When U.S. President Barack Obama pays his respects to German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin this week, he will encounter a Germany that no sitting American president has encountered in many decades. No, not the "Fourth Reich" of punditry's fevered imagination. For the first time since Harry Truman arrived in Potsdam in 1945 to dismember the Third Reich, Germany is Europe's No. 1 again.
The irony couldn't be thicker. Twice in the 20th century, Germany tried to grab hegemony by bayonet and blitzkrieg, almost destroying itself and Europe in the process. Now, primacy has dropped into Mrs. Merkel's lap like an overripe plum. It's dominion by default, and power sits uneasily on the chancellor's head. It is literally an embarrassment of riches. Germany is so strong because Britain, France, Italy and Spain are so weak, their economies the victims of failed modernization and failing competitiveness.
Barack Obama will spend 22 hours in a country that is all dressed up but doesn't know where to go. The U.S. and Germany are the last heavies standing in the West, but they would rather compete in the middleweight league. To invert Maggie Thatcher: They are punching below their weight. America is No. 1 in the world, and Germany is No. 1 in Europe, yet both are practicing what great powers have never done. Call it "self-containment," or to use the language of the 19th century: They are balancing not against others, but against themselves. This is a first in great-power history.
Mr. Obama's America is disarming and retracting, both from Europe, where there are only 30,000 U.S. soldiers left, and from the Greater Middle East, where the U.S. has vacated Iraq while pulling out from Afghanistan. In Syria, it has taken Mr. Obama two long years to figure out that he can't play Ferdinand the Bull while Russia and Iran are playing power politics. Iran's proxy, Hezbollah, has mobilized thousands to defend the Assad regime, and the Russians have deployed naval units to the Eastern Mediterranean and dispatched sophisticated anti-air and anti-ship missiles—classic 19th century stuff.
Now Mr. Obama wants to ship weapons to the Syrian rebels and set up a "limited no-fly zone" from Jordan. A U.S. president with a true strategic outlook of the world would have moved when the risks and costs were still low. At this stage, Mr. Obama is the victim, not the shaper of events in the world's most dangerous arena, where America's adversaries have roamed freely for two years.
Grand strategy isn't Mrs. Merkel's forte, either. She brings cash and clout to the endless euro crisis, but like Mr. Obama, she is caught between two evils she can only straddle. The chancellor is loath to turn Euroland into a transfer community—not that she could actually save big countries like France and Italy.
But she is equally loath to push these capitals into making the painful domestic choices that would restore their economic vigor. So she is happy to let European Central Bank chief Mario Draghi act as de facto emperor of Europe, the man who will do "whatever it takes" to keep the laggards solvent. Naturally, the ECB's bounty is sparing Paris and Rome the necessity of cracking the hardened social contracts at the root of their troubles.
Why the Behemoth's diffidence? To adapt a baseball metaphor: "Three reichs and you're out." The first was the Holy Roman Empire, which was done in by Napoleon's armies. The second was the Wilhelmine Empire, which paid for its hauteur with its existence, in 1919. The third brought Hitler's armies to the gates of Moscow and Cairo. It reaped dismemberment in 1945.
Since then, life in the cocoon of strategic protection made in the U.S.A., and political community made in Europe, has not only blunted Germany's ambitions—it has also transformed Germany's culture. As aggressive as a sloth, Berlin wields its enormous power in ways that do not reassure but instead raise suspicions from Athens to Paris. And that reinforces Berlin's un-Teutonic diffidence. Do not count on this Germany to assume a strategic role in the world, and certainly not in the Levant.
Which brings us back to the Obama-Merkel confab. Invoking a glorious past, in which the U.S. brought Germany back into the community of nations, the president and the chancellor will profess undying amity. But the reality is one of friendly indifference. Mr. Obama has been flirting with self-containment and Germany won't shed it. The two countries' macroeconomic policies have been at odds since the 2008 crash. America's strategic ken is shifting to the Pacific, the key arena of the 21st century. Washington is struggling with ungovernability, and Berlin is happy to outsource politics to Brussels and the ECB in Frankfurt.
These trends would be less painful if all the world behaved like that happy stretch between Berlin and Berkeley. But it doesn't, being torn by substrategic mayhem from the Maghreb to the Middle East, by terror and cyberattacks, by failing states like Syria that invariably suck in the rest. Throw in zero growth in Europe, shrinking growth among the once fabulous BRICs and an oppressive overhang of global liquidity.
Who is going to mind the store? Russia, China, India? In the West, the U.S. and Germany are the two last men standing, yet they would rather sit down in their respective corners. The price is high: a "nonpolar" or "a-polar" world where nobody is in charge.
Mr. Joffe is editor of Die Zeit and fellow of the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Hoover Institution, both at Stanford. His new book, "The Myth of American Decline," will be published by W.W. Norton in the fall.