Who Wants to Be Led by Germany?
The coalition parties in Berlin have no doubt: The country is destined to lead, certainly in Europe. Sadly, they have no comprehension of what that involves.
“Why should anyone be led by you?”
When I first heard this question, I was electrified. I sat in a London Business School seminar and listened to Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones, two “leadership gurus.” They explained their concept of authentic and inspirational leadership. Being willing to lead by example is one core prerequisite. But an inspirational leader should also empower and motivate his or her followers, demonstrate real empathy, and focus on solving a problem, not describing it.
Back at NATO headquarters in Brussels, I had 20 copies of the 2006 Goffee/Jones bestseller in my luggage, which I offered to my peers. We were all responsible for large, multinational teams. What, I thought, could be more important than introducing the notion of inspirational leadership to NATO? Their reaction, however, was sobering. My colleagues appreciated the gift but immediately dropped it in their desk drawers, stressing they were too busy to read it.
This attitude has not changed. Today, the culture of “business” still dominates NATO corridors; and inspirational leadership has remained a nice-to-have but remote concept.
Since the outbreak of Russia’s ruthless war against Ukraine, my thoughts have increasingly turned to the smart book by Goffee and Jones. Their question “Why should anyone be led by you?” already provokes considerable uneasiness in quiet times. It obliges leaders to question their approach: Are my followers still with me? Do they trust me? And do I communicate my vision clearly enough?
In times of war, inspirational leadership is even more important. Political leaders must not only address fears and uncertainties in society, but they must be able to clearly pronounce what is at stake; and, above all, they should present a compelling strategy for how they seek to navigate the country through stormy seas.
Leadership in War
Let's look at the leadership qualities of some of the main protagonists in the Ukraine war. There is not much to say about Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, their Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, and other authoritarian leaders around the world. The term “inspirational leadership” simply does not exist in their universe. Their concept of leadership is confined to manipulating and threatening people and, if necessary, using terror.
For Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, on the other hand, credible leadership is a matter of national survival. Without Zelensky’s courageous and motivating leadership, the spirit of resistance in Ukraine, battered by Moscow’s brutal war, would be significantly lower. Whether standing in front of members of the US Congress, Ukrainian orphans, or front-line soldiers in Bakhmut, Zelensky communicates his messages clearly and with empathy. He can provide purpose. As Ukrainian president, he does not stand distanced from the people, but rather, he is in their midst. For 11 months now, he has been leading Ukraine's heroic fight against the Russian invaders.
And in Germany? On New Year's Eve, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz appeared in front of the camera for the traditional New Year’s address, hands folded and wearing a starched white shirt. He stiffly read from the teleprompter what his advisers had written down. Words that faded away. I don't know anyone in my neighborhood who can remember what Scholz said two weeks or so ago.
If Scholz has a vision for how Europe will be able to cope with an aggressive and kleptocratic Putin regime in the future, it was buried by empty words. And then there is Germany’s Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht who is happy to have had “so many great conversations” this past year. If she had given her short video speech in Kyiv and not Berlin, I would have said: finally, here comes a clear sign of solidarity with the Ukrainians. But her “firecracker video” raised even more doubts about her leadership qualities. And how about the other members of the traffic light government? Can the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) or the Greens present a coherent strategy on how to defeat Putinism in the future? I am not aware of any.
Aspiring to a Leadership Role
Yet, Germany wants to lead. It wants to assume “a leadership role in Europe.” Policymakers from Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD) continue to make this claim—SPD chairman Lars Klingbeil, for example. Or SPD foreign policy spokesman, Nils Schmid, who believes that Germany cannot choose whether it wants to be the leading power in Europe or not. Germany, according to Schmid, has already assumed this role.
Defense Minister Lambrecht shares his view. Germany’s size, its geographic location, its economic power, in short, its weight, would make it Europe’s natural leading power, including in the military domain, she said in a keynote speech at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) in fall 2022. To comfort any skeptics, she said: “We, Germans, must not be afraid of this new role. Germany can do this.” Unsurprisingly, Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (SPD) has also joined the “leadership chorus.” As one of the big players in Europe, German leadership “is expected from our country,” Steinmeier said.
