Europe needs an intellectual leader: this could be Germany

Karl-Theodor-zu-GuttenbergPutyin feels that there is power vacuum in Europe and in the West, which he might benefit from. Until Western countries agree with each other and create certain conditions for Russia, they should not deepen ties with the country, warns us Germany’s former Minister of Defense and Minister of Economy, the internationally influential baron Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg who is currently working at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and advising the leading strategists of the European Union.

According to him, the transformation of the EU into a political union is inevitable in the long-term; at the same time, the intuitions need to become more transparent and more democratic. Those who believe that the crisis is over are just fooling themselves. Sooner rather than later, Germany will have to leave its culture of restraint in international politics behind and take the lead in both economic politics and foreign affairs. This does not mean that Germany has imperial ambitions; it would rather become an intellectual leader of Europe.

Zentai Péter: It seems to me that anything that Germany does is harshly criticized by other countries. Whatever happens, they are the ones to blame. What do you think about this now that you are in the United States?

Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg: I see it very much the same way as you do. Scapegoating Germany is for sure not a habit only in the European Union; I have heard some rough voices from the United States for the last years, as well. After the crisis had started, Germany – unlike the U.S. – refused to use stimulus packages as a tool of crisis management. At that time, the American reaction was incredibly fierce and has not changed since. The last meeting between Jack Lew Secretary of Treasury and Wolfgang Schäubel German Minister of Finance sounded a lot like the one  between Lew’s predecessor Timothy Geithner and Schäubel back in 2009. Germany and the United States do not speak the same language when it comes to the issue of crisis management.

Are these criticisms absolutely groundless? Basically, the Americans disapprove that Germany does too little or as George Soros commented on it: “Germany is not willing to emerge as the leader of Europe”. In the meanwhile, Southern Europeans say that Germans act as dictators and they’d better ‘go home’.

Of course, there are some points that are more than correct. Obviously, we should take the advice of those who expect us to invest much more in infrastructure, education and urge the general improvement of the investment climate in Germany.
Furthermore, I would also give some credit to those who are asking for a greater leadership role of us. This does not mean that Germany should overwhelm the rest of Europe; it just should not sweep the reality under the carpet: the speed of development and growth varies among member states of the European Union. And this issue needs to be addressed without lecturing our neighbor countries.

What would the new German leadership be like?

I definitely do not want to see Germany as the political leader or Europe. But there are certain points – for instance, the pension system and the educational system – where it could be an intellectual leader to a certain regard. We should be eager to give our neighbors the good examples we have been through already and share these “recipes”, which turned out to be successful and are worth learning from or practicing. I would personally recommend other European countries something that I would call the “schröderization” of the government. Germany went through a period of harsh reforms under Gerhard Schröder Chancellor which we still profit from. So we could become a sort of intellectual leader for those who would accept and adopt these reforms. There are still severe economic and social issues in some countries, such as France or Italy, which could be addressed by German know-how. However, we do not want to force this. Germans have no self-serving imperial ambitions; no one wants the European Union to be dominated by Germany.

Still, in Greece, in Cyprus, and other Eastern and Southern European countries, the broad public opinion is – mainly, because of the continuity of the crisis – that Germany is trying to dictate and control the democracy of Brussels. These assumptions strengthen the far-right and other extreme parties all over Europe…

Undoubtedly, there is relationship between and the strengthening of far-right movements and scapegoating Germany on the other hand. However, we see that all these extreme voices – may they be from the far-left or far-right – ask for German support at the same time, which is quite paradoxical. Also, these movements are often based on populist elements that are connected to the perspective of the next election date.

In this respect, what is your opinion about Hungary and the Hungarian government? Did you hear anything about it the other day, when you met the leaders of the new Grand Coalition in Berlin?

The leaders of the government understand the importance of the politics of such smaller countries as they are part of the idea of the European Union as a whole. The interest towards our Eastern partners is very high. For the last couple of years, it has been hard to read where the political development is actually moving to in Hungary. We heard some very strong, populist opinions that were not in absolute coherence with what we expected in Germany. We have looked with some concern toward the question of youth unemployment and the deficit procedures. I think it is a bit better right now. Nevertheless, the worst thing would be to neglect the political questions of Hungary or any other European countries and lecture them, if we do not like something. Instead, we have to reach out our hands to resolve some of the challenges together. Whether they take this hand or not, is only up to them…

In one of you recent articles, you were warning the United States and the West in general about the potential imperialistic role of Russia. There is a power vacuum in the Western hemisphere and Putyin might take advantage of this. Do you fear a new Russian threat?

I think it is a realistic concern. It is time to discuss sufficiently Russia’s potential role and Putyin’s increasingly clear ambitions. Obviously, that does not exclude a close relationship with Russia but it has to be linked to certain developments over there. And these conditions are not expressed clearly enough, in my opinion. Dealing openly with Russia means that we are willing to and are brave enough to openly address the potential threats which we might see on the horizon or which are already taking place. Putyin is also brave enough to try to take advantage of our weaknesses he has thoroughly investigated and defined: the growing deficits in the NATO, in the EU, or in the Eurozone, the unsolved EU crisis, and the lack of a strong leader in the Western world.

Do the new German leaders understand this? Are they going to make changes in the German-Russian relations? Or what does Washington say? Currently, you are closer to the American leaders – at least, physically…

In Berlin, I sometimes have the impression that we are speaking two different languages. When it comes to international politics, we act very sophisticatedly and elegantly – much more than I feel we should. It is not enough to hide behind the facade of historic reluctance; Germany should play a greater role in resolving difficult and complex security questions in other parts of the world because its experience could be needed. Sooner or later, they will come to realize that Russia could not only pose a threat to Germany as potential conflict of interest but to the whole Western world.

This is why democracies need stronger leaders, stronger leading countries again: the United Stated and Germany on the two sides of the Atlantic, don’t they?

There have been interesting discussions about this here in the U.S. The 2014 forecasts of the Eurasia Group – a global risk research firm – were published a few days ago naming the foreign policy of the United States as the number one global risk of the new year! In other words, it is considered to be weak, pointless, or inconsequential, which is definitely a serious problem.

Do you think the German elite believes that the solution for becoming stronger and more competitive lies in the idea of a “United States of Europe”?

Europe is in a political crisis – there are signs of only financial and economic recovery. In the long-term, it will not work for Europe, unless we will establish a political union. The United States – despite its economic and financial difficulties – is able to respond faster to the global challenges and is organized better than the European Union. In this respect, Europe is not able to compete with America because it struggles with its 28 different cultures, traditions, regional lives, and lack of common language. The political union is not even wanted by the nation states.

In the meantime, the institutions of the EU need to be reformed, as well. They should be operated in more transparent, more democratic way and granted by wide decision making power. As David Cameron British Prime Minister proposed, some of the legislation should be returned to individual member states. However, financial, banking, and other fundamental systems should become more centralized and harmonized at European level. In such areas, German leadership role might be possible.

Do you plan to return to Germany, to the everyday politics?

At the moment, I am deeply enjoying my life in the United States. It is a wonderful opportunity to strengthen the bridge between Europe and the U.S. – to be precise, between Germany and the U.S. Right now, I do not plan to return home and get involved in politics there. In the future, it will very much depend on whether one could be efficient enough to change certain things for the next generation.