Ambassadors Ignored: German Foreign Ministry Fights to Stay Relevant

By Ralf Neukirch

Germany's diplomats are rapidly losing influence amid the debt crisis as Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle's popularity dwindles and the Chancellery takes over European policy. But the Foreign Ministry is working on a plan to grab back power.

Photo Gallery: The Decline of Germany's Foreign Ministry Photos
DPA

Until recently, Reinhard Schäfers had at least the drive from the airport left to call his own. As the black sedan glided through the Parisian suburbs, he could give the chancellor his view on the situation in France, along with details on the latest predicaments faced by the French president. Otherwise, what was the point of it all -- the receptions, the discussions with politicians, the party conferences -- if Angela Merkel didn't even have an opportunity to hear her man on the ground give his assessment of the situation? This 20-minute car ride imbued Schäfers' work with meaning.

All that has come to an end now. When the German ambassador met the chancellor at the airport on her latest visit to Paris in February, French diplomats witnessed an unusual scene. Schäfers was shuffled off to an accompanying vehicle. The spot next to Merkel, which had previously been reserved for him, was taken by government spokesman Steffen Seibert. Schäfers saw Merkel when she arrived and again when she departed, but she didn't have time to talk with him.

It was the latest in a series affronts for the ambassador. He had already been excluded from the meetings between Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Now the chancellor had made it clear that she no longer valued his opinions, either.

Merkel has nothing against Schäfers. He has a reputation for being experienced, reliable and, more importantly, closely affiliated with Merkel's own party, the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU). The chancellor simply doesn't think that he has anything interesting to tell her. Other ambassadors have had similar experiences with Merkel. Such incidents reflect the dwindling significance of the German Foreign Ministry.

For many years, the ministry was said to be the most important governmental department after the Chancellery. The foreign minister nearly always also served as vice chancellor. He has generally been the chairman of a junior coalition party, and thus, at least in this sense, on the same level as the chancellor.

A Great Tradition

The foreign minister has always been the envy of his fellow cabinet members. No other politician generally enjoyed such popularity and respect. When Hans-Dietrich Genscher stood on the balcony of the German embassy in Prague, and announced amid great fanfare on Sept. 30, 1989 that citizens from the former East Germany who had fled to Czechoslovakia would be allowed to cross the border to the West, even German Chancellor Helmut Kohl was seized with envy.

The ministry's image was reflected in the self-assuredness of its staff members, who saw themselves as part of a great tradition. Otto von Bismarck served for three years as the German ambassador to the czar's court in St. Petersburg before he was later appointed chancellor of the German Empire. He won the trust of Czar Alexander II and shaped relations between Prussia and Russia.

The Foreign Ministry has a unique class consciousness. The diplomats deliberately disassociate themselves from their colleagues in other departments. Even trainees here are called "attachés." When German President Johannes Rau had to cancel a speech at the 2000 annual German Ambassadors' Conference due to time constraints, Wolfgang Ischinger, who was a high-ranking official in the Foreign Ministry at the time, angrily remarked: "The heads of Germany's diplomatic missions abroad are a little bit different than the heads of a land registry or a tax office."

But the diplomats have become more subdued, something that has to do with the current foreign minister. Guido Westerwelle is no longer vice chancellor because his own party no longer wants him as chairman. When it comes to important foreign policy issues, such as rescuing the euro or building a new Europe, he only plays a minor role. His popularity has declined sharply, and this has diminished his political stature.

Political leaders abroad have noticed that the German foreign minister is no longer a strong figure. When the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi came to Berlin for a visit in late February, Westerwelle requested a meeting. But Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan only wanted to speak with the chancellor.

Such things impact the image that the diplomats have of themselves. Suddenly the finance minister is shaping European policy, and the development minister is widely seen as a better foreign minister. That's quite a lot to swallow.

New Proposal to Halt Decline

For a number of years, the planning staff at the Foreign Ministry has been working on concepts to prevent a further loss of power. Westerwelle has announced that concrete proposals will be put forward before the Ambassadors' Conference is held in August. The ministry's leadership has recognized the seriousness of the situation, but it remains to be seen whether the decline can be halted.

The basement room in the ministry is secured with reinforced concrete, and the steel shutters can only be opened with a special key. There are tables covered with computer screens, and nine clocks on the wall show the time in the world's key regions.

The officials at the Foreign Ministry's Crisis Response Center direct policy when disaster strikes somewhere in the world and Germans are affected. Whether it's a matter of determining the level of contamination following the nuclear accident at Fukushima, or sending Red Cross paramedics to aid earthquake victims, everything that the government and private organizations can do to help is coordinated here.

The approach used by the Crisis Response Center is how Thomas Bagger envisions the future of the Foreign Ministry. He would like to see it become the future nerve center for all government actions that, in the broadest sense, have an international character, such as German-Chinese government meetings, an environmental summit or promoting solar energy in developing countries.

Bagger is the head of planning, and he has a reputation for being one of the brightest minds in the ministry. He is intimately familiar with the foreign minister's problems. As Westerwelle's office manager, he was able to observe these difficulties over the past one-and-a-half years.

