The Merkel Miracle? The Promising Beginnings of a Readjusted German Foreign Policy

Posted in Europe | 19-Mar-06 | Author: Christian Hacke

Christian Hacke is member of the WSN International Advisory Board

The first months of the Grand Coalition of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats in Berlin were dominated by issues of foreign policy. Given Chancellor Schröder's preoccupation with domestic issues in the final stages of his Red/Green government and the bitter campaign fights about domestic economic reform, this is quite surprising.

It is Chancellor Merkel herself who is the driving force behind this development. Her conduct in Paris, Brussels, London, Rome, Warsaw, Washington, Moscow, and Tel Aviv was universally applauded as a convincing mixture of "friendly sobriety and smooth determination."(1) What are her priorities in foreign policy? Is there an emerging readjustment of the definition of the German national interest - and a change in the ways to pursue it?

1. Renewal of the domestic foundations of foreign policy
Ms. Merkel understands that foreign policy begins at home. Thus, her first priority is the strengthening of the German economy because without a prospering economic power, Germany's influence on world affairs can only be minimal.(2) She wants to reverse Germany's economic atrophy.

So far, however, the rather timid attempts at domestic reform by the Grand Coalition give reason to doubt her sincerity or at least her effectiveness. The 2006 budget, for instance, accumulates even greater debt than the preceding budgets. Even under a Black/Red government, Germany's economy continues to ail. This remains Ms. Merkel's greatest political challenge in the months to come.

2. Transatlantic Relations
Despite the lack of a discernible long-term vision in economic matters, Ms. Merkel is quick to try and repair the rifts which Mr. Schröder's foreign policy has left behind. For the first time in a long while, President Bush described Germany as a valuable ally and demonstratively sought political proximity with the new chancellor. "She loves freedom," President Bush said, impressed with Ms. Merkel's biography and the career history of this former physicist in communist Eastern Germany.(3) It is this personal background that leads Ms. Merkel to call for a renewal of the transatlantic community of shared values and common action.

To this chancellor, America seems to be of even higher importance than it was to Helmut Kohl. He failed to do his part to fulfill President Bush Sr.'s promise of a "partnership in leadership," while Ms. Merkel declared in Washington: "Partnership in leadership was a great offer, and I believe that Germany has to continue to contribute to its realization in the years to come."

Nevertheless Ms. Merkel did not exactly throw herself into President Bush's arms but voiced distinct criticism. For instance, she clearly and openly enunciated the German position on Guantanamo. But even in doing so, her aim is not to offend, but to seek common ground. Therefore, her leadership could mark the beginning of a new chapter in German-American relations if Washington will show more willingness to inform, consult, and debate. Ms. Merkel confidently demands from Washington to refrain from a go-it-alone strategy; in exchange, she offers sincere cooperation and at least diplomatic support.

The cornerstone of Ms. Merkel's vision of renewed cooperation is NATO, where she would like to discuss the political, strategic, and military challenges ranging from the Balkans to Afghanistan: She calls for a new strategic concept for NATO that reflects the realities and challenges of the 21st century. Thus, her new style in transatlantic relations becomes nowhere as evident as in her policy of political primacy for NATO. This reform proposal is in the tradition of Chancellor Schröder, and yet: It is her diplomatic sincerity and her new tone that enable Washington to think about the substance of this plan for greater cooperation and equality in the transatlantic relationship.

3. Revitalizing an Atlantic Europe
Ms. Merkel's third priority after strengthening the German economy and the transatlantic relationship is to revitalize Europe. But rather than achieving a more united Europe by distancing it from the U.S., Ms. Merkel chooses to recalibrate the German-French relationship.

During her visit in Paris, Ms. Merkel stressed the importance of German-French relations, was utterly friendly towards President Chirac, and respectfully acknowledged his nuclear threat against terrorists. However, she carefully omitted Mr. Chirac's term of a "German-French axis" from her own speech. Ms. Merkel knows that Mr. Chirac's time in office is coming to a close. This is why her current attitude of pleasant leniency is the most prudent course in French-German relations. At the same time, she is wisely engaging the French Interior Minister and probable successor of Mr. Chirac's, Nicolas Sarkozy.

