1. Who will lead the West down?
* The lesser of two evils
Theodor Fontane, the master of the nineteenth-German novel, published Before the Storm in 1876. Set during the winter of 1812-13 in and around Berlin, it explores the decisive historical moment when Prussia changed sides—breaking out of its forced alliance with France in order to join with Russia in the anti-Napoleonic war.
Yet the dialectic of that historical moment was such that Germans could participate in the rout of the French army, while nonetheless embracing aspects of their revolutionary legacy. Even as they fought against Napoleon in their “war of liberation,” they also integrated some of the social consequences of the revolution that had begun with the storming of the Bastille.
So near the conclusion of the novel, the Prussian Major General von Bamme, commenting on social changes around him, a gradual leveling of class differences, remarks, “And where does all this come from? From over yonder, borne on the west wind. I can make nothing of these windbags of Frenchmen, but in all the rubbish they talk there is none the less a pinch of wisdom. Nothing much is going to come of their Fraternity, nor of their Liberty: but there is something to be said for what they have put between them. For what, after all, does it mean but: a man is a man.” Mensch ist mensch.
Trump VS Merkel
In these brief comments, I am likely to err on the side of excessive schematization: the positions I want to tease out of several texts deserve more nuance and differentiation than possible in this limited space. Yet the binary character of the analysis is also a reflection of today’s highly polarized public debate, certainly in the United States and Western Europe, in the wake of various political developments, above all the 2016 election that led to the Donald Trump presidency.
One trope in this polarized discourse provides a promising opportunity to link this debate to concerns about alternative constitutions of democracy: the assertion that has circulated in parts of the liberal press that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is now the leader of the free world (or the West), since the American President has, so the argument goes, disqualified himself from that role.
To be sure, the adulation of Merkel has lost a lot of its credibility in the wake of her own poor electoral performance in September. Still, she is often taken to stand in as an alternative to the American President. What does Merkel represent and why does she function as a foil to Trump? Why would Germany—of all countries, given its national history—suddenly be seen as a plausible candidate to lead a liberal West? How do contemporary Germany and America represent alternative models?
A good piece of the trans-Atlantic sniping between Washington and Berlin is, of course, merely a function of electoral politics. Merkel faced the Bundestag elections in September, and in the campaign she had to highlight her distance from Trump; had she not done so, her results would have been even poorer. But leader of the West? This is more than Angela Merkel wants, nor does Germany have the military strength to fill that role.
From a German point of view, Americans are deemed excessively individualistic; from an American point of view, Germans can appear to be excessively conformist, authoritarian, and obedient. Under-socialized loners on the one hand, pliable crowds on the other—Americans versus Germans: this is the stuff stereotypes are made of, but these images are also pertinent to constitutional structures and cultures—liberty versus fraternity.
Washington VS Kant
Washington was a man of his age, an Enlightenment thinker, whose address can be juxtaposed with elements of the philosopher Immanuel Kant’s essay, “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” (1784), in order to contrast American and German constitutional cultures. Kant is a crucial source for German political thought and liberal democracy in general.
Yet in this well-known text, which culminates in a call for the public use of reason, Kant approaches the public with a tone that can be described at best as scolding, at worst as arrogant. While Washington jabbed at the intellectual Jefferson, Kant stands as the intellectual who looks down at the “deplorables,” the bulk of the population that refuses to think.
“Laziness and cowardice,” he writes, “are the reasons why such a large proportion of men, even when nature has long emancipated them from alien guidance (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless gladly remain immature for life. For the same reasons, it is all too easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so convenient to be immature! If I have a book to have understanding in place of me, a spiritual adviser to have a conscience for me, a doctor to judge my diet for me, and so on, I need not make any efforts at all. I need not think, so long as I can pay; others will soon enough take the tiresome job over for me.”
The respective constitutional languages echo this difference. The German Basic Law (Grundgesetz) commences with a listing of the participating states, the Länder, which have pride of place in this federal statement, in contrast with the populism of the American rhetoric announcing “We, the people” as the source of order. The first section of the Basic Law concerns fundamental rights and commences with an assertion of human dignity (“Würde”), a response to Nazi era atrocities as well as the legacy of a tradition of Catholic teaching that productively corrects the idealist inheritance.
American and German constitutional cultures and their respective modes of liberal democracy evidently represent alternative outcomes that we can map back onto Fontane’s novelistic reflection on the French revolutionary appeal: liberty here, fraternity there. The United States developed a libertarian, or a libertarian populist, route (libertarianism and populism themselves are by no means easily compatible), while Germany followed an idealistic, Kantian path, prioritizing obedience to the law (no matter its provenance), the state and first principles: on the one hand, the principle of liberty; on the other, subordination to the community of the law (fraternity).
Washington invoked the importance of experience over speculation. That was another swipe at the excessively theoretical Jefferson, but it highlights a greater distinction: the United States is inductive, Germany deductive; and the contrast between empiricism (an Anglo-American tradition) and German idealism continues to echo through current political debate, including the question of the leadership for the West, which returns us to the contrast between the German Chancellor and the American President.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at :org
- The opinions expressed on this website are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Hoover Institution or Stanford University.