Leadership, Jawohl!

Germany goes to the polls this coming week. The German media are desperately trying to convey Spannung (meaning tension and urgency), and party apparatchiks here and there fret about the emoluments of their offices. However, the German voters are united with the rest of humankind in not giving a rip. Frau Merkel will continue to run Germany with this or that coalition. Her principal (Social-Democratic) opponent did well against her in a TV debate but hasn’t been able to think of any socialist demand that Mrs. Merkel’s nominally conservative government hasn’t already fulfilled or credibly promised to fulfill. The differences are about the reimbursement rates for dental care and about Bavaria’s plan to impose highway fees on foreigners—which, to Bavarians, means anyone outside barfing distance of a Munich beer tent. (And, no: none of this is a joke.)

I’m the first to celebrate boredom and civic disengagement—indicia of the rule of law, if not exactly its purposes. But then, this is Germany. If you’ve paid attention to the past millennium or so, you have to worry about what’s smoldering under the surface. Germany is a very large force among democratic nations, and the single largest force in the EU. Her place in the world ought to take front and center in an election—no? No.

Syria? President Obama’s proposed intervention prompted a fierce debate in England and in France—but not in Germany. Germany will not back a U.S.-led intervention—not in defense of Western strategic interests; not under NATO; not even for humanitarian purposes; and most emphatically not in support of or in solidarity with the United States: that’s a given. It’s 180 degrees from the country I grew up in. A lot has changed, or maybe I’m getting really old.

Europe? The politicians squabble over the when, how, and how much of the unresolved sovereign debt crisis. But there is no visible attempt to confront the economic realities, let alone the glaring political problem: while Germany promoted the EU project with the heartfelt intention of rendering Europe and the world safe for Germany, the Germans now run the place. Everyone knows that German diplomacy and economic might have accomplished what the Wehrmacht couldn’t. Now what?

The thought that it isn’t a good idea to suppress debate on this issue is slowly dawning on the political class. And here is how it comes out:

[S]ome high level German officials have started to speak out. Thomas Bagger, head of Policy Planning at the German Federal Foreign Office, recently argued that breakthroughs in collaboration between Germany, Poland and Russia could become a model for a more sensitive and image-conscious German leadership across Europe. Germany, he argues, must employ “empathy and solidarity with EU member states, [be] ready to go the extra mile in consulting with all members… in order to forge consensus, and always [keep] in mind that leadership for Germany axiomatically needs to be a ‘negotiated leadership’ with partners.” That is a precise definition of the participative, relationship-driven leadership model ascendant today.

Brought to you by someone at the German Marshall Fund (full text here.)

I quote it not because it’s singularly inane but because it’s the most serious engagement with Germany’s problem, in the context of this election, that I have been able to locate. Having tagged the problem, the author can do no better than to quote an unfortunately named bureaucrat—who, in turn, can do no better than to blow smoke. Germany has shown “empathy and solidarity” way beyond the treaties she signed. Every bone of those instruments—the anti-bailout guarantees on which Germany insisted—has been broken. And the “extra mile” is paved with German taxpayers’ money. Mr. Bagger knows all this: everyone knows it, and he knows that everyone knows it. His GMF fan knows all this, too. Alas, the more you follow the train of so-called thought, the more delusional it gets:

Image, consent, and collaboration matter. Recognizing and acting on this may provide the answer to Germany’s leadership question.


For an earlier, hilarious take on Germany’s leadership question see here.

Michael S. Greve

Michael S. Greve is a professor at George Mason University School of Law. From 2000 to August, 2012, Professor Greve was the John G. Searle Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, where he remains a visiting scholar. His most recent book is The Upside-Down Constitution (Harvard University Press, 2012).

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  1. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Can a republic survive without some attention to civic duty on the part of citizens? Isn’t a vigilance over and moderate distrust of power the ultimate check and balance upon which our government depends, and without which we ultimately will face what JGA Pocock refers to as “the Machiavellian Moment”–the moment, that is, in which the republic dies and is transformed into something more fraught with potential for lawlessness and evil? If we believe that the life of the republic is a good thing, then surely we must also agree that beyond a certain point, civic disengagement is very bad. In this sense, the rule of law is predicated on a certain modicum of civic engagement–as Madison himself pointed out, there is a point beyond which, inverting Lowell’s phrase, the machine can not go of itself, but depends instead on the character of the people.

    I am curious what Ken Masugi would make of the altogether too compressed argument I make above.

  2. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Apologies for being too obscure: I am writing here to contest the notion that civic disengagement is a good thing, or that, in the long run, it is good for the rule of law for citizens to be disengaged.

  3. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    My apologies for misreading you–I did not understand it to be snark. So I have made a mountain out of a mole hill. I regret much wasting bandwidth.

    Well wishes,

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says


    I should add that I jumped in on this because it is a question in which I am much concerned, and to which I do not have a full appreciation of all of the nuances. I find plausible and reasonable the distrust of many (classical) liberals to the notion that the (classical) liberal state should concern itself with the ends to which the people devote their lives. But on the other hand, I find plausible the concerns of many of the people to whom I have devoted my life to study, that without some attention to the ends of private life, the public life of the republic suffers, and potentially dies. Moreover, I also find plausible Tocqueville’s critique, that it possible, even likely, that attention solely to the private fosters in the people a kind of egoism that is destructive to the long term health of the republic. Worse, I find at least plausible the arguments of some modern Tocquevellians, that the demands of modern consumer capitalism privilege precisely the egoism which Tocqueville found so problematic. So how do we resolve these tensions?

    I am an historian, not a political theorist. Any suggestions on things I might read that would help me understand this issue better?

    Many thanks in advance for your help . . .

    All well wishes,

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