Which country is more powerful: Russia or Germany? At first glance, the question seems random. Why those two countries? And what is the point of asking? As it turns out, the answer reveals why an American-dominated world order is so important to preserve.
Last month, in the Russian equivalent of the State of the Union address, President Vladimir Putin spent several paragraphs touting Russia's military might, including its nuclear capabilities. "But can they count?" Putin asked, apparently referring to foreign leaders. "Probably they can. So let them calculate the range and speed of our future arms systems. This is all we are asking: just do the maths first and take decisions that create additional serious threats to our country afterwards." Putin tends to exaggerate, but Russia does have the world's largest arsenal of nuclear weapons and one of its most advanced militaries.
But Russia does not have much else. The Russian economy is stumbling along, with stagnation as the new normal. The economy is growing, but slowly, and following a three-year recession driven by low oil prices and devastating American and European sanctions. And what little growth there is will likely not last. "We are moving slowly towards a demographic pitfall; we have almost zero non-state investment," Andrey Movchan, an economist at the Carnegie Moscow Centre, said last month. "All developments favor GDP contraction rather than growth." And that only scratches at the surface of Russia's systemic internal problems.
Germany, meanwhile, is falling short even of its modest goals for defense spending, and the consequences are serious. The German Defense Ministry found last year that only about one-third of its military assets are operational. The vast majority of weapons systems are unavailable for training exercises or deployment. To give one example, no submarines and none of the air force's 14 large transport planes were available for deployment at the end of 2017 due to repairs, according to a parliamentary report. Moreover, the RAND corporation found in a report from 2017 that the German army would need a month to mobilize a full armored brigade, and only by stripping equipment from other units, therefore making it difficult for the Germans to field a larger force or engage in "other operations until equipment shortages are addressed." Simply put, Germany is unable to defend itself, or anyone else for that matter.
Yet Germany has the largest economy in Europe, and the fourth largest in the world. Yes, Germany saw slow growth at the end of 2018, and the group that advises the German government on economic policy has slashed its growth forecast for this year to 0.8 percent. But Germans still enjoy a far more healthy economy than Russians, and a healthier society in general. And, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, Europeans say Germany is playing an increasingly important role in global affairs. In fact, it has become popular among Western elites on the political left to say that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is the new "leader of the free world"—a ridiculous notion to be sure, but telling nonetheless.
In sum, Russia relies on coercion to exert its influence, Germany on soft power. So which country is more powerful?
Historically, the answer would be Russia. Russia has many weaknesses, but in previous times, when conventional wars between states were more common and accepted, Moscow could use its military might more liberally. The principle of "might makes right" applied to international relations. If a larger country with more military force wanted something, it could just take it and change the geopolitical status quo. Russia could bully and seize control of its smaller neighboring states and exploit them for economic gain, using their resources as Moscow saw fit. Russia's borders, or at least its sphere of influence, would creep further into Europe, lessening the distance to Germany, which would be like a helpless child trying to defend itself from the Russian bear. Indeed, Germany would be doomed with such a weak military, obvious prey in the middle of continental Europe. Recall the wars of old that Germany fought with France and other neighbors. Without sufficient military power, Germany would not survive, no matter how robust its economy was. Soft power can only go so far when the one wielding it has a gun to their head. Germany could try to form alliances for protection, but, realistically, a country that removed hard power from its toolkit of statecraft would lose its sovereignty.
Today, however, Russia cannot simply conquer nearby states, and other states cannot simply conquer Germany. Why? Of course Germany's membership in NATO plays a role, as does the looming threat of nuclear weapons if nuclear-armed powers become involved. But the larger reason is that the world order that followed Word War II and reached new heights after the Cold War is defined by an open global economic system, international institutions, and liberal values. That order is based on norms that have roots going back centuries, but only really came to fruition after humanity's great tragedies of the 20th century—norms that make invading other countries more taboo than ever; norms that make human rights more of a priority and democracy the model form of government; norms that make globalization preferable to zero-sum rivalry. These norms of international behavior and conduct are of course not perfect—Russia still annexed Crimea—but they have effectively replaced "might makes right," which no longer defines the international jungle. Even some of the world's most heinous autocracies at least pretend to have elections and need to temper their imperial ambitions to some degree. That may sound like hardly anything to celebrate, but it is an improvement.
Because of these norms, Germany is able to excel despite a spineless foreign policy and military posture. Indeed, Germany is more powerful than Russia today. German soft power attracts investment and gives Berlin more influence abroad, making it look like the stronger country while Russia limps along toward further irrelevance. American power makes this possible. Like it or not, the United States leads, dominates, and largely created this world order. The United States protects the order with hard power—its navy ensures freedom of navigation in international waters—and deters adversaries from attacking the likes of Germany with security guarantees. But it also uses economic clout and soft power, such as civilian aid programs, to continue the system, which would collapse without American leadership.
No one who loves freedom and prosperity should want to live in a world where Russia is more powerful than Germany. They should want a world where vibrant societies and dynamic economies rule the day, not raw military power and suffocating oppression. America polices an order that perpetuates norms that make such a world possible.
But there is a great irony here. The world is, in a sense, still based on old notions of power and "might makes right"—just under American dominance. The United States is imposing its will, but in a way that is benign and mutually beneficially to all who wish to partake in the system. That is the beauty of American power, and why billions of people—Germans above all—should want to fight for a world dominated by America.