Which leads to the serious question: Which of Germany’s European and transatlantic partners does the government seek to lead based on what strategy and capabilities? With only very limited military power? With a highly embarrassing procrastination when it comes to providing Ukraine with weapons and military aid? Without demonstrating any serious self-reflection about Germany's fatal Russia policy? A policy that for decades relied on importing cheap Russian fossil fuels but turned a blind eye to an aggressive and authoritarian Russia? And which even now, a year after Moscow launched its war against Ukraine, does not offer any vision of what European security could look like as long as a terror-spreading regime reigns in Moscow?
The reality is that our allies are not eager to experience German leadership. Neither in Warsaw, London, nor Ankara, Riga, Vilnius, nor Tallinn, let alone in Paris.
Broadly speaking, all the three governing parties of Scholz’ coalition want to uphold the rules-based international order and defend democratic values. Surely, there's nothing wrong with this, but how exactly does Berlin intend to do that? “Partnerships of trust,” “islands of cooperation,” and “sustainable cooperation with the countries of the ‘Global South’” run as flowery vocabulary through the SPD’s latest internal foreign policy document (seen by IPQ); yet the Social Democrats fail to offer anything concrete.
And here comes another familiar line: Germany’s Social Democrats also seek to strengthen Europe's sovereignty—something they have advocated in one form or another for the past 20 years, but contributed very little to translate into reality. What they refer to in their paper—an EU-led rapid reaction force and an EU operational command—is nothing new but part of the usual EU mantra.
It is not only the magnitude of empty phrases that makes this SPD paper? so uninspiring. The statements on how to deal with Putin’s Russia explain why some of Germany’s allies feel highly uncomfortable about the prospect of a German leadership role in Europe. While the Russian president continues to prepare for a long und brutal war in Ukraine, Germany’s Social Democrats talk about a possible rapprochement with the regime in Moscow. And while Putin can be expected to repeat his nuclear threats, the Social Democrats entertain the proposal of arms control discussions with Moscow and confidence-building measures with Russian civil society. Topping it all, though, is the chancellor’s level of arrogance: Apparently, only he knows what is best for Ukraine and Europe’s peace. He would not listen to “public excitement,” he said recently.
Does he suffer from cognitive dissonance? As long as the Putin regime prevails in Russia, Europe's security will remain directly threatened. Putinism is not only toxic for Ukraine, but for all of Europe and far beyond. Given the enormous scale of war crimes and violations of international rules for which Putin and his entourage are responsible, a return to any kind of political arrangement with Moscow is neither morally acceptable nor strategically sensible.
Rolling Back Putinism
Today's Russia can only be systematically limited in its scope of action. It can only be contained, functionally and geographically. Wherever Moscow managed to set foot in the past—in Europe, the Global South, Asia or in the Arctic—Germany and its allies must weaken its influence. Economic and technological sanctions against Putin’s regime need to be strengthened, the Kremlin’s attempts to play divide et impera must be denied.
First and foremost, Berlin and its partners must do everything to help Ukrainians liberate their entire territory. They need unconditional military support now, including German Leopard tanks. All this and more can only succeed if the Western allies can agree on a clear-eyed, robust, and long-term “Roll back Putinism” strategy. Many of our partners have already arrived at this logical conclusion—but not Germany.
Leading by example? No, the German “traffic light” government certainly does not fit into this category. Its authoritarian opponents can be pleased. Germany’s foreign policy remains predictable. It continues to drive with subdued parking lights and not with high beams. It continues to hide behind others and does not seem to have the political stamina to develop a vision on its own. If the government in Berlin really wants to claim leadership in Europe, it should start by asking itself the painful, but useful question in a quiet minute: Why would anyone want to be led by us?
Stefanie Babst, a former Deputy NATO Assistant Secretary for Public Diplomacy and Head of the Secretary General‘s Strategic Foresight Team, is a member of the DGAP Advisory Board (Präsidium). Her book “Sehenden Auges: Mut zum strategischen Kurswechsel” will be published in spring 2023.