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A protester in Los Angeles holds an American flag upside-down, which is considered a symbol of distress. Photo: AFP

With America in crisis, a reluctance in Germany to be ‘leader of the free world’

  • Civil unrest in US has fed into angst in Berlin and other capitals that America has lost its way
  • Opinion polls in Germany are showing a major shift towards a more favourable view of China

Germans have long viewed the United States as a protector of human rights and democracy around the globe, the undisputed leader of the free world.

But many have recoiled in horror at America’s chaos in the last week since the killing of black man George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, which US president Donald Trump threatened to end with military force.
The demonstrations have resonated in Germany, a deeply pacifist nation for which military force is anathema. Thousands have protested in front of the US embassy in Berlin and elsewhere, as demonstrations against racism and US police brutality spread in other countries including Britain, France and Australia.

The eruption of violence across the United States, coupled with the disorder in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic there, has fed into angst in Berlin and other capitals that the United States has lost its way and could be inexorably abdicating its status as leader of the free world. That could create an ominous vacuum that neither Germany nor the European Union is equipped to handle or eager to fill.

People protest in front of the US embassy in Berlin. Photo: EPA

“Germany is not the leader of the free world,” Juergen Hardt, the head of foreign policy affairs in parliament for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, told South China Morning Post, flatly making clear that Europe’s leading nation has no such aspirations.

“There are certainly signs that America is losing the unity and virtues that long made it so strong,” the close Merkel ally and unabashed supporter of tight and trusted transatlantic relations added with a heavy heart. “The whole world always had the faith that America could resolve its issues in the end. You always had a sense that they’d figure it out at some point. That’s why there’s always been such enormous confidence in the United States. There are doubts growing about that now.”

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Because Germans see the United States as their liberators from the horrors of the Nazi regime in 1945, cherish memories of its protector role during the Cold War and see it as the lone nation that unreservedly supported their reunification in 1990, America has often been admired here for its global leadership and as a reliable bastion of freedom.

Because of that trust, Germany long ago aligned itself and its fortunes closely to the United States – economically, politically and militarily. Yet those binds frayed after President Donald Trump took office and immediately began openly questioning those relations with America’s closest allies.

“The view from abroad is that the United States is abandoning its role as the world’s moral authority,” said Thomas Jaeger, a political scientist at Cologne University. “The United States appears to be morally adrift, compounding it all with dumb mistakes like leaving the World Health Organisation.”


Donald Trump says the US is ‘terminating its relationship with the World Health Organisation’

Donald Trump says the US is ‘terminating its relationship with the World Health Organisation’

Trump said last week he would terminate US ties to the WHO in Geneva, after accusing it of helping the Chinese government cover up the early days of the coronavirus outbreak in China. He has abandoned other international agreements, including a climate change accord from Paris and a nuclear deal with Iran over European objections.

“That creates vacuums and weakens the United States,” said Hardt. “America is weakening itself with all the division and that’s being reflected abroad now.”

Even though Merkel stood up valiantly to Trump last week and thwarted his idea of holding a G7 summit meeting in Washington in June over concerns about coronavirus infections and sending the public the wrong message about it, analysts said that Germany was in no position to take the place of the United States as the leader of the free world. That would largely be because its public has neither the stomach nor appetite for any kind of leading role that has anything to do with military issues – a tacit vestige of the country’s militaristic past in the first half of the 20th century. They believe the US retreat from the global leadership role that has accelerated under Trump would hasten the decline of its standing, while at the same time presenting an unexpected opportunity for China.

German views on US and China shift amid coronavirus crisis

Already opinion polls in Germany are showing a major shift, especially among young people 30 and under, away from a pro-United States stance and rather improbably towards a more favourable view of China. An opinion poll last month showed 73 per cent of Germans say their views of the United States have worsened due to the coronavirus crisis. The representative poll done together by the Koerber Institute in Germany and the Pew Institute in the United States also found that 37 per cent of Germans prioritised their country’s relationship with the United States, down from 50 per cent in November, while 36 per cent prioritised Germany’s relations with China, up from 24 per cent six months ago.

A Greenpeace message projected onto the facade of the US embassy in Berlin in 2017, after Donald Trump declared he was pulling the US from the Paris climate agreement. File photo: EPA

“It’s wrong to walk out on the WHO and similar moves like that are a form of abdication,” said Jaeger. “Even if you really believe the WHO or other international organisations are vassals of China, the right answer would be to stay in and push for reforms from within rather than leave and surrender to your enemies. It’s just not smart. It’s all going China’s way right now.”

Other analysts believe Germans should think twice about any schadenfreude when it comes to smirking about America’s troubles right now.

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“The coronavirus, the rise in unemployment and now the unrest is a toxic combination for the United States,” Joern Leonhard, a history professor and author at the University of Freiburg, said. “The decline of the United States is bad news for us all that no one should be happy about. The game is going China’s way right now. There are expectations across Europe and beyond that Germany could fill the void. But German society wouldn’t be comfortable in that role. So there’s actually a huge gap between expectations for a greater German role on the one hand and the readiness of the German government and society to lead. No one wants that. We’re going need the United States.”

Leonhard said that despite all its shortcomings, the loss of US leadership would lead to a more perilous world.

“I think it’s a big mistake for columnists and editorial writers in Germany to write off the United States as the leader of the West already,” said Leonhard. “It’s all way too soon for that. The only nation able to be anywhere in the world on short notice is the United States. That’s the reality that too many Germans don’t want to admit right now.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Berlin worries that Washington will no longer take lead