Shifting Constellations: Germany and Global (Dis)Order (Jan. 2019 ‒ Dec. 2020)

Principal Investigator: Dr Nicholas Martin,
Co-Investigators: Dr Charlotte Galpin, Dr Julian PänkeMaren Rohe, Dr Tara Windsor
Project PhD Student: To be appointed from January 2019
External funder: German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD)

Project summary

The project will explore Germany’s roles and responses during a period of rapidly shifting constellations in global politics. The current world order is undergoing a process of disruption and redefinition, and crucial to our project is an investigation of how Germany is responding (and perceived to be responding) to these disruptions.

Recent years have witnessed disruptions to the established liberal order and an apparent “end of the world as we know it”: China has established itself firmly as a third centre of economic gravity, while the US under President Donald Trump is challenging the foundations of an international order established by the “liberal West” after World War II. At the same time, Europe is struggling to come to terms with various challenges to its integration project with the volatility of the Euro, security vacuums in the neighbourhood, and the influx of migrants across the Mediterranean. Furthermore, the rise of Euroscepticism and insurgent parties across the continent, along with nationalist and mercantilist responses to these challenges (Brexit, controversial legal reforms in Poland and Hungary) show that the principles of a liberal order ‒ democracy, a free market, multiculturalism, religious freedom, and multilateralism ‒ are being questioned. After the European liberal revolutions of 1989 and the premature announcement of the “end of history”, we now see evidence of a “counter-revolution” (Zielonka, 2018). After the horrors of the Third Reich and World War II, West Germany was founded as a child of a new, liberal order and, through its championing of the European integration project, it became one of its main proponents. After the election of President Trump, some commentators even suggested that Berlin would now be “leading the free world”.

This project aims to understand Germany’s roles in response to these disruptions; to understand self-perceptions, expectations and contestations within Germany and from its partners in global politics, and how it enacts its various roles in these turbulent times. The core focus of IGS Birmingham’s previous PGS projects – what it means to be German in the twenty-first century – will be reconsidered in light of Germany’s current relations with some of its key partners and challengers.

The project comes at a moment when international perceptions of Germany remain ambivalent. In November 2017 Germany was ranked first in the annual Anholt-GfK Nation Brands Index study, while the 2017 BBC World Service Country Ratings poll ranked Germany as the second most positively viewed nation in the world. On the other hand, in 2017 and 2018, the German government’s response to the refugee crisis has continued to prompt negative representations of, and reactions to, German political leadership, both domestically and beyond Germany’s borders.

Project aims

Through this two-year project (January 2019 – December 2020), IGS Birmingham will consolidate and expand its role as a primary hub for the support and inspiration of German Studies in the United Kingdom, as well as its reputation as a leading global research centre.

The network will bring staff and postgraduate students to IGS Birmingham from DAAD German and European Studies Centres in China (Peking University), Japan (University of Tokyo), the USA (Brandeis University), Poland (University of Wroclaw), and the Russian Federation (CGES St. Petersburg State University / University of Bielefeld), as well as from universities in Germany and the UK, for two interdisciplinary research workshops and a concluding international conference, focused around the core themes of the project. The project’s collaborations with partner institutions in key regions across the globe will facilitate the exchange of expertise on shifting constellations in the world today.

The key aims of the project are:

  • to bring together eminent researchers from key regions across the globe, and from different disciplines, working on aspects of Germany’s responses to shifting global constellations, thus promoting interdisciplinary exchange and a fuller understanding of how Germany’s role in the new global (dis)order is viewed and understood in diverse transnational and interdisciplinary contexts;
  • to strengthen further the IGS Birmingham’s ties with the worldwide network of DAAD Centres for German and European Studies – in particular with Centres in Russia, China, Japan, the USA and Poland ‒ to promote existing and future international collaboration, and to showcase UK German Studies to partners abroad;
  • to include, through competitive calls for participation, postgraduates in German Studies from across the UK at three interdisciplinary events at IGS Birmingham linked to the Shifting Constellations: Germany and Global (Dis)Order research project;
  • as part of IGS Birmingham’s core commitment to Nachwuchsförderung, to engage the experience of established scholars to support and develop the research skills and career progress of early career researchers, and facilitate international exchange between early career researchers working in the field of German Studies from different disciplinary perspectives;
  • to support an IGS doctoral research student as project assistant;
  • to produce a significant, peer-reviewed special issue of an academic journal, entitled Shifting Constellations: Germany and Global (Dis)Order, to be published in 2021.

Project research questions

The following research questions will guide the project and will be addressed in its research strands:

  • What is Germany’s role in the current world (dis)order? Is it hegemon (“the new leader of the free world”), centre, periphery? What cultural and historical narratives play into these current perceptions and expectations?
  • What impact are shifting global constellations having on perceptions of Germany’s role in the new global (dis)order and also on expectations, contestations and performances of that role (or multiple roles)?
  • How is Germany responding to challenges to the established rules (institutions) of global politics?
  • How is Germany responding to migration and the movement of people, structurally and in terms of identity?
  • How, and by whom, are current disruptions to the world order mediated and communicated in Germany, via “old” and “new” media?
  • How are perceptions and ideas of Germany and its identities changing in response to global disruptions, both within and outside Germany?

