The year is 2085. In the 81st annual BBC World Service poll of nearly 25,000 people worldwide on whether a nation’s influence in the world is “mostly positive” or “mostly negative,” North Korea comes out on top. Again.
Political science fiction? Sure. But to judge from the real-world example of Germany, it’s not impossible. Seven decades after the climax of World War II, Germany was once again the world’s most positively viewed country in 2014, according to the BBC poll.
Germany — the Minnesota International Center’s 2015 focus country — achieved its transformation in many ways. And despite present and impending challenges, Germany, led by Chancellor Angela Merkel, is poised to remain widely admired — and powerful.
The virtues inspiring this admiration are mostly economic and political, said Prof. James Parente, director of the Center for German and European Studies at the University of Minnesota. Germany’s Europe-leading economy is the fourth-biggest in the world. And on a more microeconomic level, global consumers who buy German coffee makers, cars and everything in between often do so because of a perception of excellence, which is an image that can transfer to the nation itself.
But it isn’t just German industry. Germany’s generous social safety net for individuals is widely admired as well. “Germany has all those things we come to expect from a social democracy, plus prosperity and a lot of productivity and efficiency that make it pretty much a model for the world,” Parente said.
Germans also have been exemplary in reckoning with and rebuilding from the country’s past, said two other U experts. “One of the reasons Germany is so admired is because they have done such a good job of facing up to those crimes in a way few other nations have faced crimes of the past — including this one,” said Prof. Richard McCormick, chair of the U’s Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch.
It wasn’t easy in a defeated, even devastated nation. “Germany had to create out of whole cloth a civil society,” said Prof. Brian Atwood, a former diplomat and former dean of the U’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.
Yet Germany is now “the glue” binding the European Union, added Atwood. This is partly due to power from Germany’s economic prowess and partly due to Merkel, whose quiet competence makes her one of the world’s most respected and effective leaders. “Merkel is domestically admired, but also shows great strength in foreign policy,” Parente said. “She’s very attuned to how her country relates economically, politically and culturally to other countries.”
That’s certainly the case regarding Russia. Merkel’s steely resolve on sanctions to reverse Russian aggression in Ukraine has led to unusually tight cohesion between the European Union and the United States.
But Merkel’s equally disciplined approach to some southern European nations seeking E.U. aid has hurt her European popularity in nations like Spain, which registered a 27-point spike in negative perceptions of Germany in the 2014 BBC poll. “Imposed austerity can make Germany a pretty controversial country in Europe, where people begin to see Germany as a cause of their problems,” Atwood said.
While the realpolitik of geoeconomics matters most in Germany’s resurgent image, culture cannot be discounted. And uniquely, it’s not just classical Bach or techno in modern Berlin — a global “signature city,” according to Parente — or even soccer (World Cup finals in every decade since the ’50s). It’s also decades of unflinching exploration of its fascist past.
And while normally a relentless reminder of a nation’s sins would sink its image, in this case it counterintuitively may have helped.
For one, Germans themselves have been fearless in addressing fascism — even though McCormick believes it may now be more motivated by an industry than introspection: “To some extent, it’s more of a market niche than soul-searching, as it originally was.”
World War II is still a potent theme in America, too. “The Imitation Game” got an Oscar nod and “All the Light We Cannot See” and “Killing Patton” are second and first on the fiction and nonfiction bestseller lists.
And perhaps the cultural contrast from films and books about the Nazi era to today’s reality of a peaceful, even pacifist, prosperity makes Germany appreciated even more.
Yet lurking tests to Germany’s domestic equanimity and good global relations may challenge its top-ranked international image.
Russia, for one. And the ever-present eurozone crisis may soon worsen if Athens attempts a “Grexit” from the euro. But it’s not just Greece. In fact, sclerotic economies across the eurozone will test continental cohesion.
And it’s not just a shaken France that’s having an existential national identity crisis. A small, but growing, anti-Islamic movement, “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West” (“PEGIDA” in German), had its biggest march yet in Dresden this week.
So far the center not only has held, but it has pushed back with often bigger counter-demonstrations, as well as calls for inclusion from political, business, cultural and business leaders. Islam “belongs to Germany,” Merkel said this week. Indeed, Germany isn’t immune to the continent’s convulsions. But instead of being the source, it may be the solution to the problems.
“There are very dangerous centrifugal forces that are creating problems for the European Union as an institution,” Atwood said. “Germany worries about these more than anyone else, and yet they seem to have more capacity than any country to save Europe.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
The Star Tribune Editorial Board and the Minnesota International Center are partners in “Great Decisions,” a monthly dialogue discussing foreign-policy topics. Want to join the conversation? Go to www.micglobe.org.