Washington’s move to abandon its global leadership role marks the end of Germany’s foreign policy innocence. Berlin will soon be faced with difficult choices that could dent its moral standing.
It is often a single sentence that goes down in history, one that epitomizes an idea, a movement, an era or a personality. Two sentences from Angela Merkel come to mind. One, focused on domestic politics, was an entreaty: “We can do it.” It was a pledge and a plea to all Germans in the face of the huge influx of Syrian refugees who entered Germany in 2015.
The other, focused on foreign policy, was earthshaking. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are, to a certain extent, over,” Merkel said on May 28 during an appearance in Munich. She did everything she could to make the sentence seem as offhand and trivial as possible. She wasn’t speaking in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin — she was at a festival in Munich, the smell of beer hanging in the air. She hemmed and hawed, she relativized, toned down her language and spoke of “others,” even though it was clear that she was referring to the United States.
Still, the sheer impact of her words was undeniable. The German chancellor had essentially announced the end of an alliance that had guaranteed Germany’s security for half a century and shaped its politics and values. When she made the statement in May, Germany was in the middle of an election campaign, which informed the manner in which it was interpreted and discounted. Even today, its radicality has been largely ignored — perhaps because to do otherwise would be too painful or unsettling. Germans prefer to avoid such introspection. The U.S. remains our most important partner, government officials are fond of saying, and the NATO alliance is still intact. That may be true. But for how much longer?