It was an American political scientist who popularised the idea that end of the cold war marked the definitive victory of liberal democracy. Three decades later Germany is all but alone in cleaving to Francis Fukuyama’s end of history thesis. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s departure might be a moment for Berlin to detach yesterday’s sincerely-held hopes from today’s harsh truths. The signs are not encouraging.

Anointed by the chancellor, Armin Laschet is the frontrunner to succeed her after September’s election. This week he set out the Christian Democrats’ stall. China’s great power ambitions and Russia’s revanchism may have shattered the post-cold war order, but Laschet’s answer is best summed up as “steady as we go”. On the big issues, he told the Financial Times, he had never parted company with the ever-cautious Merkel.

Yes, Laschet admitted, the unabashed assertiveness of Xi Jinping’s China had led Europe to designate it a “systemic rival”. And, of course, Russia’s use of military force to redraw Europe’s borders by annexing Crimea had been “unacceptable”. But did Europe really want to make a “new adversary” of Beijing? As for Putin’s contempt for the liberal order, the west should be seeking “a sensible relationship” with Moscow. Merkel, with French president Emmanuel Macron, is proposing closer EU-Russia ties.

A cynic would say that Laschet has simply embraced the mercantilism that has often tempered Merkel’s vaulting rhetoric about democratic values. China is Germany’s most valuable export market, and the new Nord Stream 2 pipeline will soon guarantee Germany’s energy needs via direct supplies of Russian gas.

A kinder interpretation might counter that the west must strike a balance in its dealings with the autocrats. Someone has to act as a check on the hawks in Washington. To say democracies must hold fast to the open, rules-based international system is not to say it is sensible to rush into a cold war with China and confrontation with Russia.

Laschet’s stance most probably blends both the self-serving deference to business and the reasonable caution that calls for restraint. There is also, though, a third strand. He is telling the electorate what it wants to hear. He recognises a deep reluctance on the part of voters to see the world as it is rather than as they would like it to be.

Few have put it better than German diplomat Thomas Bagger when he remarked that the end of history was an American idea that became a German reality. A couple of years ago Bagger, now an adviser to president Frank-Walter Steinmeier, published an essay in the Washington Quarterly offering the definitive analysis of the German post-cold war worldview.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the essay notes, brought more than reunification. Towards the end of a century in which Germany had twice been on the wrong side of history, liberal democracy’s victory put it on the right side.

In the words of then chancellor Helmut Kohl, for the first time Germany was surrounded by friends. More, it was at the centre of an integrated Europe that was destined to serve as a model for the rest of the world. It might take time, but Russia, China and others would eventually converge.

This “German moment” has passed, but after the horrors of Nazism, it is unsurprising that so many Germans want to cling on to it. Ulrike Franke, a young scholar at the European Council on Foreign Relations, has offered an elegant explanation of how it has trapped a generation of millennials.

“The exceptional world that we grew up in was our normal,” she wrote recently in War on the Rocks, the Texas National Security Review. “The ideas that had developed out of 1989 were our convictions. Now that geopolitics, and specifically geopolitical power politics, is back, we are lost”. Bagger’s generation had adopted the spirit of 1989, but “we (the millennials) were born in, and moulded by, it”.

Shaking off this mindset will not be easy, the more so as it fits so comfortably with selfish economic interest. Oddly, the traditionally pacifist Green party has been the most outspoken in pointing up the challenge from XI’s China and Putin’s Russia. As it happens, the Greens are also the strongest challenger to Laschet’s Christian Democrats. The two may yet end up in coalition.

Whatever the election outcome, Merkel’s successor will struggle to keep up the pretence and to sustain what Franke calls the sense of moral superiority that comes with a rejection of traditional geopolitics. The dream was admirable but Germany cannot make it a reality.