During her visit in London, the chancellor also prudently kept her distance. Angela Merkel does not want to become anyone's "poodle." This distance, however, does not mean isolationism or unilateral action. To the contrary, in all capitals Ms. Merkel praises the advantages of open debate, consultation, and cooperation.

The Schröder administration was taken in tow by the clever French diplomacy. This as well as Mr. Schröder's supreme relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin damaged the strong German ties to Central and Eastern Europe and the traditional German role of a balancer in Europe. Thus, Ms. Merkel is abandoning the anachronistic axis Berlin-Paris. She independently revived the stalling debate about the EU budget and managed to improve the German-Polish relationship at the price of an additional 100 million Euros. Determination, consultation, and balance are the appropriate means to overcome the foreign policy crises of Germany and Europe. Ms. Merkel vigorous pursuit of this goal could make her the senior leader in Europe at a much quicker pace than many assume today.

Where will Ms. Merkel lead Europe? Her call for another try at the constitutional process is not too serious. She knows that such enormous issues cannot be tackled before a change of government in other European countries, France and Great Britain in particular. This involuntary interim period must not lead to inaction. Most of all, Ms. Merkel is to develop a potent new policy towards Central and Eastern Europe. Not only Germany but the West as a whole has been too lenient with President Putin.

Ms. Merkel affirms the strategic partnership between Berlin and Moscow but her dispassionate and critical attitude contrasts sharply with that of Mr. Schröder. With Ms. Merkel, style and substance merge - she is fundamentally changing Germany's relationship towards the U.S. and Russia. While Chancellor Schröder lavished criticism on President Bush and praised President Putin as an "unblemished democrat," Chancellor Merkel sensibly reverses this: She is reconnecting with the U.S. and speaks of political continuity with Russia while simultaneously voicing her concern about the illiberal developments there. When in Moscow, she met with human rights groups and critics of the Russian President.(4) She also talked to opposition politicians from Belarus in Berlin and invited the western-oriented President of Georgia, Mikhail Saakashvili. All this would have been unthinkable under Mr. Schröder.(5) Red/Green did not fight for human rights in Central and Eastern Europe or the Caucasian region.

At the center of the Russian-European relationship is the question of energy policy. When at the end of last year, Russia unexpectedly reduced its gas exports to the West in order to discipline the Ukraine, the West felt reminded of Soviet times. This sparks fear and doubt in Germany, where energy dependency on Russia is increasing.(6) Mr. Schröder is about to follow an invitation and become one of Gazprom's leading officials, but Ms. Merkel is concerned about Russia's energy policy - as is the majority of Western heads of state and government. Brussels, Kiev, and Berlin feel they share the same insecurity. In this context, the repeated calls at the World Economic Forum in Davos for a new common European energy policy and the increasing uneasiness about Russia's pipeline in the Baltic Sea are hardly surprising.

In Berlin, worries about a secure supply of energy are rising. However, the main alternative to Russian gas, nuclear power, is firmly opposed by Social Democrats and Greens who value the prospective abolishment of nuclear power plants in Germany as one of the few lasting achievements of their time in government. Germans, particularly of the SPD/Green Party brand, like to claim that American policy in the Middle East is solely determined by oil interests. Similarly, one must conclude that Germany's Russia policy was solely determined by gas interests.

Mr. Schröder with his personal friendship with President Putin and his self-serving ignorance towards restorative tendencies of the Kremlin pursued an uncritical Russia policy. Against this history, Angela Merkel is developing a new profile, demonstrating a true cosmo-European outlook despite the difficult political landscape: "NATO and the EU are the most successful alliances for common values and common security in recent history. This is one of the reasons why they will become an anchor of stability for the whole world."(7) Statements like these, which embody a trans-european as well as a transatlantic perspective, signify the stark contrast between her and her predecessor. Consequently, Ms. Merkel wants to put the common European foreign and defense policy in closer relation with the framework of NATO.

The chancellor is devising a new Eastern European policy - in cooperation with and not against the U.S. Chancellor Brandt, Chancellor Schmidt, and foreign minister Genscher have increased German standing and influence in the East, and they did so while bringing the U.S. in. For quite some time, not the U.S. but Germany was the driving force behind détente and rapprochement with the heart of Europe.(8) Ms. Merkel picks up on this tradition.

