Germany is the most popular country in the world – and I can see why

Glosswitch has always had a love for all things German, so she's happy to learn that everyone else agrees.

Perhaps my love of all things German started out as form of teenage rebellion. Age 16, I was packed off on a school exchange with the parental exhortation to “tell them who won the war”. Over twenty years later, I’ve still not done it. To be honest, I suspect “they” already know. 

My family’s attitude towards Germany – a kind of knee-jerk, pseudo-moralistic xenophobia – is neither original nor amusing, but it’s one of those “jokes” that certain people of a certain age feel obliged to keep on making. Ever since it was granted cultural legitimacy by that episode of Fawlty Towers, comedy German-hating has felt less wartime throwback, more timeless British tradition. We don’t really mean it (at least, one hopes not; “one world cup” has started to sound increasingly pathetic as the years go by). But we do it all the same. 

Or at least we have done up till now. Perhaps the recent news that Germany is the “most popular country in the world” should give us pause for thought. According to a poll conducted by the BBC World Service, which involved interviewing a random selection of people across 25 countries, Germany’s influence is viewed more favourably than that of any other nation. German-bashing is starting to look stale. Gut gemacht, Deutschland! I knew you had it in you!

I can’t help but feel a sense of personal vindication in this. I’ve always been down with the Germans, me. Ever since my first visit to the country – when my school was partnered with one in the newly “former” East – I’ve felt we had a special relationship (regardless of whether or not the Germans appreciate my devotion). I studied German at university, spent a year teaching English in Sachsen-Anhalt, wrote a doctoral thesis on German literature, edited several German textbooks for schools – none of which is the same as actually being German, I know, but it demonstrates a degree of commitment. What’s more, it’s not been easy.

We teutophiles have been through lean times in the UK. Uptake of German as a foreign language at Key Stages Three and Four has now been overtaken by Spanish. University German departments have been closing down. I remember sitting with a friend of mine – a lecturer in a slowly dying faculty – and discussing ways to make German more attractive to the young, who might not have remembered the war but still believed the words were in the wrong order and the food was too sausage-heavy. “Franke Potente and Daniel Brühl – they’re cool, right?” we’d say desperately, in the hope that some semi-alternative actors would save the day. “And what about Love Parade? That’s a good one! And maybe if he says a few more surreal things in the commentary box at Wimbledon, Boris Becker could become a national treasure!” Then we’d look up German text-speak, deluding ourselves that words like N8 (N + acht = Nacht – geddit?) were so unbelievably witty and happening no one would be able to resist. Funnily enough, none of these things have actually worked. 

Maybe we don’t need to do this now. I’ve always thought we should tug on the heartstrings – play up the Dichter und Denker, the fall of the Berlin Wall, maybe even Guildo Horn’s 1998 Eurovision entry – when all along it seems relative economic strength and “tough love” are the order of the day (what kind of masochists are we?). In what appears, on one level, to be a world playground popularity contest – life imitating Peppa Pig’s International Day – Germany are doing okay, danke. I’m starting to feel a bit redundant. But then again, perhaps I that’s all I deserve.  

It’s very hard to love an entire country without patronising every single inhabitant, whether this be on the grounds of their humour, their spirituality, their fine beer-making skills etc. It also feels ever so slightly self-serving, a declaration of intellectual superiority disguised as open-mindedness. Look at me, look at how cosmopolitan I am, better than all the narrow-minded cultural pygmies who don’t go anywhere if English isn’t spoken. Then there’s the historical airbrushing, the rather presumptuous decision to come to terms with a country’s past regardless of whether those more affected by it are ready. All of these things put would-be foreigners – those who’ve never lived the lives they fetishize – on shaky moral ground, at least when no space is left for curiosity and qualification. 

But anyhow, Germany, as my father would say, you may have lost the war, but you won the BBC World Service poll. Good für Sie (or dich, if I may be so familiar). Now, about the next stage of the popularity plan – I really think ultra-extended compound nouns could be the next big thing…

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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