A 'Teflon' Chancellor and 'Wildcard' Foreign Minister: How America Views the Germans

By , John Goetz, Ralf Neukirch, and Holger Stark

Part 2: The German Foreign Minister's 'Lack of Gravitas'

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable. Zoom
REUTERS

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President Barack Obama at the G-20 Summit in Seoul. "When cornered, Merkel can be tenacious, but is risk averse and rarely creative," reads one cable.

America's concerns grew as the 2009 general elections approached. Westerwelle had given a speech that spring to the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a dress rehearsal for his possible future role as foreign minister. In addition, US diplomats spoke with government officials in Berlin about Westerwelle, talked with senior FDP officials and invited Westerwelle himself to the US Embassy -- which proved more difficult than expected. The FDP chairman insisted that he would only attend the meeting if the ambassador met with him personally. Nine days before the election, on Sept. 18, 2009, Ambassador Murphy sent his conclusions in a cable to Washingtion.

"Westerwelle's DGAP remarks provided us with a glimpse of Westerwellian thought. They were short on substance, suggesting that Westerwelle's command of complex foreign and security policy issues still requires deepening if he is to successfully represent German interests on the world stage.... By his own admission, Westerwelle has never seriously harbored a fascination for international affairs. FDP Bundestag member Marina Schuster told (an embassy employee) recently that foreign policy is not Westerwelle's 'true love,' but that he will take this position due to its high profile and as it is tied to the position of Vice-Chancellor.

"As one well known foreign policy analyst in Berlin told (an embassy employee), he lacks the gravitas and is seen as too opportunistic to be trusted as foreign minister. At the conclusion of his DGAP speech, several (German Foreign Ministry) desk officers remarked to (the embassy employee) that they were not yet persuaded that Westerwelle had the 'foreign and security policy expertise necessary' to become a successful Foreign Minister, although they had no doubts about his ability to get up to speed quickly. There was a consensus among desk officers -- driven, perhaps, by political bias -- that Westerwelle was arrogant and too fixated on maintaining his 'cult of personality.'

Tough Love Diplomacy

"Westerwelle has found it hard to conceal his resentment toward Washington based on his feeling that neither its top leadership nor the Embassy in Berlin had courted him during his time in opposition.... Also revealing was Westerwelle's slight edge on his sense of humor, first charming us by inquiring about Secretary Clinton's health after her elbow injury and next joking that he would ask the Secretary if the Embassy had conveyed his best wishes."

The report ends with a somewhat optimistic outlook: "If Westerwelle becomes Foreign Minister, we can expect tough love diplomacy from someone who prides himself in being our 'close' friend, but who in reality remains skeptical about the US and its foreign policy objectives. Westerwelle will be a friend, but he will not hesitate to criticize us if vital German interests are at stake or being challenged. Westerwelle's prickliness toward the United States would likely be neutralized by the long-sought attention from Washington he would receive if he becomes foreign minister. Germany's foreign policy elite will continue to view him with skepticism."

Murphy, clearly unimpressed with Westerwelle, sums up his dispatch with a telling sentence: "He's no Genscher," a reference to the highly able German foreign minister under ex-Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

The ambassador repeated his negative assessment several times. In a brief written a few days before the election, Murphy calls Westerwelle an "enigma who has been unable to establish himself as a significant voice on foreign affairs." In a further dispatch from Sept. 2009, the ambassador writes: "Westerwelle becomes defensive very quickly and when challenged directly, especially by his counterpart political heavyweights, becomes aggressive and dismissive of other people's opinions."

Merkel's Superior Foreign Policy Expertise

Murphy writes that the Americans will be confronted with the question of how best to deal with someone who he describes as having an ambivalent relationship with the United States. He further states: "Westerwelle is a wild card; his exuberant personality does not lend itself to taking a back seat to Chancellor Merkel on any issue. If he becomes foreign minister, there is the possibility of higher profile discord between the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry." Even months after the election, the image the US had of Westerwelle had changed but little. Westerwelle's ministry, a dispatch from Feb. 5, 2010 makes clear, "still wonders (privately to us) where he gets his policy direction from."

The ambassador's dismissive assessment was reflected in the daily political activity between Berlin and Washington. The State Department treated the Chancellery as its preferred point of contact. In comparison to Westerwelle, Murphy writes, Merkel had "more government and foreign policy experience," and adds: "We should not underestimate her desire to carve out a political legacy for herself ... her dominance is likely to have a net benefit for US interests."

On key issues, US diplomats began turning to Christoph Heusgen, the chancellor's foreign policy advisor. From the US perspective, Heusgen became a kind of shadow foreign minister. At a meeting in Berlin in November 2009, a US Embassy employee asked Heusgen how the government intended to approach the coalition partner's demand that all tactical nuclear weapons be withdrawn from Germany. The FDP informant had told the embassy how important the issue was for Westerwelle. It was one of the few issues on which the new foreign minister was not only true to his principles, but also reflected the view of a large majority of the German public.

Speaking to the Americans, though, Heusgen distanced himself from the demand and claimed that Westerwelle had imposed the goal on Merkel's party during coalition negotiations. A US cable notes: "Heusgen said that from his perspective, it made no sense to unilaterally withdraw 'the 20' tactical nuclear weapons still in Germany while Russia maintains 'thousands' of them."

Europe's Waning Importance

The difficult relationship between the US government and several senior German officials put a strain on political relations that were already in a difficult phase. From the US perspective, the role played by countries like Germany since World War II has changed. Europe is no longer as important as it once was.

The US now sees China as the power most likely to challenge American dominance in the 21st century. There is speculation in Washington over whether a G-2 world order is realistic -- one in which the two superpowers set the course. The Europeans, including the Germans, play a secondary role in the new world order.

Magnifying the situation is the fact that US President Obama lacks an emotional bond to Europe. He spent his youth in Indonesia and in Hawaii -- he tends to look across the Pacific Ocean rather than the Atlantic. His relationships with European politicians are professionally cool.

That is also true of his bond with Angela Merkel. The chancellor had a good rapport with former President George W. Bush, even though they disagreed on many issues. Bush liked the enthusiasm with which Merkel, a former East German citizen, approached the concept of freedom. For the German chancellor, America was still the "land of unlimited opportunity." Merkel liked the fact that her charm worked on Bush. In return, she even endured his public neck massage.

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