4. Germany's role in world politics
As a fourth priority, Chancellor Merkel strives for a greater German role in Europe and the world - not just as a civil power, as Red/Green was fond of putting it, but also according to the fundamental principles of economic and power politics.

She abandoned Mr. Schröder's ambitious and futile campaign for a permanent German seat at the UN Security Council. There is no more loose talk about building a multipolar world with the UN at its center in order to constrain the U.S. (9)

There is some continuity to Red/Green, however, in terms of security policy and commitment to the war on terror. Ms. Merkel fully supports the German contribution in Afghanistan, the Middle East, and on the Balkans. She recognizes the importance of military means in the fight against terrorism, but just like Red/Green, she proposes a greater emphasis on political and economic means in order to fight the roots of terrorism.

Her stance on Israel is distinctly friendlier than Mr. Schröder's was. He did not visit Israel until years after taking office, while Ms. Merkel already went there, showing great understanding for Israel's interests and its difficult and insecure situation. She follows in Konrad Adenauer's great tradition of friendship and reconciliation with the state of Israel and the Jewish people. (10) Her demands on Hamas to acknowledge Israel's right to exist, to cease the violence, and to seriously engage in the peace process, have generated wide agreement and great sympathy in Israel. Still, she kept in line with the balanced policy of the EU, expecting from Israel to withdraw from the occupied territories. UN resolution 242 and the Venice EU declaration of June 12/13, 1980, which was heavily influenced by German foreign minister Genscher, remain valid today.

Regarding Iraq, Ms. Merkel keeps the promises made: Germany supports the creation of democratic and economic structures, including a free press, trains Iraqi military and police forces as well as (university) teachers and engineers, and releases Iraq from 4.5 billion Euros in debt. German military, however, will not be deployed in Iraq.

In Asia, Ms. Merkel realizes the growing importance of this region, especially the enormous potential of China and India, but also the Japanese renaissance. Ms. Merkel is aware of Japan's economic resurgence and agile diplomacy that create a new scope of action in the region and towards the U.S. It is no accident, Ms. Merkel knows, that the U.S. supported the Japanese desire for a permanent seat at the Security Council from the beginning, while turning its back on the German plan.

Thus, the early steps of Ms. Merkel's foreign policy can be interpreted as a transatlantic renewal in light of the Pacific challenge. Ms. Merkel understands that in a unipolar world, economic strength and a clear and united vision can only reap benefits if pursued side by side with the U.S. This cost-benefit analysis of German foreign policy is realistic.

Also, Ms. Merkel's clear-eyed rhetoric of economic reform in Germany and Europe is a pleasant deviation from the usual European wishful thinking about a "socially acceptable globalization." Globalization created a new era of competition in which Germany lost its powerful and reliable role of Cold War times. Ms. Merkel embraces the spirit, the challenge, and the opportunity of this competitive era of globalization, and this is the first step in building a Germany and a Europe more secure, more prosperous, and more influential.

5. Germany and the Iran crisis
So far, diplomacy has not failed in the Iran crisis. But what happens if negotiations ultimately break down? To her credit, Angela Merkel does not rule out a military option and warns against a failure of nerve. The leadership of the Social Democrats, however, has publicly ruled out any military action against Iran. So what might happen if Israel or the U.S. tried to destroy the Iranian nuclear facilities? Would one of the first casualties be the coalition government in Berlin?

Foreign minister Steinmeier (SPD) declared he was dead-set against any military option, but many voices in the CDU think this attitude a tactical mistake: "There is no reason to relieve Iran of this uncertainty." (11) The disagreements surrounding the Iranian nuclear program could not only dismantle the Berlin coalition but could bring escalation to the Arab-Israeli conflict, the situation in Iraq, and the clash of civilizations that became evident in the cartoon controversy. The steady supply of oil would be endangered, spelling economic catastrophe for the West. Paradoxically, this is exactly why Ms. Merkel has to insist on the military option - there is no other way to force Iran to comply.

The chancellor's customary trips around the world have shed much flattering light on Angela Merkel, while the SPD has been living in the shadows. Accordingly, chairman Platzeck and minister Steinmeier seize the opportunity of Iran to sharpen their profile - possibly with disastrous consequences. Thus, the front line of Ms. Merkel's Iran policy runs straight through her own cabinet. It is of prime importance to her to keep the SPD from pulling another "Iraq"on Iran and the transatlantic relationship.

