The less than innocuous totems of the Kohl-Schröder-Merkel years — Luftwaffe flying combat missions over the Balkans for the first time since 1945, Joschka Fischer’s theatrical turn at the UN, monetary rules devised in Frankfurt acquiring continental sway, Bundeswehr preserving NATO’s client state in Afghanistan, Lisbon Treaty signed under German presidency of the EU — require some explanation deeper than that offered, typically, by polite journalism.
What, besides momentary calculation of interest and symbolic expediency, has driven the Aussenamt since its return to Berlin?
How, in particular, do the internal features of German society — broadly, the manner in which economic output is generated and the pattern of its distribution between classes — affect Berlin’s external stance?
Influence running in the opposite direction — from world conditions to domestic performance and growth trajectory — is plain enough to see, and widely acknowledged.
With exports making up around 50% of German GDP, the chronic global macroeconomic imbalances of the last 45 years have governed the recent evolution of the German economy more than most.
This post is a quick guide to how and why some of Germany’s key economic variables have changed since 1990.
What, finally, does their trajectory imply for Berlin’s future role in world affairs? Above all, how resilient is German Atlanticism, the keystone in the arch of the postwar Federal Republic, likely to prove?
As Angela Merkel embraces photo opportunities in Afghanistan, and deploys new expeditionary forces to Central and West Africa, are Strobe Talbott and his juniors at the Brookings Institution correct to fret about a fraying of Berlin’s commitment to NATO?
In the 1970s, following the Nixon Shock, West German firms and their Japanese counterparts famously maintained export competitiveness, despite sharp currency appreciation, by switching rapidly to new capital-intensive techniques (those using more capital goods per worker).
Mechanization, for a time, reaped higher levels of labour productivity (output per worker).
To be sure, technical progress during the 1970s and 1980s would be slower than it had been in the previous ‘miraculous’ two decades.
But, under the SPD administrations of Brandt and Schmidt, followed by Kohl’s long reign, the Bonn republic’s annual growth rates (labour productivity at 2.7%; capital intensity at 3.4%) still outpaced those of other advanced economies besides Japan.
Since labour productivity grew faster than real wages, the wage share in West German national income fell steadily from 1974 onwards.
Yet this capital-deepening approach was no longer feasible by the time of later currency shocks: the 1985 Plaza Accord, the Exchange Rate Mechanism and the 1999 advent of European monetary union.
In the decade following the collapse and annexation of the Stalinist DDR, unfavourable technical conditions prevailed in the Bundesrepublik. The much-decried fiscal burdens of reunification, mesmerizing popular media if not policy elite during Kohl’s prolonged dotage, distracted from this deeper malaise.
By the early 1990s, further accumulation of fixed capital (by German firms switching to more capital intensive techniques) no longer yielded a proportionate rise in labour productivity.
In other words, adding more capital goods per worker did not sufficiently increase output per worker.
It also reduced ‘capital productivity’ (the output-capital ratio, or value-added per D-Mark of capital used).
Constrained by declining profitability, fixed investment slowed down.
How then were German firms, unable to resort to currency devaluation, to retain their export markets against competitors?
Unit labour costs needed to be held downwards, as before. But since labour-saving technical change was exhausted, real wages would tend to rise faster than labour productivity.
A deflationary solution was soon provided.
Following the opening of vast labour reserves in eastern Europe, came the ascent to power of the SPD-Greens coalition in 1998.
In 2002, amid much excitement in the press at delivery of cures long prescribed, Gerhard Schröder unveiled his Hartz/Agenda 2010 ‘reforms’ to the labour market.
Since labour productivity, though still sluggish, now rose faster than real wages, the share of value-added won by employees fell.
The declining wage share counteracted the fall in the output-capital ratio, allowing profitability to rise.
In 2005 at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Schröder boasted that his government had ‘built up one the best low-wage sectors in Europe.’
The combination of slowing accumulation of fixed capital with greater income inequality (the ratio of non-wage income to wages) has indeed restored the profitability of German firms.
Nonetheless, as the country’s enormous trade surpluses since 2002 show, this has entailed a shortage of domestic spending.
The sum of workers’ consumption, capitalist consumption and private investment, plus government spending is insufficient to absorb Germany’s surplus product domestically.
Instead, locally-owned firms depend for their demand on global liquidity from deficit countries in southern Europe, the United States and Britain (whose propertied classes thereby appropriate a share of the surplus produced by German workers).
Meanwhile Germany’s persistent trade surpluses allow its firms, like those in China and Japan, the opportunity to acquire claims over capital assets in these net debtor countries and elsewhere.
Particularly in the satellite economies of Mitteleuropa — the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, northern Italy, etc. — German firms have acquired title to growing numbers of capital assets: shipping out machinery, factory equipment and outsourced or offshored operations.
Germany’s increasing stock of capital holdings abroad, plus its dependence on export markets sustained by US spending, helps explain Berlin’s strategic posture since 1990.
