Strategic Culture Matters

I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted, but it’s because I’ve been engrossed working on school and an interesting side project. I was hoping to share with you news about the project, but it’s still not ready yet (hopefully soon!). So I decided instead to take advantage of this little break from school to jot down a quick musing in response to some of the discussions I’ve seen lately regarding Germany’s role in Europe and world affairs. I’m taking a constructivist approach here, but I know there are a lot of other ways to analyze this particular issue. Hope you enjoy it and I hope to be back soon with good news.

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Big picture thinking and ambition are cultural muscles; you either use them or lose them. Recently, Germany has been the target of criticism for refusing to take on a bigger and more constructive role in world affairs. While such a development would be great for Germany, great for Europe, and great for the United States, it’s unlikely to happen quickly or all at once. In fact, if it happens at all, it will be a slow and gradual process; it will take time for Berlin to rebuild its strategic muscles.

The problem is that these muscles are not far removed from their peak of weakness. During the 20th century, the international community both materially and psychologically crushed Germany’s ability to think and act on a global strategic scale. After all, the oft-cited reason for NATO was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” German ambition had twice thrown the world into chaos; the victors of WWI and WWII weren’t going to leave open the possibility of a third time. As a result, Germany was stripped of its military capability until 1955, at which point it was allowed to rearm, but under Western supervision (NATO membership) and using Western equipment. More importantly, the German public confronted its past honestly and sincerely embraced a legal and ethical position of repentance and shame. This process fundamentally changed the image of military force, power projection, and strategic ambition for the German people. They were no longer values to be glorified or sought. Instead, they were to be avoided if all possible.

Strategic, big picture thinking is therefore a cultural trait. And like any cultural trait, it can appear, disappear, and reappear over time. German culture in 1959 was very different from what it was in 1939. The same is true of the United States, which slowly transformed itself from an isolationist republic to a liberal hegemon during the first half of the 20th century. Today, Germany is confronted by the clash between its post-WWII cultural legacy and the unrivaled power position it has built within Europe. The continent needs enlightened, ambitious, and strategic leadership but Berlin simply isn’t ready mentally to provide it. Some hope Russia’s adventures in Ukraine will light a fire within Angela Merkel but, even if she wakes up tomorrow determined to act, she’ll need to bring the German people along with her, which is easier said than done.

So, by all means encourage Germany to take on a bigger role and think ambitiously, but do so realizing that such a decision is largely out of our control. German culture must first re-embrace strategic thinking before the German government can act, and such a transformation requires time and patience if it is to happen at all. The type of commitment the foreign policy literati are looking for from Berlin requires a strong foundation in the national body politic if it’s to be meaningful and sustainable. Pointing to economic stagnation in Europe, or Russian aggression in Ukraine, and expecting Berlin to charge forth with guns blazing is simply unrealistic. There’s no support for such action within current German strategic culture. And until that changes, Europe will remain leaderless.

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