NYT columnist discusses Germany’s position in world affairs

11/13/14 – Medford/Somerville, MA – Roger Cohen, a columnist for the New York Times Foreign Section speaks during the Tufts University German Department's and the Tufts German Club's event, 25 Years After the Berlin Wall in the Crane Room in Paige Hall on November 13th, 2014. (Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily) Nicholas Pfosi / The Tufts Daily

Roger Cohen, author and journalist for The New York Times and International Herald Tribune, gave a lecture titled “Germany: 25 Years After the Berlin Wall” on Thursday in the Crane Room. His talk focused on the current state of Germany in world affairs to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Cohen began by discussing his family’s move to Berlin in 1998, noting that at the time, “the city was in flux.”

He explained that he was interested in the development of Germany and the policies of the new government after reunification between East Germany and West Germany in 1990.

Cohen underscored that Germany was in the midst of a “debate about normality” as it entered the last period of post-war development. During the period, people discussed whether Germany could be normal or proud of itself again.

“There was a new confidence, a gradual shedding of the trauma,” he said.

After leaving Germany in 2001, Cohen returned to the United States to assume the position of acting foreign editor of The New York Times on Sept. 11, 2001. He noted that the increase in American insecurity post-9/11 came alongside the increase in security in Europe with a newly reunified Germany.

“The Berlin I knew that was a construction site has become the confident capital of the new Germany,” he said.

Patriotism, too, has been on the rise in Germany since reunification, Cohen added.

“Patriotism is not of the flag-waving kind that you see in the U.S., but it’s there and it’s real,” he said.

Since then, Cohen underscored that German relations with the United States “have turned somewhat sour,” noting that the two countries are at the worst point in their relations post-World War II with the recent National Security Agency surveillance scandals. The right to personal privacy, as shaped by history, has become sacrosanct in Germany, according to Cohen.

[Edward] Snowden is probably more popular today among young Germans than [President Barack Obama],” he said.

Cohen noted that the shared value system between Germany and the United States was meant to be one of the bedrocks in their ongoing alliance, but their different views on security and the right to privacy have raised serious questions about the countries’ cultural coherence.

“So the United States and Germany are still, I think, looking for a way forward together,” he said.

Cohen emphasized that today, Germany will have to look at how to be a problem-solver, especially with the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.

As Germany is the most powerful country in Europe today, this will prove to be an important issue, but Germany has been wary of embracing the power and responsibility that it already commands, according to Cohen.

“No nation knows the giddying power of might better than Germany,” he noted. “So Germany’s discomfort is understandable.”

Since reunification, Germany has come together and rebounded because of factors such as its strong economic performance, political farsightedness and luck, Cohen added.

“There’s something really remarkable about this degree of German success,” he said.

In analyzing Germany’s success, Cohen underscored the degree of cataclysm in 1945, when Germany realized what it had reduced itself to; this awareness instilled a form of prudence and preparedness for its future.

“Knowledge of that trauma has helped the country move forward,” he said, also noting the importance of social democracy in Germany.Germany today is a remarkable success story in social democracy.”

However, leaders now use Germany’s guilt as an excuse for laziness and withdrawal from world affairs, Cohen said, noting that Germany is now afraid of using its power in the world today.

“The country kind of glided into this new role, this sudden acquisition of power, without any deep reflection or debate on what should be done with it or what it meant,” he said.

Cohen underscored that it is not a good thing if a country as powerful as Germany today retreats in a world that is increasingly unstable and unanchored due to the United States’ withdrawal. Germany, however, has resigned itself to being a merchant state, he said, noting the indecisiveness about Germany’s role in conflicts such as Mali and Syria.

“So I think the country’s been searching for a kind of strategic coherence,” Cohen said.

Cohen added that, based on its powerful business relationship with China, Germany needs to use this special connection to coax China to play a greater role in the world.

Germany has unique leverage over China that needs to be used,” he said.

Furthermore, Germany’s connections to Russia must be used to help work with the country as it turns further away from the West and Western modernity, Cohen explained, noting that it will fall on Germany to find a new relationship with Russia given the danger of the current conflict in Ukraine.

Germany will also need to continue to champion the European project, pushing for more proactive rather than reactive policies and a more federalized structure to revive the euro as well as keeping the United Kingdom in the European Union.

Germany is too big to hide today,” he said.

Germany must move past its aversion to war, militarism and global dominance that come from the the post-Nazi German psyche and “find a way to be strong without menacing,” Cohen noted.

He said that he has never felt so anxious about the state of the world in his lifetime, particularly given the weaker position of the United States in the world today.

“I argue that Germany must reach farther,” Cohen said. “It’s hard to do so, but it’s possible.”

According to Cohen, the challenges the world is facing today are enormous, including the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the rise of the Islamic State and an economically depressed Europe.

“If Germany does not take on its responsibilities, and we if we see this retreat from the United States, I think that [would be] extremely worrying,” he said.