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OPINION: German Leadership is Welcome

By Lee Hamilton


Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has created foreign-policy challenges for the United States. That’s even more true across the Atlantic, where the war has driven up inflation, worsened energy shortages, made refugees of millions of Ukrainians, and unsettled the nations of Eastern Europe.

There is a tremendous need for European leadership to deter Vladimir Putin’s aggression, and Germany is stepping into the role. That is a welcome development.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz addresses the situation in an essay in the journal Foreign Affairs. He writes that the world is facing “an epochal tectonic shift.” New powers are emerging in a “multipolar world,” and Germany has an important role in maintaining peace and stability.

“Russia’s brutal attack on Ukraine in February 2022,” Scholz writes, “ushered in a fundamentally new reality: imperialism had returned to Europe.”

This attitude is a shift for Germany. It is Europe’s economic leader, with the world’s fourth-largest economy, but the nation has been a reluctant leader in foreign affairs, struggling to define its role. This reluctance comes from history. Conflicts between Germany and its neighbors were at the core of the two world wars. Germans are acutely sensitive to the suffering and destruction their nation caused.

At the same time, many questions Europe has faced since World War II have centered on Germany: how to keep it strong so it can contribute to the security of the continent; how to keep it prosperous; and how to keep its government from turning away from international cooperation. While Europe contains a large collection of democratic countries, willing and working to make the world a better place, Germany and France are its leaders.

After World War II, Germany was in ruins; it was divided and occupied. The region that became West Germany rebuilt steadily, producing a “German economic miracle” that paralleled Japan’s postwar recovery. East Germany, part of the Soviet Bloc, struggled. But the outlook brightened after the Soviet Union collapsed and East Germany and West Germany reunified, leading to a remarkable three decades of peace and prosperity.

While the West welcomed the Soviet collapse, Putin, conversely, has called it “the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” and has tried to restore Russian power. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and sent troops into eastern Ukraine. In 2022, it invaded Ukraine.

As Scholz writes, “The world must not let Putin get his way.”

The German response includes spending more on its military, bolstering Europe’s defense industry, strengthening its commitment to NATO, and training and equipping Ukraine’s armed forces. [These are] changes that involve “a new strategic culture” and a new national-security strategy. Germany created a $500 billion fund to support its own military, which required a change in its constitution. It is providing arms to Ukraine, the first time in recent history that it delivered weapons for a war between two countries. Germany has also increased its NATO involvement and supported NATO expansion.

American support is crucial, Scholz adds: “U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration deserve praise for building and investing in strong partnerships and alliances across the globe. But a balanced and resilient transatlantic partnership also requires that Germany and Europe play active roles.”

There was a time when talk of a stronger and more assertive Germany might have unsettled Europeans and Americans. That shouldn’t be the case today. Germany has shown itself to be committed to peace, democracy, and the rules-based international order. With Russia ratcheting up its threats, Europe and the world need German participation and leadership.      

Lee Hamilton, 91, is a senior advisor for the Indiana University (IU) Center on Representative Government, distinguished scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies, and professor of practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Hamilton, a Democrat, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years (1965-1999), representing a district in south-central Indiana.

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