I have great respect for the German people and their economy, but it's ludicrous to believe Germany will displace the U.S. as leader of the free world.
Yet, in Washington and other capitals around the western world, commentators and think tankers are increasingly optimistic that Germany will assume the mantle of global leadership. This is necessary, they say, because President Trump has retreated into a narrow-minded "America First" mentality.
A few examples include:
- Former BBC anchor, Gavin Esler arguing that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is best placed to provide global leadership.
- At CNN, Paul Hockenos argued that under German leadership "the world's nations beyond the United States have common interests and can work together."
- One German commentator declared that "since Donald Trump took office as US president, [Merkel] has been touted as the last powerful voice of reason and guardian of the western world."
- The most serious take comes from James Kirchick, who calls for Germans to rise to the mantle of global leadership.
Nope. Forget about it.
First off, Merkel has neither the means nor the ambition to assume a position of global leadership. Due to decades of defense under-investment — current defense spending is 1.26 percent of GDP (significantly lower than 2 percent NATO target) — the German armed forces lack the ability to project power in any meaningful way. Whatever the multilateralist crowd might say, hard power — military power — remains instrumental to the effectiveness of policy ambitions.
Second, at the harder-edged margin, facing powerful state actors such as Russia and China, Germany continues to act with deference to authoritarians. This is important because German leadership on counter-carbon emissions policy is often lauded as a sign that it embraces bold liberalism. As I've noted before, however, the Chinese pledge much and deliver very little.
Third and most important, Germans themselves do not want to lead the world. This week, a German think tank reported that 52 percent of Germans believe their government should avoid becoming more involved in resolving international crises. Similarly, 64 percent of Germans believe government defense spending should either remain at current levels or be lowered. Half that number, only 32 percent of Germans, want increased defense spending.
Do not misunderstand me. As I say, Germany is an important U.S. ally and trading partner, and Merkel's government deserves great credit for its excellent economic and fiscal record. Nevertheless, the idea that Germany is somehow going to rise to displace the U.S. in global leadership is utterly ludicrous. It lacks the means, intent, and credibility to do so.