6. Conclusion
With reference to Niccolo Machiavelli's three aspects of a successful politician - fortuna, occasione, and virtu - one could argue that so far it was mostly Fortuna who smiled on Chancellor Merkel. (12) The first major occasion for determined and virtuous action will arise soon.

It is not only Ms. Merkel who has gained considerable authority in matters of foreign policy, but also her foreign minister Steinmeier. Despite his involvement in the Iraq/CIA affair of the German secret service, he conducts himself carefully and is ready to strike useful compromises. In some key questions, however, he deviates from Ms. Merkel's line - most notably on Russia and Iran, but also regarding the U.S. Accordingly, Ms. Merkel's foreign policy is shaped by a dual need for balance.

First, she needs to balance the Black/Red coalition. She needs the support of the Social Democrats on domestic issues as well as in foreign affairs. Consensus needs to be maintained, clear leadership must be exercised, and a readjustment of German foreign policy is imperative. So far, Ms. Merkel managed this complicated task without putting too much of a burden on her coalition partner. Still, there is a danger of a resurgence of the long-standing anti-American and pacifist impulses within the SPD and the German Left as a whole. Given the economic and political constraints, coalition politics is a balancing act between splitting up and stagnation.

The second need for balance pertains to the increasingly complex international challenges. Germany needs to find its traditional role as a balancer, and nowadays, there is a lot to balance: 25 members of the European Union, the U.S. and Europe, Western and Eastern Europe, and the everlasting triangle of Paris, London, and Washington.

The true challenge, however, is to pull off this balancing act while still pushing for change. Ms. Merkel must keep her eye on the goal of a united, Atlantic Europe that can entice Washington to pursue a less narrow policy. Chancellor Merkel has made some promising gestures, but the major tests for the Grand Coalition still lie ahead. Angela Merkel has steered Germany back on the right course - friendship with America, partnership with Russia, a competitive Europe in a globalizing world - but foreign policy always holds unsettling surprises that will neither spare Ms. Merkel's administration.

1. Günther Nonnenmacher, Erfolg mit kleinen Schritten, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ), February 3, 2006, p. 1.
2. Chancellor Merkel on February 3, 2006 at the Munich Security Conference: "The goal of my admini-stration is to make within the next ten years Germany one of the leading countries in the EU in terms of growth, employment, and innovation. Such domestic strength is the precondition for our strong in-ternational engagement and the sustainability of our responsibilities."
3. "It is no accident when one ascends from an assistant scientist in a regional institute to general sec-retary of a major party just to triumph over three well-established contenders within that party and gain the highest job in government." Henry Kissinger about Angela Merkel in: Die Welt, December 27, 2005.
4. Cf. FAZ, February 17, 2006, p. 2.
5. Cf., Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ), February 3, 2006, p. 6.
6. Cf. NZZ, June 30, 2005, p. 5.
7. Chancellor Merkel at the Munich Security Conference, February 3, 2006.
8. Christian Hacke, Die Außenpolitik der Bundesrepublik Deutschland. Von Konrad Adenauer bis Gerhard Schröder, München 20034, p. 148ff.
9. Christian Hacke, Neudeutscher Wilhelminismus. Die UNO-Politik der rot-grünen Bundesregierung: Von der Euphorie zur Ratlosigkeit, Internationale Politik No. 8, Vol. 60, August 2005, p. 56.
10. Vgl. Sven Berggötz, Nahostpolitik in der Ära Adenauer. Möglichkeiten und Grenzen (1949-1963), Droste-Verlag, Düsseldorf 1998; Niels Hansen, Aus dem Schatten der Katastrophe. Die deutsch-israelischen Beziehungen in der Ära Konrad Adenauer und David Ben Gurion, Droste Verlag, Düsseldorf 2002.
11. Der Spiegel, February 13, 2006, p. 25.
12. Josef Joffe, Gestatten Merkel, Die Zeit, December 21, 2005, p. 1.

Dr. Christian Hacke is a professor at the Institut für Politische Wissenschaft und Soziologie at the University of Bonn and is a frequent participant in AICGS events.

This essay appeared in the March 17, 2006 AICGS Advisor.