Berlin's Cautious Foreign Policy Strategy

Posted in Europe | 16-Jan-06 | Author: Federico Bordonaro

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) smiles as she meets Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow's Kremlin January 16, 2006.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel will be in Moscow on Monday, January 16, 2006 to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Merkel will be visiting Russia right after her meeting with U.S. President George W. Bush, and only two weeks after Moscow's intransigence with Ukraine's dissatisfaction of the new Russian gas supply prices caused an energy crisis in Europe.

On January 7, 2006, Merkel defined the Russian-German relationship as a "strategic partnership." Her statement came at a time when political and business leaders in Europe were questioning Russia's liability as a natural gas supplier. Merkel's statement made clear Berlin's commitment to its common energy strategy with Russia established the year before. However, Germany and the present Austrian E.U. presidency are obviously concerned about Europe's strong energy dependence upon Russia.

At the same time, notwithstanding her overt critiques of the U.S. government for the Guantanamo Bay prison and Berlin's opposition to the Iraq intervention, Merkel has done everything she could to mend fences with the United States, and to re-launch a tight German-American relationship as a tool to reinforce transatlantic ties.

Merkel's diplomacy shows Berlin's cautious foreign policy and the quest for a mediating role between the U.S., the E.U. and Russia. From now on, the three main points of her foreign policy will be rapprochement with Washington, a continued energy strategic partnership with Moscow, and a new Europeanist turn based on tight cooperation with Austria and special attention to the central and eastern European countries.

A Moderate Turn

PINR forecasted in July 2005 that a Merkel government would "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, it would "try to reinforce German influence in Europe while taking care not to treat the E.U.'s newcomers as small or unimportant countries," and acting as a catalyst for E.U. candidates such as Bulgaria and Romania. Third, it would "continue its energy and trade cooperation with Moscow," although would pursue a more cautious approach on the issue of promoting multipolarity or expressing opposition to Washington's goals in the Middle East. [See: "Angela Merkel's Forecasted Win and Germany's Foreign Policy"]

The core of that forecast appears to be well on target, although the domestic political context in Germany rapidly evolved between June and September 2005, so that Merkel eventually lost much of her support in favor of Gerhard Schroeder's Social Democratic Party (S.P.D.) who now form a Grand Coalition with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (C.D.U.). [See: "The Uncertain Future of Germany's Grand Coalition"]

As a result, Berlin's government must deal with inner bickering between the S.P.D. and the C.D.U. at times. However, some differences with the Schroeder years are already visible, especially in foreign policy.

In order to understand such differences, it is important not to misread Schroeder's strategy. In fact, Schroeder's decision not to support the Iraq war was due in part to domestic considerations, in addition to more structural and international ones. Because of geographical realities, Germany needs Russia as an energy supplier. Because of the world's geopolitical configuration, Berlin perceives its interests as being those of a great power which needs to function as a "bridge" between the dominant Western power -- the United States -- and Europe. This means that German decision makers continuously try to maintain a balance between their commitment to the Atlantic Alliance and to their European leadership ambition that has existed since former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl reunified the country in 1990.

Apart from his needs to gain the pacifist vote, Schroeder calculated in 2002 that bandwagoning with the American war effort against Saddam Hussein would have harmed both multilateralism and Germany's European partnership with France, losses that could not be compensated with the possible gains involved in aligning with the U.S.-led coalition.

Right or wrong, Schroeder's stance in the Iraq intervention wasn't exactly the same of Paris. The German and international press highlighted last week that Berlin's intelligence operators discretely collaborated with the United States on selected issues in Iraq and Kuwait during the 2003 war against Baghdad. In addition, many among the German business community feared that rigid opposition to Washington would harm German interests internationally.

Merkel's rapprochement with Bush last week was not, therefore, a dramatic turn, but the expected re-warming of an old strategic friendship. Merkel's criticism of Guantanamo appears to be a message both to the Europeans (i.e., Germany will not abandon its opposition to the management of the war on terrorism and is sensitive to public opinion), and to the Americans (i.e., Berlin is a reliable, yet not submissive ally). At the same time, criticizing the Guantanamo issue is not disruptive to bilateral ties, which opens the way for a more common diplomatic action against Iran.

