Germany's Divided Government A Recipe for Foreign Policy Impotence

The dispute between Germany's conservative Christian Democrats and left-leaning Social Democrats over what foreign and security policy strategy to follow reveals a deep divide between the partners in Angela Merkel's government. Neither side can impose its will on the other, resulting in gridlock and crippling Germany's influence in the world.

Who's in charge of Germany's foreign policy? When it comes to dealings abroad, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel often speak with very different voices.

Who's in charge of Germany's foreign policy? When it comes to dealings abroad, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Chancellor Angela Merkel often speak with very different voices.

George W. Bush has given up. He is tired of and no longer sees any sense in talking to a wall. The wall in this case is conservative German Chancellor Angela Merkel of the Christian Democrats (CDU). The United States president has stopped asking her to send additional troops to fight in southern Afghanistan. In the course of long conversations with the German chancellor, Bush has learned that there are simply political limits to what she can do. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has also had to come to terms with the reality that she can't take the kinds of decisions he would like to see without risking a breakup of her "unstable" coalition government.

There are also many in Merkel's junior coalition partner, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), whose patience is wearing thin. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier finds himself explaining to senior party officials one day and to members of his parliamentary group the next why his efforts to engage in a dialogue with Syria, conduct negotiations with Russia or promote an opening towards Cuba are not moving forward. "What good do my proposals do if I can't get any backing from the Christian Democrats," Steinmeier complained to one SPD source.

These are signs of frustration and despair. Last week news finally leaked out to the German public that the Christian Democrats and the SPD are miles apart in their foreign and security policy positions and that they are blocking each other. The object of contention this time is a strategy paper in which experts from the Christian Democrats' parliamentary group outlining a security policy concept that would be more to their taste, i.e. a more active role for the armed forces both at home and abroad, missile defenses aimed at increasing protection against rogue states, less direct involvement of parliament in security policy decisions and more power for an American-style "national security council" in the Chancellery.

SPD foreign policy expert Niels Annen gloated: "Now you can see the true nature of CDU foreign policy thinking." Foreign Minister Steinmeier went so far as to say that the US National Security Council was responsible for mistakes such as the Iraq War since it had stifled opposition to the views taken by the Bush White House. SPD parliamentary group chairman Peter Struck noted adamantly: "The Christian Democrats will certainly not find any support for their ideas in the ranks of the SPD."

Merkel immediately sought to calm the situation, saying she agreed with the general direction of the paper and also that the issues it referred to were not going to be addressed in the current legislative term anyway. Any other move on her part would have been illusory, given the SPD's threat to impose a blockade.

The effect of this clash between conservative and liberal viewpoints in Germany's grand coalition government is clear. It will stop any serious treatment of security policy matters until after the next general election. As in so many other cases, the subject will simply not be addressed for the time being.

Further examples of coalition gridlock are likely to become visible this week during the Dalai Lama's visit to Germany. There are bound to be public debates on Germany's relationship with China, but the government will be staying largely out of the limelight. Merkel's and Steinmeier's schedules exclude the possibility of their meeting with the Tibetan religious leader so they won't need to agree on a common position with regard to China. Merkel is flying to Latin America and Steinmeier is visiting the new Russian President, Dimitry Medvedev, in Moscow. The only member of Merkel's cabinet who has agreed to meet with the Dalai Lama is Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, who has come under heavy criticism from within the ranks of her own SPD party over the meeting. Following the public row between Beijing and Berlin last autumn, many members of the SPD feel it is reckless for Wieczorek-Zeul to meet with him. The party's parliamentary spokesman for defense issues, Jörn Thiessen on Thursday called the move "a terrible German foreign policy mistake."

One can also pretty much predict the tone of Steinmeier's visit to the Kremlin. There won't be a bear hug for Medvedev, at least not in public. But there won't be public criticism of Russian policies in the Caucasus either. Merkel isn't requiring this of Steinmeier. Anyway, how would she be able to?

If the German government had all of its foreign policy dossiers in a single archive room, the room would be pretty full at the moment. But very few of these many dossiers are actually ever worked on. There are lots of very thin files on the shelves with labels like "Cuba," "Caucasus," "Maghreb," and "Syria." They are rarely taken out and looked at, given a lack of clear-cut instructions for working on them.

