With the German national soccer team falling out of the World Cup’s first round, a streak of luck that lasted for more than two decades came to a sudden halt. Since 2002, the Germans had at least made it to the semifinals, if not the finals. Two times in a generation, 1990 and 2014, Germany won the championship. In fact, until last week, Germany had the only soccer team to always proceeded to the knockout rounds. Now that record is history.
In retrospect, the defeat by South Korea – a country of the Far East – may seem as a herald of change, signifying a shift in not only German sports but Germany’s fate in general. This is because the Midas touch that provided Germany with a series of stunning successes, affected more than the soccer field.
Take Germany’s economy. The country has been foremost among the profiteers of globalisation, free trade, and neoliberal economic policies. The euro, introduced in the early 2000s, became a boon for German growth and prosperity. Suddenly the powerful and highly capitalised economy at the center of Europe was surrounded by a market of almost 350 million consumers with zero foreign exchange risk, abundant and cheap money, and an unlimited credibility due to the European Central Bank’s TARGET2 clearing mechanism. The EU, the euro, and globalisation combined came as a godsend for the German economy, a ‘real-life Cockaigne’, the land of milk and honey.
This is most visible in export statistics. In 1990, less than a quarter of German GDP was generated by the export of goods and services. That figure rose to over 46% by 2017. No other major world economy is as dependent on exports as Germany. The top five in comparison: the UK 28% of GDP, China 20%, Japan 16%, and the US 12%. Consequentially, among these big players, it is Germany that is most threatened by the rollback on free trade and the looming trade wars ignited by the Trump administration.
For German sports and its economy, the period between the fall of communism and Trump, Brexit, and the 2018 World Cup was marked by largely unmitigated success. Interestingly, the same argument can be made for German politics. The unification of the two Germanies, itself embedded in a process of pan-European integration, became the embodiment of Germany’s highest-flying idealistic aspirations: peace and unity in harmony. It resulted in a very German version of Francis Fukuyama’s theory of the ‘End of History’, with the emphasis less on the victory of liberal democracy but on the quasi-religious deliverance of history as such: Lamb and lion will lie together and mankind will rejoice, as foreseen by the biblical prophet Isaiah. That millenarian hope was reinforced by the lessons of two World Wars. In essence, they had taught Germany never again to get involved in politics, at least not in power politics.
The post-1990 unilateral world order proved to be the ideal circumstance to practice utopia in real time, enabling Germany and Western Europe at large to abstain from politics in lee of the one remaining superpower: The United States. Even the Balkan Wars – the major European crisis of the 1990s – required Washington’s involvement as peacemaker. In those years, the primary task for Western European governments was more administrative than political: to further European integration and, by force of gravity and as part of the process, collect and digest the Central and Eastern European remnants of the Soviet Empire within EU and NATO structures.
At the same time, the European political classes developed a system of ethical values as a future yardstick for international relations – in lieu of power politics and with the idea to eventually supplant them. The outcome was called ‘value-based foreign policy’. It was flanked by two equally utopian claims: the universal validity of human rights and the eclipse of interests as the driving force in international relations. Its pillar is a concept of progress unique to Western philosophy: the idea that all mankind moves along a linear path, albeit with different speeds, to eventually converge upon a common destination.
Those were the years when game theory terminology found its way into the political discourse: win-win and zero-sum. That was because after 1990 and until the early 2000s, the international discourse was dominantly shaped by the liberal West. Marxist-Leninist ideologies were all but dead, and the new political concepts rooted in Asian tradition were still beyond the horizon.
The absence of contesting philosophies led to a situation when predictions and policy suggestions were made under the condition of ceteris paribus. As in a laboratory, where the results of experiments are meaningful only if ‘all other things are equal’, the value and order systems developed and propagated by the cultural and political hegemon of the time naturally assumed universal recognition.
Ten to fifteen years on this assumption is obsolete. That is the crux of the matter, explaining a good deal of the growing disputes, divisions, and conflicts across the globe. For a short period of time, when there was only one townhouse and one mayor, the global village meme was a convincing concept, at least a possible dream. But as the world is increasingly being interpreted along rival narratives, ‘global village’ becomes an empty, commonplace phrase.
Few nations lived the dream of the end of history – the end of politics – as profoundly as the Germans. After a war laced with indescribable crimes they had all reason to do so. But even in a fully secularised world, salvation and redemption are prerogatives of the afterlife. Trump, Brexit, the 2015-2016 influx of migrants into Europe, and the ascent of right-wing populists symbolise the return of history, of politics. The German situation is characterised by a stalemate, dividing both the political class and the population at large. Some are ready to sacrifice values for control, others cling to their ideals. The rest of Europe views this process with anxiety. An incapacitated Germany does not bode well for the continent in times of increasing great power rivalries.