Merkel’s Twin-Trip to India and America

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An Object Lesson on the Multipolar World System

by Michael Liebig


During the first week of June, Chancellor Angela Merkel made two state visits: One eastbound to the Indian capital New Delhi and to Singapore, one westbound to Washington, DC. In Delhi, Merkel received the Jawaharlal Nehru Award for International Understanding and in Washington the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Both honors don’t belong the “honorary doctorate” category, but are truly “high value” awards in terms of diplomatic prestige.

However, neither the time-wise proximity of Merkel’s trips nor the pair of prestigious honors are the essential issue here. What really matters is that the twin trip – to a rising and an established world power – puts the spotlight on the fact that world politics has become multipolar. Yet, our mental maps have not yet adequately adapted to the new realities of the multipolar world in the 21st century.

The “Globalized” World is a Multipolar World

From 1945 to 1989, the world was bipolar: Two superpowers – the United States and the Soviet Union – determined world affairs. From 1989 to approximately 2005, we had an unipolar interregnum: The United States were the sole superpower. Since, the rise of new world powers – China, India and Brazil – has created a multipolar configuration in global affairs. This configuration, however, has not yet solidified into a multipolar world order. The institutions of world politics still express a past gone by – beginning with the United Nations Security Council. The permanent (and veto) powers in the UNSC are still the real and nominal winners of WWII: USA, Russia, Britain, France and China. Big powers like India and Brazil or Japan and Germany are still sitting at the UNSC’s side table.

Already during 1950s and 1960s, attempts was made to transcend the then-bipolar world system and to create a multipolar framing in international affairs. India under Nehru, Yugoslavia under Tito, Indonesia under Sukarno and Egypt under Nasser formed the “Non-Allied Movement” (NAM) at a summit meeting in Belgrade in 1961. But the NAM states were economically too weak to exert substantial influence on world affairs. During the 1980s NAM faded away.

Then, during the 1990s, the economies of China, India, Brazil and other formerly colonial states began to develop broadly and rapidly. This process was initially perceived as “globalization” in the sense that the new powers would get absorbed into the hegemonic “American system” shaping political and economic affairs on a global scale. However, behind the appearance of globalized conformity, if not gleichschaltung, a great diversity of capabilities, interests and values emerged rapidly. The “globalized” world turned out to be a multipolar world.

Since the 1990s, the power-asymmetry between “the West” and “the rest” has shifted towards a new, global power-symmetry. While the “rest” was growing stronger, the “West” – first of all the USA – became relatively weaker. When the financial and economic crisis – originating in the USA – hit full force in 2007-2009, the the new global power symmetry became glaringly obvious. When the debt-ridden American and European economies contracted in 2009, the Asian and Latin American economies continued to grow. The economic dynamism in Asia prevented a replay of an 1930s-style global depression. The new economic weight of the rising powers inevitably translated into political power. The de-facto substitution of the G8 (North America, Europe, Japan) by the G20 (including the rising powers) signifies the transformation towards a multipolar world system.

In export-dependent Germany, the transformation towards political and economic multipolarity was recognized rather quickly. One illustration: In 2007, the German foreign intelligence service (BND) published a promotional brochure on its mission, which contained the following sentence: “In the present multipolar world, the diverse interests of states do manifest themselves more clearly than in the past.” Then, most mainstream political commentators still denigrated the term “multipolar world”, claiming that “the West” was still on top and warning against overrating the potential of problem-ridden, rising powers in Asia and Latin America.

The BND brochure also stated that the present multipolar world is “is more amorphous and less calculable” compared to the past bi- and unipolar world systems. Indeed, that is so. Now, every country – big or small – needs to set up its foreign relations in a multi-directional fashion. Simultaneously, many actors across the globe have to be closely watched. All governments – not just the big ones – have to assess converging and conflicting interests in respect to an unprecedentedly wide range of other states and must prioritize relations correspondingly.

The art of statecraft in the age of multipolarity faces one particularly complex challenge: How to develop privileged relations to the rising powers without endangering the relationship to established powers. And here we are back to Merkel’s twin trip to Delhi and Washington.

Germany and India

When Merkel flew to India on May 31, Iran refused the overflight permission of her plane for about two hours – due to a technical misunderstanding, the Iranians later said. This incident was for many media the only “newsworthy” item on her trip to India. However, a journalist of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung who accompanied Merkel in her plane reported something really interesting: In view of the dynamism in Asia, Merkel had said, Europe must be careful not to turn into a “Partialmuseum”. She is obviously concerned that Europe might become ossified and self-complacent, instead of making use of the enormous opportunities which the multipolar world, notably in Asia, is providing.

“Eurocentrism” is a political science term which describes a world view based on the assumption that the values, norms and habits in Euro-Atlantic space are axiomatically universal. In reality, of course, they are not. The cultures of India or China are as old and rich as Europe’s. The foundations of mathematics were laid in ancient India where the number “0” was invented. The first comprehensive work on statecraft was written by the Indian Kautilya, a contemporary of Aristotle, which deals with state administration, principles of foreign relations and the paramount importance of intelligence services. From the 17th to the 20th century, Europe and North America took the lead – in economic, political and cultural terms. But now we see not only a shift in the economic and political correlation of forces, but a cultural re-balancing.

