germany's society and leaders have changed in this regard. Today, mentioning the importance of pursuing national – not European – interests by German politicians does not shock anymore. German military involvement as well as selling weapons to a large extent does not surprise anyone (according the SIPRI, in years 2008-2012 Germany was the third largest supplier of major conventional weapons world wide). Moreover, contrary to the common belief that German society still suffers from a moral humiliation after World War II resulting in an allergic reaction to any signs of a new rise of German power, Germans are actually quite dissatisfied with the current influence of their country on European issues. For example, opinion polls show that only 16% of German respondents believed that Berlin was able to enforce its own interests during negotiations over the Euro crisis, whereas 63% had a different opinion (Allensbach 2011). Consequently, if one assumes that politicians make decisions that help them remain in power, it would be quite logical to conclude that they intentionally want to increase German influence on the European agenda in order to satisfy their electorate.
However, let's return to the initial idea for a while assuming that Germany has been catapulted into the position of a great European power and that Europe has become German against the will of the current German political establishment. If this is the case, it is interesting to think about mechanisms capable of putting a state in a position of a great power without any involved intentions of particular decision makers. Instead of looking at individual actors as determinants of a country's behavior, one might take a look at the structure of the international system – a starting point of view for many political scientists, not least political realists. One of them, and at the same time one of the most influential political scientists, was the late Kenneth Waltz. He argued that faced with the absence of a singular, authoritative power source in the international system, nations must provide for their own survival and take care of their own interests. Therefore, as states attempt to develop strategies and tactics that assure their survival (even at each other's expense), the intention of other actors can never be considered certain. As intentions and capabilities of other states are neither certain nor constant, states can never be sure how much power is necessary to assure their own survival. Consequently, in order to survive, nations constantly try to improve their position among their international peers.
That does not mean that countries expand their power and influence all the time by any means. They will do so only when and where the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs. Costs are classified most of all in terms of risk of counterbalancing or self-encirclement. Consequently, national actors are always interested in increasing their influence over others. But they accept being weaker than they might otherwise be, if acquiring more power could place their security at risk. The logic behind this is that a short-term increase in power might make a state weaker in the long term, if such behavior threatens other actors, stimulating them to counterbalance. If the risk of forming an opposition alliance seems to be likely, states will try to conceal their expanding intentions by benign rhetoric or to self-restrain from pursuing to expand their power or influence. As a consequence, if acquiring more power at the expense of others cannot be done at a reasonable price with the costs and risks of trying to shift the balance of power being too great, states would wait for more propitious circumstances. Conversely, in a situation where the asymmetry in power to its own advantage becomes large enough, a state will use such a window of opportunity trying to increase its power at the expense of others.
The current euro crisis has indisputably created a window of opportunity for Germany to increase its influence on the European agenda. Had Berlin tried to expand its power even a few years ago, it would have immediately caused furious reactions (counterbalancing) from other European capitals. Today, the configuration of power in Europe has made Germany's influence and leadership widely desirable, even indispensable. As Kenneth Waltz noted, the international system encourages states to do some things and to refrain from doing others. States are, therefore, "likely to be rewarded for behavior that is responsive to structural pressures and punished for behavior that is not" (Waltz 2003). Today, Germany is undoubtedly encouraged to use the window of opportunity in order to increase its power and influence on the European arena, and behaves in a way political realism would expect it to do.
In sum, whether the rise of German power results from an intentional behavior of the German political establishment being widely accepted in German society, or Germany's rise to the champion position among European countries happened somehow involuntarily, seems to be a theoretical question depending on the interpretation and point of view of particular observers. The fact is however, Germany has greatly increased its weight within the European institutional framework and become an unquestionable leader of the European Union. The next tremendously important question is what Germany is going to do with this new overwhelming amount of power, and what the response of other European states as well as the old "European hegemon" – the United States – is likely to be.
Dr. Daria W. Dylla is a senior researcher and a teacher at the Institute for International Politics and Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne. She specializes in the European Foreign and Security Policy, transatlantic relations, and theories of International Relations.