Raising the ante in the confrontation with the Assad regime and its international supporters, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius this week called for the use of force in Syria. Across the Rhine Valley in Berlin, however, his German equivalent Guido Westerwelle urged caution: "Before speaking of consequences we must first have clarification." French daily newspaper Le Monde ran the outsized headline "Toxic Gas Massacre in Damascus". Most German newspapers that day led with the Bradley Manning verdict.
The 50-year-old Elysée Treaty, the European Union, and the euro join France and Germany at the hip, and their national security interests are fused at every other point above and below by virtue of a shared 451 kilometer (289 mile) border. But they exhibit diverging strategic postures vis-à-vis North Africa and the Middle East. Germany has gone from foot-dragging -- abstaining from the Libya intervention in 2011 and equivocating in Mali in 2012 -- to putting its foot down against French involvement in Syria.
Since a rare misstep responding to the uprising against Tunisian President Ben Ali, France has sought redemption by betting early and often on opposition movements. In successive interventions, the Sarkozy and Hollande administrations have courted the Arab public square and its revolutionary avant-garde. Germany, meanwhile, is much more comfortable with Color Revolutions or the noble resistance of protesters in Teheran or Taksim Square than with armed revolt. While France rides the bronco of Arab Awakening, Germany looks on aghast.
Germany started deviating from French leadership in March 2011, when its diplomats ruled out participation in Libya regardless of UN Security Council resolutions. The following year, Germans long refused the French assessment that the occupation of northern Mali by al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) presented a threat against Western interests. France has continued to raise international pressure on the Assad regime over German objections -- leading the lifting of the arms embargo, disclosing suspected cases of the regime's use of chemical weapons and inviting Syrian coalition leaders to Paris.
While French leaders were declaring that "all hopes for a political solution or a political transition in Syria are destroyed" and considered unilaterally arming the opposition in March, German ministers were doing their best to get the parties to the negotiating table. "As long as the logic of violence and military victory is in place, there can be no lasting peace and stability for Syria," Westerwelle said in May.
The post-reunification "German Question" has time and again challenged Germany's partners to reconcile the federal republic's economic power with its reticence to contribute to collective security. The oddity of an unaligned behemoth at the heart of NATO has begun to harden into reality, even as allies refuse to allow Germany to slip into Swedish-style neutrality.
But something different is at work here. Contrary to appearances, Germany is not simply receding ever deeper into itself. In fact, the Berlin Republic is quietly asserting itself and fleshing out its foreign policy. The unwillingness to act as France's cheerleader in the greater Mediterranean comes with the creeping recovery of self-confidence, and a desire to reposition itself vis-à-vis this historically French sphere of influence.
France insists its recent military interventions abroad are grounded in humanitarianism and counter-terrorism, to safeguard "the fate of the local population and French nationals." Germans perceive instead a French sense of entitlement in a region rich with extraction and infrastructure contracts, and refuse to play a supporting role.
When explaining why it did not join France in Mali earlier this year, Germany pleaded superfluity: France was intervening "because of its tradition, history, and relationship with this part of Africa" and because "France is the only nation capable." The polite demurral belies Germany's intention to undermine the Franco-centric status quo.
German obstructionism also reveals the consensus across the German political spectrum that an Islamist regime in Syria is to be avoided. Left-wing politicians say Germany already has blood on its hands since groups receiving aid have attacked Kurdish areas in Syria. The deputy leader of Merkel's Christian Democrats has said orthodox Christian populations risk ethnic cleansing or worse if the French-allied Islamists come to power. French commitment to the region's Christians is also sincere -- French kings guaranteed protection of Maronite Christians for centuries -- but now more Maronites live outside the region than in it.
This occasionally leaves France and Germany with contradictory positions in the clash between broad-based Sunni and Shi'a alliances -- with critical implications for religious minorities in the region. There are echoes of December 1991, when the tables were turned: a newly confident and unified Germany proactively granted diplomatic recognition to Croatia, which the French viewed as dangerously premature and as a brazen grab to reassert German influence in that part of the Balkans.
Twenty years later, German foreign policy has made the next step and challenges France's traditional spheres of influence to the south. France and Britain ultimately dropped their objections to German plans to recognize Croatia in 1991. But it is unlikely that Germany will accomodate French designs on Syria in 2013.
With fewer German ghosts in the Mediterranean basin, Germany can sell its successful national brand with less historical baggage and distinguish itself from France. This had begun shortly before the Arab Awakening, at a time when Berlin resented exclusionary moves like Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean and took pride in the "small differences" of its own policies.
Unlike in France, for example, Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhafi was not allowed to pitch his tent in Berlin, and no German government ever praised Tunisian President Ben Ali's democratization efforts. Germany's long-term security, a regional strategy report from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs argued in 2009, depended on the credibility of such German policies among local populations.
Germany still sold plenty of arms to the same regimes: The same report noted the "especially negative consequences of France's special position on the German economy" and openly complained that "when it's time to sign contracts, it's the French firms that always come in ahead."
The Merkel government has not shrunk from all relevant military roles. It sent personnel to help in Iraq and Mali, and AWACs to Afghanistan to free up allies' own planes for use in Libya. German Patriot batteries installed under NATO in Turkey have already detected hundreds of missiles fired in Syria this year.
But Germany's goals differ markedly and signal a counter-revolutionary stance against French activist zeal. None of the Merkel-led coalitions to come out of September's elections are likely to judge things differently. In addition to the 50 years of the Elysée Treaty, this October also marks the 200th anniversary of the war liberating Prussia from Napoleonic occupation.