For NATO to succeed in the future, the Alliance needs a stronger Germany. One senior Alliance official labeled Germany a “lost nation” in its political and military leadership. Europe’s future relevance as a global strategic partner of the United States is contingent on Germany taking its full place as a much stronger political and military leader within Europe and the transatlantic Alliance.

Modern Germany is an extraordinary success story whose current and future role in Europe must be placed in its unique historic context. The country has undergone a remarkable transformation since the end of World War II. The ‘German problem’ that plagued European affairs from the country’s birth under Otto von Bismarck in 1871 to its reunification on October 3, 1990 has finally been resolved. A united and democratic Germany has taken its full place within the European Union and NATO. Long a source of insecurity and instability, Germany is today the essential guarantor of the European common currency and the keystone European country of the NATO Alliance.

The key strategic question facing Germany today is whether it can take the next step in its historic postwar transformation by becoming a more influential global power and a stronger military and political leader of Europe. American and European leaders we surveyed are in near unanimous agreement that Germany must make a determined effort to lead more confidently and with greater purpose. Here again, it is worth putting Germany’s accomplishments into context.

In 1955, the NATO allies invited West Germany to join the Alliance and permit the country’s careful rearmament to defend against possible Soviet invasion. Since the end of the Cold War and reunification, Germany has come to view its national defense in a more international context. German political leaders have sent the Bundeswehr to participate in peacekeeping missions in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, and to support Operation Enduring Freedom and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. This represented an extraordinary transformation of German foreign and defense policy, made possible only through Germany’s secure place in NATO and the European Union and through a more confident political leadership prepared to assume greater international responsibility.

Former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder took a major political risk in linking his coalition’s survival to the Bundestag’s willingness to approve a deployment of German troops to Afghanistan in November 2001. Germany needs similarly decisive leadership and ambition today to take the next step in its transformation as an influential nation in global affairs. Just as NATO could not succeed without welcoming Germany as a member in 1955, Europe cannot now remain relevant as a global actor if Germany does not show a greater commitment to lead.

But Germany’s central role in resolving the Eurozone crisis has consumed a great deal of the government’s political capital, and left Berlin wary of further displays of clout and international stature. As a result, today the United States’ ambitions for Germany as a global power exceed those of Germany itself. The United States is not alone in wanting to see more German leadership. Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said memorably in a major speech on November 28, 2011, “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.”

A weak Germany that lacks a capacity to act globally will inevitably weaken NATO. Europe cannot remain a major force within the NATO Alliance if a country of Germany’s size, geography, and prosperity makes the kind of deep reductions in defense spending announced by Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government in 2011. Reform of the Bundeswehr to modernize its capability and capacity to participate in international missions is welcome. But major cuts to multilateral arms purchases, like the A400M strategic airlift program, undermine European defense projects and restrict Germany’s future deployment options. Germany should instead commit to an acquisition plan that would equip a reformed Bundeswehr to make significant contributions to NATO and European Union military operations.

More importantly, Germany will handicap Europe’s ability to play a leading global security role if Berlin continues to shy away from political leadership within NATO. Germany’s refusal to deploy its troops to the areas of most intense fighting in Afghanistan since 2003 has weakened the NATO effort there. While Berlin has increased its contingents in Afghanistan and Kosovo, Germany’s decision to opt out of NATO’s Libya operation and side with Russia and China in the United Nations Security Council against the United States, France, and the United Kingdom was a serious mistake. As NATO charts its future, Berlin needs to be working hand-in-glove with Washington, Paris, London, and Ankara to drive Alliance policy and to lead Alliance operations. Today, Germany is an economic powerhouse, but a second-rate political and military power. German weakness is NATO’s most significant problem. A stronger Germany would be the greatest boost to NATO’s future.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.”

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