The Complicated Geopolitics of Decline: Germany & Russia Edition

The upcoming meeting between Angela Merkel and Vladimir Putin is a meeting of the two most important political leaders in contemporary Europe. The FT has the story:

Angela Merkel will spell out growing German concerns about the clampdown on civil society in Russia when she meets Vladimir Putin on Friday, signalling a sharp cooling of the traditionally close German-Russian partnership.

The German chancellor, who is flying to Moscow for an inter-governmental summit, will be armed with a sweeping resolution passed by the Bundestag expressing alarm at recent political developments in Russia since the return of Mr Putin to the Kremlin.

Merkel’s trip is notable for another reason. Despite Russia’s immense size, its nuclear arsenal and its energy wealth, Germany is clearly the stronger power with more hopeful long-term prospects than Russia. The dust from the end of the Cold War has settled, leaving Germany once again the most important European power and leaving a frustrated Russia on the outside looking in.

Few things are more obvious in geopolitics than the decline of Europe compared to other parts of the world. It’s one of the oldest and most marked trends in world affairs. In 1914 European powers ruled most of the world, and the past hundred years have seen a steady decline: the collapse of the great empires, the eclipse of Europe by the superpowers during the Cold War, and, since the Cold War, the rise of Asia and lately the euro crisis have all marked new stages in Europe’s decline.

Within that broader story, however, is a story of German success relative to other European countries, if not necessarily to the world as a whole. Germany was the greatest land-based power in Europe at the time of World War I, but two disastrous defeats and a total political and moral meltdown under the Third Reich left Germany weak, broke, divided and surrounded by hostile neighbors. The brilliant economic management of Ludwig Erhardt and the diplomatic greatness of Konrad Adenauer (the greatest German statesman in 1000 years, sadly underappreciated in his native land today) transformed Germany’s situation. After unification twenty years ago, Germany quickly emerged as the strongest country in the European Union, much to the discomfiture of the others.

Germany has made two terrible currency decisions since 1989: converting East German marks into West German money at the rate of one for one helped wreck the East German economy and cost taxpayers hundreds of billions, and then the euro, the fortunes of which we have all seen. But while it has not found a way to use its new power effectively to build a better or stronger Europe, it has continued to become more dominant in Europe as a whole.

Russia’s story is a little different.


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