Geopolitics

What New World Order? The Case For A Stronger Germany

No country has profited from the Pax Americana as much as Germany. Now, as U.S. influence wanes, it has a key role to play in filling the power vacuum.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's trademark hand gesture
German Chancellor Angela Merkel's trademark hand gesture
Michael Stürmer

-Analysis-

BERLIN — History's grand plan, if it has one, doesn't usually allow for repetition. The kaleidoscope of the past brings up endless new iterations of victory and defeat, triumph and agony, and allows us only a glimpse into the uncertainty of the future and the ambiguity of the past.

New world powers are coming to the fore, and the post-war world order — first the Cold War, then the Pax Americana — is disappearing. As the influence of NATO, which for many decades gave Europeans a sense of safety through its ability to deter and defend, begins to wane, the promise of protection from the United States is also disappearing.

It's been a long time since Germany's future, and that of Europe as a whole, has looked so uncertain. Around three decades ago, the Cold War was finally declared over as the United States and the USSR came to a mutual understanding. But that has not meant that global power relations are now smooth sailing.

The seismic changes of 30 years ago did not come about in an organized manner but through a process that Yale historian Paul Kennedy, in his master's thesis on world powers, calls "competitive decline." After the end of the second Iraq War, it seemed possible that a new world order may be established with America at the head, leading and bankrolling a global alliance against all troublemakers, but this was not achieved.

No new world order has appeared.

Instead we have lived through the collapse of nation states, civil wars, terrorism and religious fanaticism, alongside old-fashioned scourges such as droughts, mass poverty and epidemics. Sooner or later these will erode the foundations of what little prosperity and political security remains.

The long nuclear peace of the last 30 years of blissful ignorance is over. Gone too is the strategic stability that the Cold War provided. Even without the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, the world stage offers chaos. And that makes it all the more important, for reasons of survival, to inject a little predictability, long-term perspective and strategic restraint back into international power relations.

For the foreseeable future, we are in a worse situation than we have been in a long time. While Washington, Moscow, Beijing and other centers of power — the nuclear order that sprang up after World War II — are in decline, no new world order has appeared.

This is where Germany comes into play. A new world order is sorely needed, and Germany, which flourished under the Pax Americana and, against all expectations, became a late-blooming, 20th-century success story, must play its part in establishing one.

Whether it will have a chance to draw on this experience is, to say the least, uncertain. When it comes to security and protection, Germany needs to learn how to stand on its own two feet and make a respectable contribution on the world stage, even if this means a bit of pain, financial cost and a few disagreements.

Map of the Holy Roman Empire during the 16th century — Source: Friedrich Wilhelm Putzger/Wikimedia Commons

On a campaign trip to Trudering, in Upper Bavaria, Angela Merkel said that Germany could no longer rely on its old friends. Ever the cautious pragmatist, she was careful, nevertheless, not mention which new ones she had in mind. While telephones around the world are ringing off the hook, the German chancellor is remaining tight-lipped. That may be wise. Sometimes the situation and tactics require a politician to hold back.

But what is true for most countries is not true for Germany. The country is right in the middle of things — not just of Europe, but also of the global situation. Or, as Henry Kissinger liked to say, Germany is the wrong size: too big for Europe, too small for the world.

Enduring incompleteness

The best way to understand Germany's role is as a half-hegemony: neither one thing nor the other. But this was also the situation for the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, an empire that lasted for centuries by constantly renewing itself. It went against all classical thinking about how to structure a state, but it would be absurd to deny the legitimacy of an empire that lasted nearly 1,000 years.

Half-hegemony has been Germany's situation since time immemorial. It has marked the country's history, shaping its fate and that of its neighbors. In order to understand the present, it's vital to see it from a historical perspective — even now, in the fourth decade since reunification.

Germany became the stage for wars that spread across the world.

To do that, we must look back to the Holy Roman Empire and its role in shaping Europe. It wasn't an empire in the traditional sense, but a peaceful way of life for central Europe. Imperial rule had to be reaffirmed every time the emperor's successor was chosen by the seven prince-electors: the "pillars of the empire," as they were known. Not much was achieved through violence; it was money and gold that held sway.

While the European kingdoms around Germany were developing early modern states, Germany continued in a situation of enduring incompleteness, with a constitution that, like a Gothic cathedral, was a continual work-in-progress. As a consequence, during the Age of Discovery this unity broke down, peace agreements didn't hold, and Germany became the stage for wars that spread across the world.

The Thirty Years' War (1618-1648) branded Germans with a very real sense of "German angst." But after the Peace of Westphalia brought an end to the war, the empire clung on for another 150 years, while its neighbors established colonies overseas.

Not strong enough to attack others, but powerful enough to defend itself, the Holy Roman Empire was a stabilizing force in Europe. For a few decades, Austria and Prussia shared the hegemony. The Austro-Prussian War of 1866 saw Austria defeated and Prussia's influence expanded. The wisdom of the old empire failed and the rise of nation states began.

Above all, half-hegemony is a balancing act. After a shaky start, Bismarck succeeded at it, whereas his successors, enthralled by new technological developments and Germany's rise on the world stage, failed. At the end of World War II, General Charles de Gaulle summed up Europe's catastrophes since 1914 as "the Thirty Years' War of our century."

Thanks to the Pax Americana, this was not the last word on the subject. But now America has nothing left to offer. And there is nothing in today's world to suggest that something better is on the horizon. Freedom is the recognition of necessity. It's time for the country in the middle of Europe, together with others, to have another go at half-hegemony.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