There are also very thick dossiers with labels such as "Russia," "USA," "Afghanistan," "China," "Iran," "Middle East," and "ESDP" (European Security and Defence Policy). Many of them are priorities and all of them are too important to be ignored. But here, too, not much more takes place than occasional updates, the filing of notes, letters or resolutions. The tough decisions are all marked for resubmission after the general election in the fall of 2009.

Germany has been "unable to deliver" with its troop deployment in Afghanistan, warns former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Germany has been "unable to deliver" with its troop deployment in Afghanistan, warns former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.

Until then German foreign policy will be at a standstill. Both sides have recognized that neither of them is strong enough to impose its will on the other. On the other hand, they are both strong enough to quell unilateral initiatives by the other side. As such, it remains to be seen whether Germany will be seeking to draw closer to or move further away from Russia in the future, whether a larger or smaller number of soldiers will be sent to Afghanistan, and whether radical players such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran will continue to be treated as pariahs or an effort undertaken to engage them in dialogue. Does Germany need more missiles to defend itself or can it get along with a smaller number? Should Germany put public pressure on China to move in the direction of human rights and democracy or should this be done in secrecy, if at all?

For two-and-a-half years the coalition partners fared quite well by essentially freezing progress in the foreign policy area. Hot-button issues such as EU membership for Turkey were defused with a compromise formulation in the coalition agreement. Germany's EU and G-8 presidencies in 2007 went well, among other things since there just happened to be agreement between the Christian Democrats and the SPD on the core issues at the time -- the European constitution and climate change. Otherwise they agreed to observe a truce on international issues where they have differences. With the exception of a few skirmishes here and there they managed to adhere to their agreement. After all, they had enough problems as it was coordinating their economic and social policies.

In the meantime, the question has arisen as to whether the avoidance of fundamental policy decisions may be detrimental to the country's interests. "As long as the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry continue to work at cross purposes for party-political reasons," Switzerland's prestigious daily the Neue Zürcher Zeitung lamented, "German foreign policy will continue to be paralyzed on key issues."

Eberhard Sandschneider, research director at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), sees a "party-political standoff on central foreign policy issues" resulting in the government not being able "to deal with issues of urgent importance."

Former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party recently warned that Germany is in danger of losing its status as a leading European power, given that it is "unable to deliver" on priority issues such as Afghanistan. Werner Hoyer, a senior parliamentary official representing the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) and a former deputy foreign minister, observes "a lack of a systematic approach and as such a lack of substance" in German foreign policy, adding that most of the time "staff and resources at the Chancellery and Foreign Ministry are busy keeping each other in check."

The most glaring example is with regard to Germany's involvement in Afghanistan. Steinmeier favors a more robust mission, but knows he would run into strong opposition from the SPD's left wing. At the same time, he can't expect any support from Merkel on this. She's afraid of being pilloried by SPD "peaceniks" in the next general election. Thus it is that Steinmeier's initiatives fail to get any traction and the Chancellery is able to say, after the fact, that it's a pity they didn't pan out.

The resulting situation is serious. Germany isn't sending enough soldiers to Afghanistan and continues to maintain the mission at an unsatisfactorily low force level. This alienates Germany's alliance partners who feel like they're being let down. At the same time public support for the mission is declining. Political leadership is needed here, but instead there is silence. In off-the-record statements foreign policy experts from both governing parties have expressed fears that Merkel's grand coalition government lacks the political strength to take on new military missions abroad.

When Steinmeier met with his Syrian counterpart, Walid al-Moallim, in January, the Christian Democrats sounded the alarm, saying that courting Syria was out of the question given the destructive role it was playing in the Lebanese peace process.

The Chancellery indicated that it, too, was not pleased by the Syrian foreign minister's visit and in doing so disavowed what Steinmeier felt was one of his most important initiatives. Damascus was disappointed that the diplomatic efforts it had undertaken in recent months were not being honored. After all, Syria had taken part in the Middle East conference the US government held in Annapolis in late November last year.


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