Project research strands

The project will explore Germany’s roles in, and responses to, shifting global constellations in four core research strands:

  • Strand 1: Institutions (Lead: Dr Julian Pänke)
  • Strand 2: People (Co-leads: Dr Charlotte Galpin and Dr Tara Windsor)
  • Strand 3: Media (Lead: Dr Charlotte Galpin)
  • Strand 4: Ideas and identities (Co-leads: Dr Nicholas Martin and Maren Rohe)

Strand 1: Institutions

Institutions provide the formal and informal rules of European and global politics. The ongoing “counter-revolution” is destabilising the liberal institutions which underpinned “Western” dominance in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. On a global level, traditional providers of political (United Nations) and economic (WTO, G7) governance are losing appeal and legitimacy. Reforms of both the United Nations and the WTO have been discussed for a long time but never properly addressed. Now, both international organisations appear obsolete. On a European level, the Brexit process, the rise of Eurosceptic parties, and the erosion of European law and solidarity is undermining the very idea of European integration. Germany in particular has benefited from a rules-based liberal order. Berlin’s political influence and economic prosperity crucially depends on reliable, credible institutions. Disruptions to the global order are thus contesting Germany’s belief in the rule of law as well as its civilian and normative power capacities. Comments such as “Germany remaining leader of the free world” may not come as a surprise, therefore. Yet German leadership is both desired and feared. Leadership depends on followership, where leadership is “understood as a social role shaped in a process of interaction between leader and followers” (Aggestam and Johansson, 2017). Satisfaction and discontent can change quickly, depending on the policy area. While Central European EU member states – for example – supported Berlin’s austerity stance during the “Euro crisis”, they strongly resist Germany’s handling of the “refugee crisis”. This strand of the project will investigate the impact of shifting global constellations on Germany’s roles in various institutional settings on different levels of analysis: on a global level, within the UN, WTO and G7; on a European level, in the EU and the OSCE; and on a transnational level, Germany’s commitment to non-governmental organisations and multilateral civil society projects. Role theory is a bridge-builder between agency and structure (institutions), between IR and domestic-level explanations of state behaviour (Harnisch, 2011). From this theoretical perspective the strand explores role conceptions, expectations, contestations, and performances of Germany by itself and others.

Strand 2: People

Contrary to much popular opinion, Germany has always been an Einwanderungsland. At the same time, it is a country which places great emphasis on facilitating international exchange, especially amongst students and scholars, not only to foster cross-cultural understanding but also as a key foundation of intellectual innovation and economic power. While these distinct but related phenomena have deep and complex historical roots, various events and developments across Europe and the wider world in recent years have increased the volume and frequency of forced and voluntary migration to Germany, whether through war and violence in the Middle East, in response to socio-economic crises within the Eurozone, or political and intellectual restrictions in long-standing partner nations such as Turkey. Against this backdrop, this strand of the project explores how different types of migration and mobility shape, and are shaped by, diverse and contested understandings of Germany’s role in a continually changing world, and how this has developed and changed over time, particularly in response to wider disruptions and shifts on the global stage. This strand  is particularly concerned with ways in which the movement of people to and from Germany presents (or is seen to present) both challenges to and new opportunities for German society on various levels, within and outside Germany’s borders.

Having accepted approximately one million refugees in 2015, for example, Germany has found itself at the centre of European efforts to manage the most significant movement of people since the end of Second World War. This has elicited many different – often widely divergent, but nevertheless co-existing – responses from the German population, ranging from the often overshadowed Willkommenskultur embraced by large sections of civil society to the well-known surge in support for far-right movements such as Pegida and the Alternative für Deutschland. In addition to interrogating the diversity of these grassroots responses, as well as the reasons for them, the strand will investigate efforts to integrate and support refugees and other new arrivals to Germany through social initiatives and educational institutions, not least in German universities and through vocational apprenticeships. In doing this, it explores tensions between responses to elite, high-skilled mobility on the one hand, and mass migration patterns on the other, and, in turn, addresses longer-term questions concerning who contributes to, and has a stake in, shaping German society and identities.

Strand 3: Media

Crises and world events are mediated, constructed not just by political actors but also journalists and, in the age of social media, ordinary citizens (Galpin, 2017, see also Schmidt, 2008). This process is integral to making sense of world politics and legitimising and contesting policy responses. This strand will explore the way in which current disruptions to the world order are mediated in Germany.

