Asia Vu – Revue de Presse, 7 November 2022
Why are we talking so much about Germany?
Yes, there’s the German perspective on the Ukraine war – and the Zeitenwende, a “sea change”, with a fundamental altering of Germany’s self-perception and relationship with Russia. There’s the European energy crisis, which has been discussed as a matter of survival all through the summer and is becoming particularly relevant as temperatures drop across the continent.
But the fact that Chancellor Scholz’s visit to Beijing is the object of so much scrutiny is nonetheless highly surprising. The United States is days away from a hotly contested and highly ideologically-charged midterm election. It is very strange that Germany would be so heavily featured in the headlines and Opinion pages.
The object-level analysis is as follows: Germany’s inability to avoid repeating its mistakes could be the death of Europe. Germany has been dependent on Russian oil and gas for a long time. This dependency has a historical component, as it was born of the Cold War.
Caught between the Russian and American spheres of influence, Germany styled itself a crossroads. While divided between East and West, Germany was also unbound from the horrifying geopolitical pressures of its position, pressures that had contributed to the eruption of two conflicts that had destroyed the continent. Despite being the potential battlefield of two global powers, the new economic ties with both its benefactors and its neighbors allowed it to focus on industrial and economic development. After reunification, Germany continued along this path, committing fully to ensuring geopolitical security through economic entanglement; this meant forging powerful ties to Russia through its energy markets. The apotheosis of this policy was the Nord Stream pipeline project, a crowning achievement for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration and a key part of her legacy.
This energetic dependence has nonetheless allowed for Germany to serve as the economic heart of Europe: Germany’s manufacturing industry is almost entirely powered by natural gas imported from Russia. This, leveraged into financial and political power through the European Union, made Berlin the indisputable center of power on the continent.
Then it all unraveled. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine made it clear that Germany had nowhere near the amount of economic leverage it thought it had. Not only did the economic entanglements push the German economy into an inflationary death spiral of rising costs, but the interconnectivity of the entire European energy market also dragged all of the Union into the abyss with it. The bloc has spent months literally scouring the planet to secure the necessary resources to simply make it through the winter.
The same deal that had once been the basis of German supremacy in Europe was now causing the total collapse of its leadership credibility. Worse yet, the seasoned Merkel was no longer in office; much like David Cameron, her stewardship served merely to pave the way into catastrophe, not plot a course out.
One would think, looking upon such works, that Chancellor Scholz would at least have the decency to despair. But no! Instead, the headlines last week point to Scholz continuing the same policies of entanglement despite the vociferous objections of his peers, this time with China.
People have noticed. Beyond Foreign Policy and the rest of the more specialized international relations press, from the New York Times, to The Economist and the Washington Post, journalists, pundits and analysts have noticed that Germany’s laundry is being aired very, very publicly. This is a rare instance; American daily press doesn’t usually cotton on to a European story quite so thoroughly without endless reinterpretations through an Atlantic lens. The reason for this goes well beyond just the energy crisis in Europe as it relates to Russia’s authoritarianism and invasion of Ukraine: this time, America sees itself in Germany.
For the better part of fifty years, the American foreign policy consensus as it pertains to China has been driven by the thoughts of one of America’s highest profile immigrants from Germany: Doctor Henry Kissinger. The mastermind behind the strategic encirclement of the Soviet Union in the second half of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger’s greatest contribution to American foreign policy was the normalization of economic and diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, after decades of hostility. This veritable coup utterly upended the existing world order, first by establishing the isolation of the Soviet Union, then by creating the economic relationship responsible for lifting literally billions of people out of poverty. The legacy of Chimerica, as it is known, is quite literally the consumer society that we exist in today, with nearly every major industry viewing the Chinese labor force as central to their business model all throughout the 90s, 2000s, and 2010s. Apple, Amazon, Tesla… none of them would have existed in their current form without the cheap labor costs and goods provided by Chimerica.
And yet, the dream of Chimerica is one from which the US foreign policy establishment is awaking brutally. The past three years of increasing strategic competition between the United States and China, combined with the continued threats to Taiwan, the erosion of political freedoms in Hong Kong, and entirety of the narrative of the Covid-19 pandemic, have put an end to the notion that economic cooperation will inevitably lead to political emancipation. If Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was the final nail in the coffin of the End of History, then undoubtedly the souring of the US-China relationship was the first.
The past couple of months have been particularly stinging to those who wished for a continuation of Kissinger’s legacy of engagement. From President Xi Jinping’s (initial) willingness to stand by Vladimir Putin, to Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and the subsequent Fourth Taiwan Strait Crisis, now culminating in the 20th Party Congress and the formalization of Xi Jinping’s third term in power, events have crystallized the knowledge in America that a new approach to China is necessary. This is a rare point of agreement between Republicans and Democrats. Chimerica is dying, and must be upended to make way for a new era of strategic competition.
It is into this context that Chancellor Scholz waltzes. He is the first Western leader to meet with Xi since the beginning of the pandemic and, conspicuously, he does so alone, accompanied only by the German industrialists who would seek greater entanglement with China. As virtually every other Western power adjusts for new tensions, Germany gleefully repeats its own mistakes even as mountains are moved to attempt to account for old ones. As a result, Scholz’s ill-conceived mission holds up a mirror to the West. What we see, collectively, are fifty years of mistakes, playing out in the sycophantic smiles of a leader obviously swimming against the consensus. What the American media landscape reflects is a deep unwillingness to repeat Kissinger’s mistakes.
Image Credits: Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons