BERLIN – Germany has been called a reluctant giant — Europe's biggest power, but one that balks at a front-line leadership role beyond finance.
There are signs that's changing since a new coalition government of conservative and center-left parties took power last month.
That doesn't mean Germany — mindful of its Nazi past and harboring painful memories of defeat and devastation in two world wars — will soon be dispatching combat troops to global hotspots like France and Britain, the European Union's main military leaders.
But a more robust Germany willing to commit resources in support of joint operations or play a bigger role diplomatically could bolster Europe's position on the global stage and enhance its so-far limited capability to respond to crises.
The new tone is being set by ambitious foreign and defense ministers who assumed office with Chancellor Angela Merkel's new government last month. Both are keen to make their mark.
Since taking office, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has declared that Europe "cannot leave France alone" in its peacekeeping missions in Africa. Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's first female defense minister, says the country "cannot look away when murder and rape are going on" beyond its borders. Both are preparing to reinforce Germany's military role in Mali and setting the scene to help France — at least logistically — in Central African Republic.
In the past month, Germany has reversed its previous refusal to help destroy Syrian chemical weapons and has been outspoken in criticizing the Ukrainian leadership's response to massive protests.
With no one offering clear political leadership, Europe is often seen as rudderless. Poland's foreign minister, Radek Sikorski, famously said in 2011 that he fears German power "less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity."
The center-left Steinmeier has started out by dusting off foreign-policy ties with France, agreeing with French counterpart Laurent Fabius to make joint trips to countries where they have "common interests" and coordinate policy more closely. Officials in both countries say it's hard for the EU to agree on issues if France and Germany don't agree, but there's been little sign of such coordination in recent years.
Von der Leyen — widely viewed as a potential successor to Merkel at the head of her conservative party — also champions greater European cooperation.
"Europe won't get ahead in the game of global powers if some discreetly hold back when military deployments come up and others rush ahead without consulting," she told the weekly Der Spiegel last weekend. She followed that up by declaring that "it's important that Germany takes more responsibility within our alliances — within the European alliance and within NATO."
"For the Germans, it's important not to stand alone in these things," said Olaf Boehnke, who heads the Berlin office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a multinational think-tank, arguing that a deeper French-German partnership could help "move Europe forward."
Germany gradually emerged from its post-World War II diplomatic and military shell after reunification in 1990, sending troops to Kosovo and Afghanistan, while also refusing to join the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
In recent years, it has shown a marked reluctance to join in military interventions; in 2011, it abstained in the U.N. vote authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya, setting it apart from traditional Western allies.
That was the most prominent example of the "culture of military restraint" frequently preached by the foreign minister until December, Guido Westerwelle — a conspicuous contrast with the undisputed financial power Germany exerted in Europe over recent years.
The new German government "is reacting to increasing demands from its international surroundings to do more on one thing or another, not to stand aside," said Eberhard Sandschneider, director of research at the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin.
With the change of government, the instinctively cautious Merkel now has two key ministers "who will be pro-active and build their own profile (and) who could to some extent force her out of a reactive stance," Boehnke said.
The change is one of evolution rather than revolution, with Germany first showing its willingness to participate and only later perhaps doing more, Boehnke said.
While less talk of "military restraint" is likely, he said, "I don't think we will in the foreseeable future see Germany in a pro-military culture of going in on a large scale with combat troops — that is simply too unpopular."
For now, ministers are making clear Germany wants to strengthen its military training mission in Mali. Von der Leyen is talking of raising to 250 the maximum troop strength in Mali, where Berlin currently has 99 soldiers. But they say it won't commit combat troops to Central African Republic, and Merkel insisted Wednesday that "no conflict can be resolved by military means alone."
Even such a cautiously more assertive stance alarms Germany's biggest opposition party.
"The increasingly aggressively articulated foreign and security policy of a government that shows itself ready to use military means ... awakens bad memories — particularly in 2014, 100 years after World War I began," Left Party lawmaker Alexander Neu said.