Happy Birthday, Bismarck!

Happy Birthday, Bismarck!

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By Benedikt Koehler

The personal media presence of Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s minister of finance, is distinctly less conspicuous than that of some of his peers. But this year’s bicentenary of the birth of Otto von Bismarck, drew Schäuble to pen an appreciation of the founder of Germany’s Second Reich where between the lines Schäuble says as much about himself as he does about Bismarck.

Germany in the year of Bismarck’s birth, 1815, comprised 39 independent states, which by 1898 when Bismarck died had combined to a single entity for over a quarter century. But that change, however eye-catching, was by no means what mattered most for Bismarck’s generation, Schäuble argues, because other dynamics at work had a far greater impact and continue to matter more even today: specifically, new rules for business competition and the rise of multinational corporations; legislation on social welfare and breakthroughs in medicine and sciences. Reading up how Bismarck’s generation faced up to these challenges is timely, writes Schäuble, because these are the very challenges we contend with today.

So, one wonders, what hints does Schäuble drop to parallels in particular he makes out with his own day job? Indeed some leap out from the page. Then and now, policy strove to “contain, balance, stabilise.” But if policy aims have remained a constant, the stage where policies play out has changed in scale. The policy space for Bismarck was confined to Europe, ours today, however, is global – and German policy has had to adapt accordingly. Bismarck had to advance the interests of a single nation, whereas Germany today acts in concert with 28 nations (a number that is smaller, one cannot help noticing, than that of 39 sovereign entities in the Germany of Bismarck’s birth). To allege, therefore, that balancing budgets and improving competitiveness were in some way a fixation idiosyncratically German is quite wrong, because in truth it is only a sensible stance in a global economy where all Europeans need to pay their way. It is therefore wrong to argue, as some do, that Germany’s competitiveness is detrimental to the European economy as a whole, because the shoe is on the other foot: only through raising competitiveness can Europeans protect their standard of living.

Europe has been pioneering a template of transnational governance which, Schäuble suggests, perhaps may be a template for a world order suited to the 21st century, a more attractive template at any rate than some alternatives, he suggests, such as that of expanding spheres of influence through use of the military. But following this swipe at Russia, Schäuble is back on his own turf when he ends by recapping Bismarck considered politics the ‘art of the possible’ rather than an application of a particular science. 

(Schäuble does not tell us, though, whether he has in mind any science in particular. Game theory, perhaps?)

This reminds one Bismarck once was asked whether he owed his success to his capacity to learn from the mistakes he had made. No, he replied, I have a better approach, I prefer to learn from mistakes made by my rivals. 

A link to the article published in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung is here:


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