Since Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has both challenged the U.S. (and the E.U.) by seemingly accelerating toward the acquisition of nuclear power, and created a controversy last month with his comments on the Holocaust, Berlin's harder stance against Iran is not surprising. Indeed, in light of Ahmadinejad's controversial comments, any German complicity with Ahmadinejad could act as a hard blow to Berlin's international credibility.

Therefore, although the Germans, like almost all of the Europeans, have preferred a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis, Berlin's more decidedly pro-American orientation on the issue is expected to continue. Moreover, Iran's determination in building a new generation of missiles such as the Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 (theoretically capable of reaching Western Europe) is changing the strategic considerations of many European actors.

The Russian Puzzle

Merkel will arrive in Moscow stronger than she was a month ago. With the German government slowly but progressively overcoming the shock of the once feared Grand Coalition, and especially with a fresh start in the German-American partnership, the new chancellor will be able to speak with Putin while being less isolated than Schroeder's government was since late 2002.

Therefore, it is predictable that Berlin will differentiate its "Russian policy." The core of its strategic partnership with Moscow, based on the construction of the northern European gas pipeline and cooperation in the field of high technology, will continue. But at the same time, more political cooperation between the two countries on a general, global level is unlikely.

Russia's international political interests now lay in reasserting its influence in Ukraine, cooperating with China in Central and East Asia, and expanding its influence in the Persian Gulf (as can be seen in Moscow's hostility toward possible coercive actions against Tehran). Such goals -- which appear quite logical from the Russian point of view -- would be at odds with Germany's ambition of becoming Washington's privileged partner in Western Europe.

The U.S. is concerned with Russia's resurgence as a global power, and Berlin's view of a multipolar world seems to be much less U.S.-unfriendly than the Russian version of that policy.

Additionally, a Russian-German relationship that is deemed as too close would very likely augment the concerns of central and eastern Europeans of a Berlin-Moscow partnership spanning through the former Warsaw Pact region.

An important test for the Russian-German relationship will be in March 2006, as general elections take place in Ukraine. In December 2004, when the U.S. and Moscow were confronting each other during Kiev's presidential polls, Germany maintained a low profile, thus implicitly avoiding to help Washington in putting pressure on Moscow. It will be very interesting to observe Merkel's reactions in March, as Russia and the E.U.-U.S. combine will likely clash once again.

Re-Launching Europe?

After the French and Dutch rejection of the E.U. Constitutional Treaty, and the E.U.'s troubles in agreeing to a common budget policy for the coming years, the Austrian E.U. presidency has clearly stated that it aims at re-launching European integration. The most immediate challenges are the accession of Bulgaria, Romania and, later, possibly some of the Balkan states (apart from the thorny Turkish issue).

It looks fairly clear that Berlin's European policy will be shaped in order to occupy center-stage in the coming delicate phase. A new enlargement is dreaded by many since the 2004 one has proven very difficult to digest. However, the Franco-German axis seems inadequate to function as a fast and stable engine for the E.U.

Berlin needs good relations not only with Paris, but also with London, Warsaw, and Rome to appear as a "reassuring" power to its central and eastern European partners. The Austrian semester in Brussels could be the right time to advance in that direction since Berlin's relations with Vienna are excellent and the interests of the two countries in the former communist European regions are converging.

However, Germany's leadership in Europe will only be assured if Berlin successfully tackles its economic malaise. For too long now, Germany has ceased to be Europe's economic champion. Even though Merkel has repeatedly put economic growth at the top of her list, Germany's G.D.P. will hardly grow more than 1.5 percent in 2006, according to most financial experts. Furthermore, should the dollar weaken, Germany's export-oriented economy will suffer even more.


Maintaining good relations with both Russia and the central European states is imperative for Germany. An effort in that direction by Merkel is therefore predictable, notwithstanding the recent gas crisis that has diminished Berlin's enthusiasm for its partnership with Moscow.

At the same time, Merkel's goal to give the German-American relationship a fresh start seems to have been attained. This more balanced foreign policy will probably be the landmark of the Grand Coalition for the years to come.

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