The FAZ journalist reported that Merkel described the Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, as an wise and calm man who knows the world. “I’m thinking thrice before I would reject an idea put forward by him”. Merkel probably knows that Germany missed more than one opportunity for closer cooperation with India, particularly during the 1990s. For too long, India was seen as incapable as catching up with China, even though its growth rates were close to China’s. But, things have changed: Germany is India’s No. 1 trading partner in Europe and bilateral trade will likely reach €20 billion in 2012. That is not yet much, considering Germany’s total export volume of nearly €1000 billion, but is a solid basis for further trade expansion given that trade has grown by 15% per annum in recent years. „Germany has a profound interest to go along with India on its very exciting and very successful path of development,” said Merkel in Delhi. India and both the EU and Germany have established a “strategic partnership”. With Merkel’s latest visit, the first Inter-Governmental Consultations were held, involving the Foreign, Defense, Interior, Transportation and Science Ministers of both countries. As Prime Minister Singh said: “India and Germany enjoy a very close and multi-faceted relationship. There is enormous goodwill in India for the people and culture of Germany. There is admiration and respect for the advances made by Germany in engineering and technological development. The passion for quality, hard work and innovation of the German people is admired by the people of India. Germany is India’s largest trading partner in Europe and one of our most important partners for technological collaboration and joint research and development. It is also amongst the largest foreign investors in India.”

One should not think that Singh is diplomatically uttering kind words. The Indian political leadership belongs to the “realist” school in international affairs: They know, it’s power that matters. They know that India was not taken seriously on the international stage until it became nuclear weapons state in 1998. In 1974, under Indira Gandhi a nuclear device was exploded, but India refrained from further nuclear tests for another 24 years. India’s restraint was not honored. After the Prime Minister Vajpayee ordered the nuclear weapons tests in 1998, India was treated as a world power. Today, India has not only one of the largest conventional armed forces worldwide, but is building up strategic forces with nuclear-powered submarines armed with nuclear-tipped missiles, The military dimension was not absent at Merkel’s visit in Delhi where she lobbied for India’s acquisition of 126 Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft.

And there is the Afghanistan question. Germany wants to get out of Afghanistan as soon as possible. What will happen there when NATO forces have pulled out? My guess is that, with respect to Afghan security, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) will play a leading role. The SCO is a multilateral body involving China, Russia and the Central Asian countries; Iran, Pakistan and India have observer status. At the June 15-16 SCO summit in Tashkent, India was applying for full SCO membership. Thus, India is becoming a key player in Central Asia; it has such a role already in the vast Indian Ocean basin.

Germany and the United States

Four days after returning from her Asia trip, Merkel flew to the United States. Ten years ago, a state visit to Delhi and one to Washington, DC would have been viewed as incommensurable – the power gap being simply too big. Then, a vibrant and (seemingly) prosperous America absorbed 10% of Germany’s exports. Nothing seemed able to withstand America’s political clout and military might. Today, after failing in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, America is stuck in an economic quagmire and buried under a Alpine mountain of debt. Over the past five years, as a share of total German exports, the US market has shrunk by almost half, while exports to the BRIC countries have seen double-digit growth.

Incantations of “shared values” notwithstanding, there has been a sobering up in German-American relations. The relationship has not become unfriendly, but is mainly interessengeleitet, based on an unemotional calculation of converging and conflicting interests. While the USA is no longer the sole superpower, it’s still the biggest military power and its economic clout too is still a class of its own. In the new concert of world powers, America will remain a key player. Who knows what constellations will emerge in the concert of world powers over next years and decades? Therefore, to have a close, friendly relationship with the USA, is a natural interest for Germany and the European Union.

What about the other way around? Why would Merkel be treated so respectfully in Washington? Because good relations with Germany are in America’s interest. US policy aims can no longer be pushed through unilaterally; their successful implementation depends on the backing by friends and allies. That’s the essence of the Obama administration’s “smart power” strategy.

Of particular importance is military-strategic field. Germany is still America’s strategic bridgehead in Eurasia. Over the past two decades the US military presence in Germany has shrunk by roughly 75% and many bases have closed or consolidated. But, some 40.000 American troops are still stationed in Germany. The European Command (EUCOM) and the Africa Command (AFRICOM) are located in Stuttgart, the US Army Europe Headquarters are in Heidelberg (relocating to Wiesbaden) and there are vast US training grounds in Grafenwöhr/Hohenfels in Bavaria. The US Air Force Europe Headquarters is in Ramstein – the biggest Air Force base outside the United States. America depends on this sophisticated military infrastructure, if it wants to remain a strategic actor in Eurasia. Probably, as part of the behind-the-scene agreements on German reunification in 1990, Washington received assurances that its core military infrastructure in Germany would remain untouched.

And, one should not forget the intelligence aspect. The largest American diplomatic institution worldwide, with a staff of some 900 persons, is the US Consulate General in Frankfurt. One doesn’t have to be an intelligence expert to assume that a large section of the diplomatic personnel in Frankfurt is not engaged in issuing visa and the like. Not that they are mainly spying on Germany, Frankfurt seems to be US intelligence hub for Europe, West /Central Asia and Africa.

The American military and intelligence in Germany will likely last as long as the United States have the financial resources to pay for it. And one should add that the future availability of these funds is by no means assured.

So Merkel’s twin trip to Delhi and Washington is an illustration of the core question in the multipolar world: Developing privileged relations to the rising powers without endangering the relationship to established powers. In the 21st century, we have to learn a new mode of thinking: multi-directional – tous azimuts, as the French say.

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