Germany’s international reputation has steadily improved since the fall of the Berlin Wall and German Reunification. Since 1989, it has successfully introduced domestic political reforms, integrated the former East Germany, and improved its international economic competitiveness. In one international survey conducted last year, Germany ranked second behind the United States in terms of overall attractiveness. Germany was perceived as being a particularly reliable and trustworthy nation, and a good location for science and technology. Germany also topped a 2013 BBC poll of 25 polled countries as a positive influence in the world. The Economist summed it up succinctly : in the last decade, Germany has successfully transformed itself from “The Sick Man of Europe” to “Europe’s Reluctant Hegemon”.
These developments have naturally led to increased international interest in Germany’s forthcoming national elections. With all eyes on Berlin this weekend, it is worth looking at how Germans view the world and how these views might impact the outcome of elections.
In responding to this year’s Transatlantic Trends, a survey sponsored by the German Marshall Fund, Germans expressed strong negative views on the equality of our current economic system, with eight of ten people surveyed saying it benefits only a few. People were divided on government spending, with half of those polled speaking out in favor of increased spending to stimulate growth, while maintaining defense spending and welfare state programs at current levels, and the other half in favor of cuts in all three areas. On Europe, less than half of the German respondents felt personally affected by the economic crisis, with more than half believing that the Euro benefits them personally. Eight of ten respondents also saw the European Union in a positive light, with nearly as many calling for the EU to exert strong leadership in world affairs.
Germans were divided on some international issues. The sharpest divisions were evident in their views on NATO and on China. While a majority believed that NATO remains essential for Germany’s security, a large minority would have the European Union follow a more independent approach to security. For roughly half of the respondents China represented an economic opportunity but no military threat, while the other half perceived that country to be both an economic and military threat. Germans were equally divided on the more fundamental philosophical question of whether or not to accept non-democratic governments as the price of political stability. A small majority thought democracy to be more important, even in cases where this was associated with periods of instability.
At the same time, respondents in Germany did agree on other international issues. Most were against using drones in warfare, were amenable to the United States taking the lead in international affairs, and supported the German army’s continued involvement in training the Afghan army and police, even after completion of NATO’s combat mission in Afghanistan. Three-quarters of respondents also said that the German government should stay out of the conflict in Syria.
Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Party retain a clear lead in all pre-election polls, and their international policies are undoubtedly one of the reasons why. The Transatlantic Trends poll showed the majority of Germans to be in favor of Merkel’s foreign policy decisions, as well as the way she has handled the economy and the euro crisis.
Discontent, such as there is in Germany, mainly concerns increasing income inequality. Despite the overall positive trajectory of the German economy and booming labor market, the gap between the haves and have-nots has increased. A recent government report on poverty and wealth showed that the richest ten percent of German households possess more than half of the nation’s total net assets, with the entire lower half laying claim to just over one percent, down from three percent in 2003. Reaction to questions posed by Transatlantic Trends on the fairness of Germany’s economic system shows that this trend is prompting a certain uneasiness among the country’s citizens. Still, Germans do not seem overly concerned with this issue for the time being, at least not concerned to the point where they would vote Merkel out of office.