Angela Merkel's Forecasted Win and Germany's Foreign Policy

Posted in Europe | 13-Jul-05 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.) candidate Angela Merkel (R) and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder (L).

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder asked for and obtained early political elections on July 1. The polls, originally scheduled for 2006, are now to be held on September 18, 2005. Schroeder's move comes after the protracted German economic crisis has severely damaged his own credibility and popularity -- which he had been able to restore in 2002 during the Iraq crisis by choosing not to take part in the U.S.-led intervention there. Surveys in June and July 2005, however, indicate that Schroeder's opponent, Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.) candidate Angela Merkel, now has the upper hand and has an advantage of almost 20 points over the Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.) leader. Forecasts about her possible pro-U.S. turn in foreign policy have already started to make the rounds.

Merkel's Background

If elected, Merkel will be the first Eastern German political leader of the post-Nazi era. For cultural and psychological reasons, this fact should not be underestimated, as former East Germany's Christian Democrats regard the United States with high esteem and consider Russia the main threat to German security. Moreover, after seven years of Social Democratic rule and economic decline, Merkel's generation of politicians appears to have added to their traditional views a stronger free market preference and often refer to the British and Irish social model with admiration. The German "Rhine capitalism" -- or "social market economy" -- model has lost support, regardless of what the real causes of this impasse may be. Angela Merkel embodies a new kind of moderate right in Europe -- as French Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy does in France -- integrating with the Christian Democratic ideals a fascination with the Anglo-Saxon economic and social model.

This fact is coupled with Merkel's irritation towards Schroeder's steadfast opposition to a greater German role in Iraq. Many sources have reported how the C.D.U. candidate expressed her positive views on U.S. President George W. Bush's Middle East policy when she met American officials in the United States. As a result, some observers predict a complete reversal of Schroeder's foreign policy once Merkel is elected.

Schroeder's Complex Foreign Policy

German foreign policy in the Schroeder era has been somewhat complex in nature. Schroeder's generation can be considered the first to step away from the traditional guilt-complex born by every German chancellor since the Third Reich. Elected at a time of growing difficulties for the once universally admired German economy, and faced with the challenges of the post-reunification era and the E.U. enlargement process, Schroeder has tried to reaffirm Berlin's strong pro-European inclination while progressively seeking more independence on the world stage.

Two vitally important historical and systematic facts have been at work in this policy. First of all, after Germany's reunification and the turn of the new century, Berlin's geopolitical self-perception is very different from that of the Cold War era. Germany is no longer a country "under guardianship," and its moves need no longer be justified all the time. Secondly, at a time of overwhelming U.S. power and influence, all regional players need to increase their relative power by seeking differentiated strategies such as building political unions or strategic partnerships, while avoiding direct challenges to Washington's status. [See: "Great and Medium Powers in the Age of Unipolarity"]

These aspects are clearly reflected in Schroeder's strategy. On the one hand, his perception of the Franco-German combine is much more pragmatic and less ideological than that of his predecessors. Germany is increasingly freeing itself from the need to present itself as the good Europeanist pupil of Paris. Accordingly, the fact of the two countries' common position on the Iraq crisis was due far more to Berlin's geopolitical interests than to any plan of shared sovereignty with France.

On the other hand, Schroeder's administration did try to mitigate its conflict with Washington -- by regularly seeking to re-launch the Transatlantic relationship, as in February 2004, or by sending GSG-9 special forces to Kuwait to help the Americans -- while at the same time seeking out Russia as a strategic commercial and energy partner. This latter move was accentuated in 2004 as the E.U.'s enlargement clearly complicated Germany's plans to expand its influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

Along with the general lines of a political era marked by American unilateralism and hyperpower and the rise of China, under Schroeder's leadership Germany tried to pursue its national interests in multilateral organizations -- for example, by trying to occupy the key offices in the E.U. -- while starting bilateral cooperation in the commercial, energy and technology spheres with Russia, India and China.

Misled by the European geopolitical rift in the face of the Iraq crisis in 2002-2003, most observers failed to understand the relative independence shown by Germany in the last three years, concentrating instead upon "Franco-German opposition" to the United States. That opposition -- which certainly did exist -- was not the result of a consistent, global Franco-German policy. This conclusion can be drawn from analyzing Germany's discrete, but obvious, support for Putin even during the political turbulence of 2004 in Russia, and from the French stand against Syria in the 2005 Lebanon crisis. In both cases, Berlin and Paris seemed to act on their own. In addition, even though the overall situation is still unsettled, Germany proposed to Moscow the building of a new pipeline to the Baltic Sea which would allow Russia to sell its oil to Berlin without passing through Ukraine; France, on the other hand, appears to be increasingly tightening its energy ties with Kiev.