Firstly, traditional news media have long been the primary key arena for political elites to communicate with the public. This mediatised communication, however, does not just provide a link between political actors and the broader public, but also serve to construct nation-state identities (Risse, 2010). In the era of globalization and European integration, national public spheres are undergoing a process of Europeanisation and transnationalisation (Koopmans and Statham, 2010) crucial to the legitimacy of international institutions such as the EU. This strand will explore the way in which political elites and media actors communicate about the shifting constellations in the world order and (re-)construct Germany’s identity in the world. Outside of Germany, news media are also a key vehicle for reproducing and transforming images of the “other” and Germany’s role in the world.

Secondly, shifting media constellations, particularly the rise of social media, lie at the centre of current challenges to liberal democracy. While it is impossible to quantify the effect on outcomes, both Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election were profoundly shaped by the social media landscapes of Facebook and Twitter, raising questions about “fake news”, “bots”, and ways in which “big data” has been weaponised by campaigns. Generally speaking, political campaigns on social media have been found to be primarily dominated by nationalist or far-right parties (see e.g. Usherwood and Wright, 2017; Dutceac Segesten and Bossetta, 2017). In Germany specifically, the far-right Alternative für Deutschland uses social media as its primary campaign tool (Arzheimer, 2015). At the same time, following the online circulation of fake news stories relating to refugees, Germany has been at the forefront of attempts to tackle the negative impact of social media on democratic elections. Social media is also the vehicle through which counter-movements (such as anti-racism groups) mobilise, organise events and challenge narratives. This strand will therefore explore the role of old and new media in Germany during a time of shifting global constellations.

Strand 4: Ideas and identities

The recent surge in populism in the US and many parts of Europe represents a challenge to the idea of a Western “community of values” and a liberal Western identity. While some hail Germany as “the new leader of the free world”, others oppose it, precisely because of Germany’s perceived liberalism, branding its tolerance towards minority groups as “political correctness gone mad”. Interestingly, Germany is perceived as representing liberal values by both sides in this debate, as a paradise for refugees, ethnic minorities and and LGBTQ+ peoples, in spite of Germany’s pursuit of policies to return asylum seekers to their homelands or to third countries wherever possible, despite the increased popularity of xenophobic groups such as the Alternative für Deutschland, despite its gender pay gap being one of the largest in Europe, and despite Chancellor Merkel’s only reluctant endorsement of same-sex marriage. Furthermore, if Germany today is held to embody Western or European identity, this represents a remarkable transformation from the past, when Germany was perceived as a threat to the European order, or as not entirely “Western”. In Russia, for instance, the perception of Germany as a “Western” power, i.e. as antagonistic to Russia, has only taken firm hold since the Ukraine crisis.

The “Ideas and identity” strand of the project will ask how this idea of Germany as a haven of liberal values has been constructed, how it is being performed, and which voices – inside and outside Germany – are contesting it, and why. Has the meaning of “Western” or “European” changed over time, or is it Germany that has changed? How have German artists, writers and intellectuals dealt with Germany’s uneasy relation to these concepts over time, and how is cultural production in Germany today dealing with its newly assumed – or ascribed – role and identity? What part does the German cultural and intellectual scene – including cultural mediators such as the DAAD and the Goethe-Institut – play in projecting its (new) identity to the world and to its own population, and how are producers of culture and opinion-formers outside Germany engaging with and contesting these projections? To what extent are shifting cultural and intellectual representations of Germany, inside and outside the country, helping to enact or contest imagined communities of the German nation?

These distinct yet related research strands, which underpin existing research interests of the IGS project investigators, have been chosen because they provide foci for examining actors, vehicles and channels that connect Germany with the wider world in a variety of ways, and help to add important layers and nuances to ways in which Germany’s global role is understood, shaped and contested.

All four strands will be discussed – in plenary sessions ‒ at each project event, enabling the crystallisation and cross-fertilisation of core research interests and themes across the project. Overarching themes and findings will be explored throughout the project as well as in the published outputs. In order to facilitate the interdisciplinary exchange between humanities and social sciences that is at the heart of the project, strand leads will also participate in discussions of all other research strands at the full series of events associated with the research network.

Project outcomes

The initial outcomes of the project will be presented at IGS Birmingham ‒ at two international, interdisciplinary research workshops (in June and December 2019, respectively) and a concluding international, interdisciplinary conference (in June 2020).

The PhD student assisting on the project will produce a dissertation on an aspect of the topic of Germany and Global (Dis)Order, with a focus on one or more of the core research strands. It is anticipated that the doctoral dissertation will be published in the form of a series of high-quality, peer-reviewed journal articles or as a monograph.

The final outcomes of the research project will be published in a collection of articles, edited by the IGS project investigators, with the title: Shifting Constellations: Germany and Global (Dis)Order. The collection will comprise revised versions of the most illuminating papers presented by participating junior, early career and senior scholars at the 2020 project conference and will be submitted for publication in 2021.

The progress, interim findings and other material related to the project will be published in regular blog posts on the IGS website by the project PhD student, which will also be disseminated more widely via Twitter and Facebook, allowing the project to engage in public debates.

More information

For further information about this IGS project, please contact Dr Nicholas Martin (n.c.martin@bham.ac.uk).