Say Something, Chancellor Merkel! Germany's Undernourished Democracy

A Commentary by Dirk Kurbjuweit

There is plenty to discuss these days. The European common currency is in trouble, pro-democracy movements have changed the face of North Africa and Germany has embarked on a radical new energy strategy. Chancellor Merkel's silence clearly shows that her political communication is a disaster.

Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't giving the German democracy what it needs. Zoom
REUTERS

Chancellor Angela Merkel isn't giving the German democracy what it needs.

A democracy is fed with words, they stimulate the organism of a society. Politics comes alive and becomes recognizable and comprehensible in discourse. Positions become apparent, as do the affirmation and rejection of individual issues. If discourse is successful, it creates affirmation of democracy and politics as a whole.

In Germany at the moment, that discourse is far from successful. The country is suffering from malnutrition and undernourishment, it is wasting away. The right words are missing, especially words coming from the chancellor. Angela Merkel refuses to engage in a discourse on any of the most important issues. The head of Germany's government is serving up but a thin broth, if anything at all.

She has never been known for her grandiloquence, she is not a tribune of the people but an engineer of power. This has always been regrettable, but now it is becoming harmful. She has made some weighty decisions this year: Her government has pushed through a radically new energy policy, has pursued a restrictive policy on the European common currency and has approved the export of tanks to Saudi Arabia. Each of these decisions should have been accompanied by major speeches, but the speeches Merkel has given have been minor at best.

Her political communication is a disaster, and there are three reasons for this: incompetence, secretiveness and paternalism.

INCOMPETENCE

What is the goal of an administration's communication? The administration intends to convey to citizens that it is intelligently and concertedly working for their best interests. It hopes, of course, to paint an attractive self-portrait and uses legitimate public relations strategies to do so. It's the job of the media to peer behind these strategies and uncover the ugly hidden behind the beautiful.

But Merkel's government doesn't even give journalists the chance to pull back a veil, because it isn't even capable of creating one. Its efforts at communication are sometimes so incompetent that some things seem worse than they actually are.

Last Wednesday the chancellor, speaking in the Angolan capital Luanda, said that Germany wanted to help the country "in bolstering its navy." These words alone were enough to trigger a minor media frenzy. Nobody, it would seem, bothered to vet the comment prior to their delivery, particularly given the controversy over Germany's planned sale of more than 200 tanks to Saudi Arabia. And they immediately led critics to question whether the German government now intended to become an arms supplier to dubious regimes.

She later added that she was referring to coast guard patrol boats. Even that could generate some controversy, but at least it didn't sound quite as militant. To avoid the initial distress, Merkel should simply have mentioned the patrol boats right away, but she lacked the necessary judgment -- and words -- in the situation at hand, that is, the debate over tank exports. She communicated without a strategy, and the phrase "ships for Angola" was plopped into the world the way someone might drop a stone into a well.

The government's communication on the subject of tax cuts was even clumsier. With some saying one thing and others saying something else, it eventually became clear that the government intends to lower taxes. This too was done without a communicative strategy or plan. The disclosure of the coalition government's plans simply happened. There was no prior consultation or broad effort to solicit support from within the ranks of her coalition government. Not surprisingly, a dispute ensued. This isn't the way to paint an appealing self-portrait.

Not long ago, when government officials were clearly working on this portrait, their efforts revealed even more unpleasantness. During Merkel's visit to Washington in June, government spokesman Steffan Seibert made it clear to German journalists that questions about a possible visit to Berlin by US President Barack Obama would not be welcomed. It is a sensitive subject for Merkel because, when Obama visited Berlin as a candidate in 2008, the chancellor did not allow him to speak before the Brandenburg Gate. But by making such a request, Seibert was overstepping his bounds. In a democracy, journalists are responsible for the questions while politicians are the ones expected to provide the answers. This is a tried-and-true principle and requires no improvement.

The Berlin question was asked, and Obama replied that he might come to Berlin in his second term. Merkel said glibly that the Brandenburg Gate would certainly be there "for a while longer." Sometimes communication does work, but too often it is spoiled by incompetence.

SECRETIVENESS

A government doesn't have to communicate everything. There can be internal debates, of course, and there are state secrets that no politician is authorized to discuss. Meetings of Germany's Federal Security Council fall within the category of state secrets, but not the outcome of such meetings, and of course journalists can attempt to find out what was discussed at those meetings. Two weeks ago, SPIEGEL learned that the Federal Security Council had approved the sale of more than 200 Leopard II battle tanks to Saudi Arabia. A secret had been revealed, though Berlin has yet to confirm the information. Merkel and her cabinet refuse to discuss the subject -- and to ward off questions they refer to their duty to preserve state secrets.

This is the wrong approach. Once the news has been leaked, the discourse must begin. The export of such a potent weapon as the Leopard to Saudi Arabia raises many questions, especially in times of pro-democracy revolutions in the Arab world. The regime in Riyadh is authoritarian, and it can act with brutality against its own citizens and others. Furthermore, Saudi Arabia sent troops to neighboring Bahrain to stifle an uprising there. Riyadh could also use the Leopard tanks to crush a democratic revolution at home. Do Germans want to see German tanks on Saudi soil, firing at Saudi citizens? Can one imagine that unforgettable image from the Tiananmen Square revolt -- a man facing off against a row of tanks -- with protesters confronting German-made Leopards instead?

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