Merkel's Foreign Failures Germany Losing Global Clout
Despite Germany's economic clout, Berlin has failed to place German officials in top jobs at the EU and in key organizations such as the IMF and ECB. The country's global influence is suffering as a result. A dearth of suitable candidates, domestic politics and Angela Merkel's lack of horse-trading skills are to blame.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel likes to make important announcements when no one is expecting them. For instance, she criticized the pope during a state visit to Germany by Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev, and chose a provincial gathering of her party in Meschede, central Germany, to urge the Portuguese, Greeks and Italians to work harder.
Last Thursday, Merkel was chatting with Moldovan Prime Minister Vladimir Filat about the troubled Eastern European province of Transnistria when the conversation turned to what is probably the most controversial personnel issue in international politics today: the question of who will succeed Dominique Strauss-Kahn as head of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
"We should propose a European," said Merkel, and the journalists at the meeting knew immediately that it was time to prick up their ears. Because of the "considerable problems with the euro," Merkel said, someone needs to be appointed who is familiar with conditions on the continent.
It was meant to be a signal of strength, and of Europe's determination not to allow a Chinese, Brazilian or Mexican to take on the world's most important financial job. In fact, however, it was a signal of weakness. Once again, the chancellor has not managed to elevate a German to a key international position.
The inability of Europe's largest economic power to clinch top posts in major global organizations has become a joke in international diplomacy. After being in office for almost six years, Merkel has not managed to place a single German official in a top job in the European Union, the United Nations or global economic organizations. Instead, the same old division of labor continues to apply: Germany comes up with the money while the top job goes to a Frenchman.
Merkel hasn't just failed to gather a stock of internationally presentable candidates around. She also often lacks the necessary horsetrading skills. While she is certainly capable of getting her way in domestic politics, she often approaches the competition for key international positions by delaying and hesitating until it's too late.
'Germany Failing as a Leading Power in Europe'
Merkel's lack of capable senior experts is beginning to adversely affect Germany's role in international bodies. While such organizations have become increasingly important in the course of globalization, Germany's ability to successfully champion its interests inside them is declining. "Germany," says former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer, "is failing as a leading power in Europe."
This also applies to the most recent jockeying for the top spot at the IMF. The chancellor called in her advisors as soon as it was clear that Strauss-Kahn would have to resign. Wasn't it time, she asked, to send a German candidate into the race? Germany, as the third-largest financier of the IMF, should have had every right to assert its claims, and it also had presentable candidates. The only problem was that the chancellor and her advisors seemed to have objections to every candidate.
Former Finance Minister Peer Steinbrück was at the top of Merkel's list. Steinbrück, a Social Democrat, is a political heavyweight, had a decent record while in office and speaks English fluently. He is one of the few SPD politicians Merkel likes. But Steinbrück, critics said, was not sufficiently presentable on the international stage, not having exhibited much diplomatic skill during his tenure as finance minister.
Axel Weber, the former head of the German central bank, the Bundesbank, was also on Merkel's list. He has plenty of experience in international financial policy and an excellent reputation as an academic. But Weber fell out favor with Merkel when he turned down the top post at the European Central Bank (ECB). Both Merkel and current Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a fellow member of her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), were decidedly opposed to a Weber candidacy.
Merkel and her advisors also saw ECB chief economist Jürgen Stark as a "very interesting possibility." The central banker was seen as being assertive and having a good grasp of economic issues. But Stark's strong qualifications were also his biggest problem. Merkel would have found it very difficult to find a suitable replacement for the renowned financial expert on the executive board of the Frankfurt-based ECB.
Support for France's Lagarde
After determining that of the three top choices on her list, one was too clumsy, another was too obstinate and a third was too clever, Merkel, when speaking on the phone with Luxembourg Prime Minister and Euro Group chief Jean-Claude Juncker last Thursday, didn't even mention the possibility of a German candidate. Instead, she came out in favor of the French candidate, thereby greatly simplifying Juncker's task. As a result, the experienced European politician was able to promptly announce that Christine Lagarde was an "ideal candidate."
It wasn't the first time that Merkel gave up early in the race for a top international job. In recent years, her attempts to fill a key post in Brussels, New York or Frankfurt have repeatedly ended in failure. Sometimes she was unable to find a suitable candidate, sometimes her candidates lost interest and sometimes they happened to belong to the wrong party.
Last year, she tenaciously attempted to promote former Bundesbank President Axel Weber to the important job of ECB president. Merkel hoped that securing the position for Weber would help make the costs of rescuing the euro more palatable to the German public.
