No More 'Guido Who?' Westerwelle's Libyan Stance Irks Washington
They used to call him "Guido Who?," but now the German foreign minister is finally known by name in Washington -- and that is not necessarily good news for Guido Westerwelle. His stance on Libya has confused and angered US politicians, and Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be able to put up with it for long.
Finally, Guido Westerwelle has name recognition in the United States capital, despite the election failures of his business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) at home and calls for his resignation. For a long time, he was known in Washington as "Guido Who?" At most, the foreign minister's English -- which could do with some improvement -- brought a passing interest, along with his oddly persistent calls for the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from German soil.
Since then, however, he has gained greater recognition. Thanks to the German abstention on the vote for Libyan military action in the United Nations Security Council, for which he was responsible, the backlash against Westerwelle has started in the ivory towers on the Potomac.
But it's not just about the abstention. With his stance, Westerwelle appears to also want to introduce a new foreign policy doctrine: When in doubt, don't just go with the West anymore. Germany would, in the future, be able to choose its partners worldwide under these new parameters, it seems. Sometimes traditional allies like the United Kingdom, France, or the US; at other times new powers like Brazil or India.
"It also raises serious doubts about the credibility of (Berlin's) leaders," Szabo adds. "Westerwelle will get most of the blame." As Berlin-based US journalist Steve Kettmann puts it in an editorial on the Huffington Post website, "it has been as if Germany has no Foreign Minister."
Charles Kupchan from Georgetown University, who was the director for European Affairs on the National Security Council under Bill Clinton, was similarly critical: "Washington has been impressed with French and British leadership on the issue, while Germany has certainly isolated itself within the trans-Atlantic community by abstaining on the UN vote. Germany did not just sit out the Libyan operation -- as other NATO members have chosen to do. Rather, Berlin has made amply clear its discomfort with the decision in favor of intervention."
And Jackson Janes, head of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies, says: "Whatever mix of resources and policies Europe chooses to apply to its challenges, Germany is going to play a central role. Today, Berlin is clearly struggling with how to define that role."
It's not only the experts who are disappointed, but also those who put policy into practice. Richard Burt, American ambassador to West Germany under President Ronald Reagan, understands the German objections to the war in Libya, which is also very controversial in the US. "There is no automatism that allies need to support us when we are doing stupid things." But Westerwelle's comments about the search for new partners were unnecessary, Burt says. He has heard that Westerwelle likes to be compared to foreign policy legend Hans-Dietrich Genscher, also of the FDP. Burt, one of the most veteran when it comes to trans-Atlantic affairs in Washington, laughs: "I know Hans-Dietrich Genscher. A Genscher he ain't."
The chancellor, however, cannot afford to be blasé about American frustration with her foreign minister. The new debates are likely to hamper German ambitions, such as applying for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. In addition, Washington considers Berlin's abstention as the definitive German position -- and thus also blames Merkel.
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"Chancellor Merkel has deeply strained relations with allies in the European Union and the NATO alliance, raising new questions about Germany's ability to play a global role in foreign policy, even as its economic power and influence grow," writes the New York Times. The Huffington Post adds that the German decision was obviously motivated by domestic political considerations. Recent polls now show that most Germans agree with the course taken by the coalition government.
In an interview with NBC on Monday evening, US President Barack Obama talked about potentially supplying the Libyan rebels with weapons, dictator Moammar Gadhafi's remaining options and the importance of the military action. And when he spoke to American citizens about his Libyan policy, he said he counted on "our closest allies": The UK, France, Canada, Denmark, Norway, Italy, Spain, Greece and Turkey.
No mention of Germany.
Merkel will hardly be pleased that she finally has a reputation in Washington to lose. In early June she will travel back to the American capital to be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- the highest civilian award in the US -- by Obama. The visit is planned to last several days, with the medal being awarded in a pointedly festive atmosphere.
In contrast, Westerwelle has only rarely traveled to Washington. In his Foreign Ministry, the post of trans-Atlantic coodinator for the federal government is not even filled, and has been vacant since the departure of Hans-Ulrich Klose, who stepped down at the end of January. There were reports that Westerwelle was considering Harald Leibrecht -- an FPD member of the Bundestag, Germany's federal parliament, but the nomination has hit a snag. But in any case, such positions probably have no significance at the moment: Germany's relationship with the US is being put to the test, and that is now the Foreign Ministry's top priority.