The circumstances of Germany’s political history and present-day diplomacy have combined to make it the most robust of soft-power practitioners. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the leadership of Angela Merkel: recently re-elected for a third term, she is lauded at home for keeping her country’s nose clean yet maintaining a vital position in the EU and further afield. What’s her secret?
Angela Merkel may be generally painted as a stern taskmaster but it seems she has a softer side – or the country she leads does, at least. Germany’s rise to the top of the monocle/IfG Soft Power Survey should not come as a surprise though.While becoming increasingly civilian – only two years ago Germany did away with conscription – the country is traditionally excellent at pursuing its ideas, values and aims using diplomatic, cultural, and economic tools.
Germany knows how to pull the strings at inter-governmental bodies such as the European Commission. It spreads its values via a worldwide network of Goethe-Instituts and Deutsche Welle, its multilingual television and radio station. Its companies – not just the famous ones such as Porsche and BMW but even its mid-sized “hidden champions” – innovate and manufacture products that are coveted worldwide.
So what can other countries learn from Germany? Probably not much since most of its soft power has historical and cultural roots specific to the nation. “Due to its 20th-century history Germany has lost most of its ‘hard power’: military capacity and legitimacy,” says Wolfgang Jamann, secretary general and chairman of Deutsche Welthungerhilfe, one of the country‘s major NGOs. “Economic power became a reasonable substitute. But also a strong civil society emerged from the 1960s and 1970s protest movements and from an increasing consensus- orientation in German society.” Welthungerhilfe thinks this is an effective basis for influencing international policy agendas but is not always utilised well enough.
Perhaps Germany’s strength is more to do with others’ weaknesses. “To some extent Germany appears stronger because others – such as the US, Russia, Italy, France and the UK – have lost their soft power and by implication the prestige they enjoyed,” says Helmut Anheier, dean of the Hertie School of Governance think tank.
Germany remains in the background when things get tough, Anheier argues. “It dodges the hard decisions and hides behind the US, UK and France – see Libya or Syria. So German soft power shines while others do the dirty work.” Demands that the gentle teutonic giant should take on more international responsibility have been heard more frequently recently – not least in the British press.
Jamann is not so sure. “In a G-Zero world – where there is no single superpower – global progress is not so much a question of leadership but of strategic alliances.” Germany should keep making the most of strong existing alliances like the EU and look for new ones with emerging economies to move global agendas. Anheier adds that being a soft power does not mean being liked. “Talk to people in Athens,” he says.
But Anheier agrees that Germany has little appetite for hard power: “It is pacifist country at heart. Hence its major investments in soft power approaches – few countries spend more on cultural diplomacy and promotion.” Indeed, numerous agencies such as the Franco-German Youth Office and the German/ French programme Arte have worked at building personal and cultural ties between Germany and its neighbours for years.
“German soft power rests on the longer term,” says Anheier. “It is a patient approach that does not rely on party politics and the issues of the day.” This fits Angela Merkel’s wait-and-see style of government rather nicely. Being a cunning diplomat rather than a tough governess has helped her get re-elected with record figures. Germany’s apparent reluctance to lead has been a winning strategy at home.
It works elsewhere, too. Germany is, understandably, wary about projecting a dominant image abroad. But by quietly doing the simple things well, it’s a country that has become a global power the rest of us can feel comfortable with.
Cultural missions: 158
Tourists per year: 30.4m
Average spend per tourist: €970
Annual attendance at major art galleries: 2.1m
Number-one albums in foreign countries last year: 4
Foreign correspondents based in country: 450
Unesco World Heritage sites: 38
Universities in top 200: 10
Foreign students: 201,000
Footballers playing abroad in world’s best leagues: 24
Football clubs in global rich list: 4
Olympic medals won at last summer and winter Games): 74
Restaurants with three Michelin stars: 10
Total international aid spending per year: €10.2bn
Good and bad
+ Oktoberfest. No longer just a quirky booze-up, it’s become a celebration of Bavarian identity.
- A reluctance to lead has caused problems within the EU, particularly in southern Europe.
The most powerul woman on the planet, whose popularity at home is matched by the respect she garners elsewhere in the world.