This may be seen in the remarks of German president Horst Köhler, a former president of the IMF, who in 2010 explained the Bundeswehr’s mission in Afghanistan:
A country of our size, with its focus on exports and thus reliance on foreign trade, must be aware that… military deployments are necessary in an emergency to protect our interests — for example when it comes to trade routes, for example when it comes to preventing regional instabilities that could negatively influence our trade, jobs and incomes.
For the moment, German property-owners and the German state rely, for a stable internal social order and the fulfilment of external aspirations, upon the successful functioning and continued growth of a world economy that operates under US leadership.
While an integrated world market is intact and international financial architecture continue to function under US protection, the German ruling elite benefits from access to markets and resources, maintained asset values, custodial military support and access to advanced technology, inward investment and protection of external property holdings.
Berlin, to be sure, has real interests and strategic goals which strongly contradict those of Washington.
Nonetheless it is committed, for the moment, to aiding, sponsoring and materially supporting US hegemony. This subordination is embodied in the post-1945 alliance structure of NATO unified command.
Hence Berlin’s support for (if not always fulsome participation in) successive US military expeditions since the 1990s.
Yet, as the case of Willy Brandt (if not Joschka Fischer) makes clear, the lofty sentiments of German Atlanticism rest on a merely temporary alignment of interests.
The convergence between Berlin and Washington will not survive a systemic breakdown and crisis of international markets and finance capital that stifles international trade and investment flows.
Latent competitive ambitions can be perceived without much effort. Concealed beneath the overtly sterile phrases of contemporary state officials are the same fixations that preoccupied German imperialism in the 1930s.
Recent years saw the formation by BASF, Bayer, ThyssenKrupp, Daimler and other German firms of a Resource Alliance. This lobby aims to ‘secure key raw materials in the face of mounting competition from emerging economies.’
Its website explains that ‘international markets can no longer guarantee the availability of relevant raw materials in the required quantities. Thus, German industry therefore again needs direct access to raw materials through involvement in commodity projects in foreign countries.’
In July this year the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung hosted an Energy Security conference which brought together ‘high-level policy makers, representatives from the energy industry and energy experts from non-governmental organisations.’
Speakers included Deutsche Bank executives and the German environment minister, as well as officials from the oil ministries of Iran, Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.
They were to ‘focus on political developments in producing countries, particularly the security and geostrategic implications of changing global energy supply routes’:
In the face of growing dependency on oil and gas imports, safeguarding the reliable supply of energy lies at the heart of national and international policy agendas.
The German foreign ministry, its troops placed astride the Oxus river since 2001, touts Central Asia for its ‘as yet untapped gas and crude oil reserves which could be a factor in diversifying Europe’s energy supplies.’
The Central Asian Water Initiative, by which Berlin directs and oversees ‘regional agreement and cooperation on vital resources’, seeks to use the ‘green economy’ to expand its diplomatic influence, while favouring German construction, energy, agriculture and transport firms in the Central Asian marches of the former Soviet Union.
Since 2002, the Termez airbase in Uzbekistan has provided logistical support and a regional footprint.
Finally, one may heed the words of Angela Merkel’s parliamentary spokesman for foreign affairs:
As an open economy closely integrated into the world market, Germany owes much of its prosperity to the stability of the international financial system and open world markets, as the current global economic and financial crisis has so starkly demonstrated…
In addition to this, as a heavily export-oriented economy, we have a great interest in securing maritime trading routes. This is why it is right for the German Navy to be involved in fighting piracy at the Horn of Africa.
Germany’s security depends not least on the most unrestricted possible access to the markets for energy and other raw materials. The German Federal Chancellor has made energy and raw material security an important theme of her chancellorship. The risks that are associated with our heavy dependence on energy supplies from abroad were made abundantly clear by the Russian-Ukrainian gas conflict at the beginning of the year.
Climate protection is closely connected with questions of energy security….
Recently the Handelsblatt was unable to resist characterizing the Desertec project, a North African venture of Deutsche Bank, E.ON and RWE, as a search for Germany’s ‘place in the sun’.
Invoking a ‘hunger for energy’, the business newspaper explicitly recalled the ‘historical precedent’ of the Berlin-Baghdad railway line.
Since the 1960s, and especially since the late 1980s, German and French policymakers have tried with meek persistence to build up an autonomous European military instrument. This would have the capacity to act independently of Washington, projecting power outside Europe in pursuit of their own distinct strategic goals.
The collapse of Stalinist rule in Moscow and Berlin stirred pious hopes that the US-led Cold War security apparatus might also be dissolved.
Instead, European ambitions have again been subordinated to Washington, as NATO has found a new line of business in ‘humanitarian interventions’, peacekeeping operations and the Global War on Terror. Creation of a new supranational political entity, the EU, has not changed matters.
Berlin thus remains reliant, for now, on US cruise missiles and logistics capacity for any expeditionary operations. It cannot openly defy Washington, cut its own deal with energy suppliers, etc.
Yet a prolonged downturn in growth trends, or some other rupture in the capitalist world-system — final annulment or momentary suspension of the postwar practice of interstate benefaction and mutual conviviality of trade — may soon force German rulers to seek a specifically German solution to their problems.