Furthermore, the fragmentation of the French political landscape -- which contributed to the May 29 rejection of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty -- has probably played a role in complicating the pursuit of an authentic common, coordinated Franco-German foreign policy.

As a result of systematic, historical and incidental reasons, the Franco-German combine during the Schroeder years underwent a transformation. While it still remains one of the pillars of the E.U., it certainly appears diluted in the enlarged Europe, hardly capable of being the engine of the aimed political union.

Notwithstanding this differentiated strategy, Berlin's role in the world in the last few years has often been perceived as primarily anti-American, or at least as steadily opposed to Bush's grand strategy. Apparently, even though U.S. operations in Iraq are facing formidable difficulties, American influence in world affairs has made it difficult for Schroeder not to appear isolated because of his anti-war decision.

However, when all is said and done, if Schroeder's bid for re-election fails next September, the cause will not lie so much in his ambitious and often misunderstood foreign policy, but instead in elites' dissatisfaction with his economic policy and popular resentment against his (moderate) reforms.

Merkel's Inclinations and Geopolitical Constraints

Assuming that Merkel will capitalize on Schroeder's weaknesses, the fundamental question will be whether the new chancellor will attempt a dramatic turnabout in Germany's foreign policy. Such a move will prove very difficult and only a mild turn should be expected.

Geopolitics does, in fact, have its constraints. Although supporters of a strong Transatlantic relationship based upon U.S.-German partnership are still common in Berlin, Schroeder's years have laid the foundations for a relatively autonomous German foreign policy. Powerful decision makers who gather at Bertelsmann Foundation meetings -- coming from the German economic, financial and political elites -- have made it clear that Berlin's place in the world is to be sought in accordance, not in (even mild) opposition to the United States. Angela Merkel seems the right chancellor for these powerbrokers.

However, in a world characterized by geoeconomic and geopolitical competition, Germany cannot refrain from taking advantage of Russia's, India's and China's quest for strategic partnership in the energy and high-technology domains. Merkel's best possible outcome would be to rebalance Germany's role, so that Berlin's quest for power and security would not be perceived as an obstacle to a friendly relationship with Washington. This is, in fact, is U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's hope as well. But for this to be realized, a higher degree of coordination between the German and American foreign policies is necessary. Accordingly, Berlin's agenda will probably focus on taking the lead in Europe in harmony with Washington, promoting a liberal and federal European order profitable to both German and U.S. economic and diplomatic interests. Berlin's attempt to gain a seat as permanent member in the U.N. Security Council will probably be enhanced by such a posture.

However, this raises the question of the struggle for influence in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. Germany and the U.S. are both interested in extending their economic interests in the former Socialist countries. France and Britain are also strong regional players whose role in the E.U. can't be overlooked. Finally, Russia itself, although its influence is declining, won't lose its chances to have a say in the Black Sea and Balkans regions. If Merkel intends to be the champion of German interests in the enlarged Europe, she will have to strike an extremely difficult balance between the pursuit of German plans and partnership with the U.S. -- at a time of Washington's "unipolar moment."

Moreover, if German voters who are to choose Merkel want a halt to further enlargement of the E.U. -- especially with regard to Turkey -- this will complicate the matter even more. The E.U.'s enlargement to Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey itself is on Washington's agenda. So eventually, the harmonization of a pro-U.S. turn with the pursuit of German interests will prove a hard task for the expected new chancellor.


Although Schroeder's skill in electoral campaigning is well known in Germany and abroad, Merkel's win in September appears probable. In the face of the current German crisis, the new chancellor will be obliged to launch a foreign policy entirely compatible with her main domestic goal of reviving German economic power. In other words, she will seek good relations abroad while working hard at home. Accordingly, expect Merkel to propose a balanced geopolitical mix aimed at discrete leadership, consisting of three main points.

First, she will be careful not to create friction with the United States, and to upgrade Germany's role in a revisited Transatlantic relationship -- making Berlin the chief continental U.S. partner as in the Kohl years. Second, she will try to reinforce German influence in Europe while taking care not to treat the E.U.'s newcomers as small or unimportant countries, thus seeking to moderate their strong pro-British orientation. Gaining the Eastern countries' confidence is vital if Germany is to promote full E.U. enlargement toward the Black Sea and beyond. Third, although Berlin will continue its energy and trade cooperation with Moscow, Merkel is likely to be far more cautious than Schroeder on the issue of promoting multipolarity or opposition to Washington's goals in the Middle East and Central Asia together with Russia, in order to avoid upsetting Washington.

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