Bagger suffered along with his boss when Westerwelle was not allowed to take part in a European Union summit for the first time, because it was no longer provided for under the Lisbon Treaty. The minister was outraged and refused to be excluded. He informed the Chancellery that he would send Deputy Foreign Minister Werner Hoyer to Brussels. Hoyer was welcome to come, Merkel smugly replied -- but he would simply have to wait with the bodyguards in front of the door.

It's not just in Europe that the foreign minister has lost influence. Things hardly look better in other parts of the world. When the heads of state and government meet for G-8 or G-20 summits, they decide things on their own. Bagger knows that the Foreign Ministry can't reverse this trend. Once something has migrated to the Chancellery, it can't be retrieved. Westerwelle can't win a power struggle with the Chancellery.

Aiming For a Unified Stance

But the chancellor is not the only problem. Almost every ministry these days has a foreign policy department. Most ministers deal with international issues, and the environment minister is nearly as globally active as the foreign minister.

In some regions, the representatives of the Foreign Ministry now only play a minor role. The ambassador to a Latin American country recently complained that at receptions everyone crowds around the German Development Ministry representative because he's the man who distributes the money.

The diplomats once served as door openers to a foreign world. In the age of globalization, though, everything is becoming more tightly networked. A great deal of information is just a mouse click away.

From Bagger's perspective, however, these developments don't make the Foreign Ministry less important -- quite the contrary. He thinks it's nonsense that ministries shape international policies independently of each other. In a concept paper that he plans to finalize before the Ambassadors' Conference, he writes that the Foreign Ministry has to "take the interests of a wide range of departments and distill them to a national or European interest, and ensure a uniform stance abroad." Furthermore, he writes that the internationalization of politics underscores "the necessity of an institution that brings together Germany's increasingly wide-ranging activities and connections in the world."

Many experts agree with Bagger's idea. "It would make sense if the Foreign Ministry managed Germany's foreign relations to result in strategic action," says the head of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Volker Perthes. "Diplomats can negotiate. They are familiar with the world and are ideally prepared for this mission."

The question is how all this should work in practical terms. In an internal paper written before the last change of government in 2009, Markus Ederer, the head of planning under Westerwelle's predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier, had already warned of the Foreign Ministry's gradual loss of importance. Ederer thought along the same lines as Bagger. He wanted to create a number of "globalization undersecretaries" who would, of course, answer to his ministry. The sherpa -- the government's main negotiator at world economic summits -- should in the future come from the Foreign Ministry, he argued, because "global economic policy is part of our foreign policy."

An Alternative Approach

This is precisely the crux of the problem: According to this scheme, the Foreign Ministry would gain power that other ministries would lose. But what ministry voluntarily relinquishes power? "I can hardly imagine that the finance minister will allow himself to be coordinated by Mr. Westerwelle in the run-up to a G-20 summit," quips a Merkel aide.

Indeed, one group of experienced diplomats sees another approach as more feasible. It goes back to a proposal by Ischinger, who is now the chairman of the Munich Security Conference.

What Ischinger envisions is a national security council for which the chairman would be appointed by the foreign minister and confirmed by the head of government. "We need a foreign policy without contradictions. That's easier to achieve with this kind of government body," says Ischinger. "Not every important foreign policy decision is systematically prepared, and that's something we can no longer afford."

Ischinger would like to see the Foreign Ministry focus on its core mission. Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer once described this as follows: "Foreign policy is all about war and peace."

There is widespread support for Ischinger's idea among diplomats. "A national security council would be good for the Foreign Ministry. Working hand-in-hand with the Chancellery would give it more influence, not less," says Michael Steiner, who served as former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's foreign policy advisor, and will soon be the German ambassador to India.

Still, the golden days of German foreign policy won't return with either Bagger's or Ischinger's reform proposals. Westerwelle is not the main reason for the decline of the Foreign Ministry, but this development has become particularly apparent during his term of office. His predecessors Fischer and Steinmeier grappled with the same issues, but in contrast to Westerwelle they were passionate about their job. They acted in such a way that no one had the impression that the foreign minister could be irrelevant.

Serious Doubts

Westerwelle, on the other hand, has managed to achieve this in the first one-and-a-half years of his term in office. Everyone can see that if necessary the government could also make do without the foreign minister. Westerwelle has managed to get more or less back on track, but it could be too late. It's possible that the ministry's decline can no longer be stopped.

The seriousness of the situation is reflected in the political musings of Jürgen Trittin. The parliamentary floor leader for the Green Party has said that following an election victory he might prefer to become the finance minister instead of the foreign minister. By his own assessment, this would give him a stronger position in the cabinet and in the public eye.

Such a move would deal a severe and lasting blow to the Foreign Ministry. The German foreign minister has always been politically strong abroad because he is politically strong at home. It's always been clear that the main governing party takes the Chancellery, while the junior coalition party gets the Foreign Ministry. If this changes, then the latter loses its special role.

The foreign minister has been reduced to the role that his colleagues in France and the United States have had for a long time now. They do the president's groundwork, and are nothing more than glorified undersecretaries. All the internal reforms in the world won't change that.

But is it possible for the foreign minister to once again become the most important cabinet member after the chancellor? A few months ago, former German Foreign Minister Genscher was reportedly asked this very question. His response came swiftly and was not very flattering to Westerwelle: "It all depends on the individual," he said.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen

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