But then she hesitated to publicly back her protégé quickly enough. Weber felt he was being misused as a pawn and, by withdrawing from the running, dealt Merkel one of the worst defeats of her chancellorship. As a result, Mario Draghi and Vítor Constâncio, an Italian and a Portuguese, will be telling the Germans in the future why additional billions in taxpayer money will have to be sent to southern European countries.
The Germans also came off badly in the most recent reshuffling at the European Commission. Merkel had the opportunity to fill one of the key Commission posts in Brussels, and there were suitable candidates. However, they did not suit the chancellor's domestic political agenda.
Former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was a potential choice for the newly created job of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. He has a very good reputation abroad, and Germany's partners would have been hard-pressed to reject him. But Steinmeier, as a Social Democrat, was a no-go for Merkel. British politician Catherine Ashton got the job instead.
Merkel also failed to campaign for the important post of European Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs. The other EU member states could hardly have refused the Germans if they had claimed the position. Instead, Merkel's fellow Christian Democrat Günther Oettinger was made Commissioner for Energy. Though not unimportant, the job of Energy Commissioner is not one of the top posts in Brussels.
But that didn't matter to Merkel, whose main concern was to do her fellow party members in the southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg a favor. They were eager to get rid of their unsuccessful governor, Oettinger. No wonder the Germans came off looking bad at the end of the haggling over posts in Brussels, where Belgian politician Herman Van Rompuy garnered the job of president of the European Council. Meanwhile, the CDU lost the next election in Baden-Württemberg.
France Skilled at Placing Candidates
Other governments take a much more strategic approach when it comes to filling top international jobs. In Europe, it is usually the French who routinely succeed in placing their candidates. Until last week, Frenchmen headed three of the most important international organizations: Strauss-Kahn (IMF), Pascal Lamy (World Trade Organization) and Jean-Claude Trichet (ECB). "The French pursue an excellent personnel policy, and we Germans can learn a lot from them," says Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a foreign policy expert with the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP).
"Our presence in top international jobs is out of proportion with our importance," says Alexandra Heldt, head of the Tönissteiner Kreis, a think tank founded in the 1950s by economic and scientific organizations to promote the training of top international leaders in Germany. At the moment, however, the only German in a top international position is Thomas Mirow, president of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD). "We have not pursued a consistent personnel policy in the last 20 or 30 years," says Heldt.
One reason is that party membership doesn't play as big a role in France as it does in Germany. Strauss-Kahn, Lamy and Trichet are all Socialists, and yet a Gaullist president helped put them in office.
France's strategic personnel policy provides significant benefits, as the example of former Foreign Minister and European Affairs Minister Michel Barnier demonstrates. In the most recent shake-up at the EU, the experienced political professional assumed the important post of Commissioner for the Internal market and Services, for the benefit of the Grande Nation.
Since then, Barnier has often unabashedly championed French positions in Brussels. For example, operating on behalf of his president, he fights to restrict international price speculation, opposes overly rigid requirements for bankruptcy candidates like Greece and makes sure that French economic interests are not short-changed during international trade talks.
The chances are not bad that the French will also retain their influence in international financial policy. If Finance Minister Lagarde prevails in the race for the job of IMF managing director, Paris will have secured a key position for itself in the fight to save the euro. From Greece to Portugal, the IMF is involved in all of the relief efforts to combat the debt crisis. The Washington-based organization's vote has a strong impact on such questions as restructuring Greece's debt, an issue on which Germany and France disagree.
Berlin Has Stopped Trying to Field Candidates
Merkel has now largely given up trying to field candidates for prestigious international jobs. The notion that it is absolutely necessary to place a German in a top job is outdated, say officials at the Chancellery in Berlin, arguing that it's more important that a European fill the job.
Germany's personnel woes have even reached the lower levels of the government machinery. Merkel did manage to place her European affairs advisor Uwe Corsepius in the job of secretary general of the European Council as of July. A Frenchman currently occupies the position, which certainly made the German appointment a coup for Merkel.
But now Corsepius can't even prepare for his new job. He is now the transitional head of the economics department at the Chancellery, because former department head Jens Weidmann was promoted to the post of Bundesbank president.
Merkel recently asked Corsepius to cancel a vacation he had planned and to stay on at the Chancellery for a few more weeks -- because she hasn't found a successor for Weidmann yet.
RALF NEUKIRCH, CHRISTIAN REIERMANN, MICHAEL SAUGA, CHRISTOPH SCHULT
Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan