Two Great Powers, No Real Leadership

Are Germany and the US practicing "self-containment?"

From Josef Joffe, Wall Street Journal:  Twice in the 20th century, Germany tried to grab hegemony by bayonet and blitzkrieg, almost destroying itself and Europe in the process. Now, primacy has dropped into Mrs. Merkel’s lap like an overripe plum. It’s dominion by default, and power sits uneasily on the chancellor’s head. It is literally an embarrassment of riches. Germany is so strong because Britain, France, Italy and Spain are so weak, their economies the victims of failed modernization and failing competitiveness.

Barack Obama will spend 22 hours in a country that is all dressed up but doesn’t know where to go. The U.S. and Germany are the last heavies standing in the West, but they would rather compete in the middleweight league. To invert Maggie Thatcher: They are punching below their weight. America is No. 1 in the world, and Germany is No. 1 in Europe, yet both are practicing what great powers have never done. Call it "self-containment," or to use the language of the 19th century: They are balancing not against others, but against themselves. This is a first in great-power history.

Mr. Obama’s America is disarming and retracting, both from Europe, where there are only 30,000 U.S. soldiers left, and from the Greater Middle East, where the U.S. has vacated Iraq while pulling out from Afghanistan. In Syria, it has taken Mr. Obama two long years to figure out that he can’t play Ferdinand the Bull while Russia and Iran are playing power politics. Iran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has mobilized thousands to defend the Assad regime, and the Russians have deployed naval units to the Eastern Mediterranean and dispatched sophisticated anti-air and anti-ship missiles—classic 19th century stuff.

Now Mr. Obama wants to ship weapons to the Syrian rebels and set up a "limited no-fly zone" from Jordan. A U.S. president with a true strategic outlook of the world would have moved when the risks and costs were still low. At this stage, Mr. Obama is the victim, not the shaper of events in the world’s most dangerous arena, where America’s adversaries have roamed freely for two years. . . .

As aggressive as a sloth, Berlin wields its enormous power in ways that do not reassure but instead raise suspicions from Athens to Paris. And that reinforces Berlin’s un-Teutonic diffidence. Do not count on this Germany to assume a strategic role in the world, and certainly not in the Levant. . . .

Who is going to mind the store? Russia, China, India? In the West, the U.S. and Germany are the two last men standing, yet they would rather sit down in their respective corners. The price is high: a "nonpolar" or "a-polar" world where nobody is in charge.  (photo: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

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