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Germany Is No Superpower

THE last few weeks were indeed heady for Germany. The West German soccer team won the world cup. Chancellor Helmut Kohl emerged as the dominant European statesman at the London and Houston conferences, and Mikhail Gorbachev acquiesced to a united Germany in NATO. In the sphere of economics West Germany reported that this year it had earned the largest current account surplus (even surpassing that of Japan), the deutsche mark continued a nearly uninterrupted climb against virtually all other major currencies, and the Bundesbank predicted a robust 4 percent overall growth in the German economy during the next 12 months.

It would appear that, with unification, Germany is rapidly becoming both militarily and economically the predominant power in Europe.

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It is often overlooked, however, that despite Germany's robust economy it lacks key physical, military, and even economic prerequisites to become a superpower. Even a united Germany is smaller than Montana - certainly lacking the continental size of the United States, Russia, or China.

Still more important than Germany's small size is its demographic situation. Historically countries claimed the role of a major global power during periods when their population bases were young and rapidly expanding. Unlike the first half of this century, when Germany experienced an explosive population growth that provided both the Kaiser and Hitler with a seemingly endless flow of willing young conscripts, today the Germanys are saddled with the oldest population in Europe and a below-replacement birth rate. If present demographic trends continue through 2020, the population of Poland will be almost as large as that of Germany. The days when Germany could field a huge conventional army to intimidate its neighbors has passed.

The fear of Germany's becoming a nuclear power is equally unfounded. Whereas Britain can test its nuclear weapons in US facilities and France has the use of its overseas departments in the South Pacific, Germany lacks reliable testing sites and has little prospect of finding any.

Given Germany's limited testing and deployment capabilities, even if it could muster the political will to develop nuclear weapons, Germany would be able to develop a nuclear capacity not much more formidable than those of the France or Britain - a fraction of the capacities of either the Soviet Union and the US. Moreover, if Germany attempted to attain even a modest nuclear capability, the Soviet Union, Britain, France, and perhaps even the US would sense a threat to their security and target this small and crowded country located in the heart of Europe. The development of nuclear weapons would lead to Germany's complete diplomatic isolation and a multiplied threat to its security, with virtually no increase in its ability to protect itself.

Germany is a vulnerable power even in the economic sphere. It is far more dependent on the stability of the international system than the US or even Japan. Whereas the US derives about a tenth of its GNP from foreign trade and Japan about a fifth, West Germany derives over 40 percent of its GNP from trade, with more than half of that from trade with its partners within the European Community. Although the reconstruction of East Germany will give the West German industry a temporary internal market, in the final analysis the well-being of Germany depends on the prosperity and the stability of its neighbors and economic partners. Thus it is imperative for Germany to be a good citizen, rather than a disruptive aspiring superpower within the international community.

The Germany of 1990 is fundamentally different from the Germany of 1914, when it was on the cutting edge of industrial innovation, had a booming population, and exhibited an extravagant propensity for bombastic bravado. Nor is it the Germany of the 1930s - an impoverished and humiliated society convinced that the world had conspired against it and hungry for revenge.

The Germany of the 1990s is a smallish country with an aging population base and one of the most rigidly-structured labor environments in the developed world, and it is highly dependent for its economic well-being on the stability and prosperity of the international system. It is a country whose physical, economic, and political resources will not permit it to become a superpower. Thus, the fears of former British trade secretary Nicholas Ridley, among others, that the Bundesbank will pursue a monetary policy that will be beneficial to Germany and detrimental to its European partners are myopic and outdated.