Germany is carving its own path in the world's 'new Cold War'

Berlin clearly sees that a rules-based world doesn't have to require choosing a side

The Berlin Wall is one testament to Germany's history as a country caught between superpowers. Getty
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“When elephants fight the grass suffers, but when they make love the grass suffers also.” The oft-cited quote is attributed to modern Singapore’s legendary founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, but it’s actually an African proverb.

Whereas African leaders used to invoke the proverb in the context of the Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union, contemporary Asian leaders often have the brewing superpower conflict between the US and China in mind. The problem with this fundamentally bipolar understanding of the international system, however, is its simplistic omission of the immense strategic agency of countless rising and middle powers in the 21st century.

In reality, our world is more like a fertile savannah, when giant elephants co-exist with a whole host of robust and self-assured animals. Few nations are better placed to buttress and facilitate a more pluralistic international order than Germany, which recently became the world’s third-largest economy. Although a key US ally, Berlin has pursued an increasingly autonomous global policy with an emphasis on constructive engagement with China and proactive co-operation with rising powers in the Global South. In many ways, Europe’s leading economy seeks to become a “shaping power” with an abiding commitment to a rules-based international order – a third way beyond an either US-dominated or China-dominated international system.

Aside from its famed technological and economic prowess, what places Germany in a special place to constructively shape the emerging international order is its tortuous history. The Berlin Wall is just one of countless reminders of a history of revolutionary upheavals, destructive conflicts and mass atrocities. Berlin embodies both a sense of millenarian triumph – marking the precise location where the Cold War ended following the fall of the Berlin Wall – as well as redemptive introspection in light of an extremely dark past. At once, Berlin is where history is palpably alive as well as where “The End of History” was declared.

Germany is a laboratory for high-stakes geopolitics

Germany is also a laboratory for high-stakes geopolitics. For almost a quarter of a century, a unified Germany adopted a largely pacifist and pragmatic foreign policy, which relied on a “change through trade” doctrine. Accordingly, the European power massively expanded economic ties with authoritarian powers, most notably Russia – a dynamic that reached its zenith under Chancellor Angela Merkel.

With dramatically reduced military capabilities after the Second World War, Germany largely relied on the US and the broader EU framework in order to ensure peace in Europe. In recent decades, it actively shunned, and at times publicly criticised, western military interventions in the Middle East, including America’s 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The war in Ukraine, however, forced Germany to radically rethink what it initially considered a successful strategic bet. In a historic speech in early 2022, Chancellor Olaf Scholz unveiled the “zeitenwende” (“epochal turning point”) doctrine, which signalled a new era of more proactive Germany defence and foreign policy. Not long after, Germany began to actively contribute to Ukraine’s defence through the transfer of increasingly sophisticated weapons systems.

By and large, however, the Scholz administration has remained faithful to its predecessor’s 2020 Indo-Pacific strategy, which underscored the importance of Germany’s continued and constructive engagement with rising powers of Asia. As former German foreign minister Heiko Maas made clear: “Our prosperity and our geopolitical influence in the coming decades will depend on how we work together with the countries of the Indo-Pacific region … where the shape of the international rules-based order of tomorrow will be decided.”

The strategy states that Germany will actively “help shape that order – so that it is based on rules and international co-operation, not on the law of the strong”. Based on my exchange with Mr Scholz and policy experts in Berlin last month, it is clear to me that Germany is operating on a two-fold assumption in the Indo-Pacific region that transcends a purely mercantilist calculus.

First, it is determined to pursue its own independent strategy beyond the dictates of any superpower. In particular, it seeks constructive engagement with China, its most important economic partner in the Indo-Pacific. This explains why Mr Scholz became the first western leader to visit Beijing since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic period and amid a brewing new Cold War between Beijing and Washington.

It was a controversial decision that drew heavy criticism both at home and among western allies. But the German leadership firmly believes China is too important to ignore and too powerful to isolate, thus its refusal to sign up to a US-led containment strategy against the Asian superpower. Mr Scholz also made it clear that any engagement with Beijing will have to be based on an equal footing and principle of reciprocity.

Crucially, Mr Scholz emphasised Germany’s categorical opposition to any potential invasion of Taiwan in favour of cross-straits dialogue while successfully soliciting Chinese President Xi Jinping’s public opposition to any “use of, or threats to use, nuclear weapons” in Ukraine. In April, the German leader is expected to visit Beijing again, accompanied by a major business delegation, to build on the robust momentum in bilateral relations as well as discuss new areas of trade friction, particularly the impact of US tech sanctions as well as China’s booming electric vehicle exports to Europe.

Although Germany is commitment to constructive engagement with China and stabilising the trajectory of broader US-China rivalry, it is also actively diversifying its Indo-Pacific relations by reaching out to emerging powers and booming markets. Accordingly, Mr Scholz hosted leaders from key South-East Asian nations in March, including Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr and Malaysian Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.

Germany is intent on reducing its dependence on China by systematically diversifying its economic partnerships across the region, with growing focus on booming markets in India and South-East Asia, which have transformed into global manufacturing hubs in recent years. Notably, Mr Scholz has also pursued closer defence co-operation with likeminded regional players, such as the Philippines and Japan. If anything, Germany is expected to regularise naval deployments to the region in order to uphold freedom of navigation in international waters such as the South China Sea.

It goes without saying that Germany’s relations with the Global South are not free of tensions. The country’s staunchly pro-Israel stance has placed it on a potential collision course with key emerging powers such as South Africa, Indonesia and, most dramatically, Malaysia, which have accused Germany of lacking sympathy for the Palestinian cause and civilians in Gaza. Although recognising its historical obligations to the Jewish people in light of the horrors of the Holocaust, Mr Scholz, in a recent visit to the Middle East, pressed Israeli authorities to uphold international law, protect civilian lives in Gaza and refrain from invading areas close to the Rafah border.

Notwithstanding the immense influence of both China and the US, Germany is proactively contributing to a more pluralistic, rules-based international order, where all key actors can play a constructive role in preserving peace as well as preventing and great-power conflict.

Published: April 10, 2024, 4:00 AM