Watching German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle with British Foreign Secretary William Hague this week I was reminded of a John F. Kennedy quote; “The problem with power is how to achieve its responsible use, rather than its irresponsible or indulgent use”. That is not to suggest that Westerwelle is in any way irresponsible. Indeed, what struck me about Westerwelle in London was the vision of a German foreign minister behaving on the European stage much like a US secretary of state on the world stage. It is clear that Germany really does now lead Europe, just as it is clear that Britain is critical to German leadership. 

Westerwelle had come to London “to build bridges” and described Britain as an “indispensable partner.” At one level this is a French nightmare and explains the provocations from Paris of late. Paris is always concerned that Berlin will do a deal with London that is not made in Paris. Equally, it would be a mistake for Britain to believe there are tensions between France and Germany to be exploited. The French are clearly in on this ‘good cop, bad cop’ strategy, as evinced by this week’s British-friendly amendments to the EU Common Fisheries Policy which were supported by both Berlin and Paris purely for reasons of grand strategy.

Britain must therefore stand on strategic principle, but is London any longer up to the task? The many attacks on Prime Minister Cameron by London’s Chicken Littles miss the point…as per usual. Cameron’s Brussels ‘no’ was strategic, even if the way the British approached the failed summit was more Ealing comedy than grand epic. “The Economist” called Cameron’s stand a mistake. This merely reflects briefings against Cameron by British diplomats so long lost in the EU trees that they are unable to see the strategic woods.

In fact, Cameron achieved precisely what I said he would achieve at the time. He forced Germany to deal with Britain not simply as another member of the EU 27 but rather as a great power. There was always something strategically unworldly about the idea that even in the teeth of the Eurozone crisis Britain would simply acquiesce to a fiscal union built around Germany that by its very nature would critically damage Britain. Turkeys do not normally vote for Christmas and yet this is what the critics were calling for Britain’s strategy towards Germany should be clear and simple. Any move now towards fiscal and political union would by definition exaggerate German power and influence.  Any such ‘union’ would force the weak into a system organised around Germany. As such the Union would begin to look more like an empire than a community, even though that clearly is not Berlin’s intention.  In Europe of all places power must be held in check.  However, the EU as currently structured affords no such checks. Therefore, Britain must act as the check on German power and to that end Berlin must work in partnership with London if German leadership in Europe is to be legitimate and to be seen as such.

Equally, both London and Berlin must recognise the limits to partnership. Westerwelle talked of European integration as ‘…the answer to the darkest chapter in our history”. World War Two may have been the darkest chapter in German history but the British still see it as their “finest hour”, to quote Churchill, and modern Britain’s defining moment. The idea that somehow Britain will in time subordinate itself to German power, even if dressed in European finery, is wrong and Westerwelle seemed to be implying that.  Britain must always make Germany work hard for British support and the maintenance of some distance between the two powers is therefore vital. The political balance of Europe depends upon it .

So, what about Westerwelle the man? Is he Europe’s new Hillary Clinton? In some respects he is more Nick Clegg than Hillary Clinton; a junior liberal, coalition partner to a conservative leader. He has also made mistakes, such as Germany’s abstention on a key Libya vote in the UN Security Council which sided Germany with China and Russia against Britain, France and the US. His motivation seems to have had more to do with his party’s perilous position in German regional elections than responsible international politics. It is a trait of imperial power to impose local politics onto international partners.  Privately the Americans have compared Westerwelle unfavourably with one of his predecessors Hans-Dietrich Genscher who played a critical role in the unification of Germany…and the 1990s disaster in the Balkans. However, shuttle diplomacy in a crisis clearly suits him reinforcing not only his own credibility but German leadership.

 Julian Lindley-French,  a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council, is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast