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.

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.

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.

Two German Foreign Policies = Zero German Foreign Policy

The Social Democrats did everything they could to counteract Berlin's new approach to China. At the SPD party conference last fall Steinmeier referred to Merkel's meeting with the Dalai Lama in the Chancellery as "window dressing." The conflict within the coalition encouraged Beijing to be upset with Merkel. This, in turn, gave Steinmeier sufficient reason to devote attention to mending relations with China and in doing so to point out who was to blame for the discord.

Now the Chinese and Syrians know from their own experience that there are two German foreign policies and, thus, in the final analysis, none at all.

When it comes to the Russian dossier things are even more complicated. Merkel has prevented Steinmeier from doing a remake of 'Ostpolitik' (a term that came into usage in the late 1960s and early 1970s under the influence of Willy Brandt as part of an effort to normalize West Germany's relations with Eastern Europe and East Germany). Steinmeier, for his part, sees to it that Merkel continues to pursue a policy of close cooperation with Russia in the energy sector.

Overall it can be said that Merkel's actions have shown her to be fairly friendly towards Russia. Having started out as a champion of Eastern European countries who sought to liberate themselves from Moscow, Merkel has visited only four of the 12 new EU members in that region. By contrast, she visited President Medvedev right after his election.

Just how contradictory German foreign policy can be is something the Estonians found out a little over a year ago. At the time there was an escalating conflict between Russia and Estonia over the relocation of a Soviet war memorial in Tallinn. Putin's youth organization sent gangs of rioters out on the streets of Moscow and they ultimately attacked the Estonian ambassador. Steinmeier was the EU Council President at the time and attempted to mediate between the two sides.

He made two telephone calls to his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov. In an angry outburst Lavrov spoke of a "corridor of shame" that has been established in Eastern Europe. Steinmeier called his Estonian counterpart Urmas Paet and advised de-escalation. He said the Estonians should order their ambassador to take a "two-week leave of absence" as a face-saving solution.

A few hours later Steinmeier was told by Foreign Ministry officials that the Estonians had received advice of a different kind from someone else in Berlin. The same day Chancellor Merkel had spoken to Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and told him not to give in to the calculated anger expressed by the Russians but to stand firm.

Steinmeier one way, Merkel the other. Steinmeier is very much a diplomat, a person who seeks to defuse conflicts. He avoids open disputes, considering them to be unproductive. He prefers to show restraint in conversations, even when dealing with despots like Uzbek President Islam Karimov. What Steinmeier is interested in are results -- and he expresses criticism behind closed doors, not in front of television cameras.

Merkel stands for the type of politician who knows that action and communication are two sides of the same coin. She doesn't want to paper over conflicts, she wants to get them out in the open and deal with them, if it appears useful to her to do so. For her it is not enough to speak openly with a leader like Vladimir Putin only when they are away from the cameras. She makes deliberate use of public pressure to promote her objectives.

Merkel and Steinmeier both exert key influence on the political style that predominates in their parties. When a political adversary is identified the Christian Democrats want to call a spade a spade while the SPD wants to signal détente and appeasement. The Christian Democrats regard missiles as an appropriate response to missiles from other countries, the SPD would rather try to engage the other side in disarmament negotiations. The Christian Democrats want to see freedom and democracy take root in other countries, while the SPD attaches greater importance to stability and peaceful coexistence. The one side sees the Russians as potential adversaries, the other side sees them as potential partners. The Christian Democrats are traditionally pro-American, the Social Democrats are traditionally critical of the United States.

Germany's indecisiveness is also making itself felt to a significant extent in the European Union. The voice of the most populous member country has a lot of weight in Brussels. But Berlin rarely does justice to its leadership role in the EU. Germany's internal weakness has put it on the defensive in key international policy areas.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has introduced key changes in Paris' foreign policy, and in doing he has created more pressure for Berlin than some crisis regions have. Sarkozy no longer defines French policy the way his predecessors did -- by, for example, emphasizing differences with the United States. Instead, he is attempting to close ranks with Washington. Within a short period of time he revised positions that were considered fundamental by past French governments. Paris was suddenly for the recognition of Kosovo. It pleaded in favor of imposing sharper sanctions against Iran, unilaterally if need be. The French have offered to enlarge their force contingent in Afghanistan: Sarkozy has promised to send an additional battalion to fight in the war-torn east of the country.

In the past Germany always stood somewhere between Washington and Paris. Now Sarkozy has upset the apple cart, disrupting Berlin's foreign policy dossiers on Kosovo, Iran, and Afghanistan. They are having to be sorted out anew. In the past Berlin would have been able to play for time with regard to the recognition of Kosovo, since it could always count on support from France. Now all of a sudden it was Paris that was pushing for rapid recognition.

Sarkozy is also sending out new signals with regard to Iran. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner proposed that the EU impose its own sanctions if the United Nations is unable to arrive at an agreement. This puts Germany in a somewhat embarrassing third position in the six-power talks on Iran, between the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, on the one hand, and Russia and China, on the other.

Sarkozy's biggest coup thus far was in the rather abstract area of European security policy. In return for his promise to reintegrate France fully into NATO, Sarkozy received American approval for the development of an EU defense policy, something Washington had been bitterly opposed to for years.

German foreign policy experts have been looking westward in amazement ever since. The FDP's Werner Hoyer says: "Sarkozy has effected a sensational paradigm shift." Joschka Fischer is full of praise, saying Sarkozy has shown "surprising determination in his endeavor to promote France's leadership role in the EU and in the Alliance." Both Fischer and Hoyer feel Germany is in danger of losing its status as a partner for France. "If the Germans want to stay in the driver's seat they're going to have to make a corresponding effort," Hoyer says.

France's activism has exposed Germany's paralysis. As a country situated at the center of the European Union and its biggest economic power, Germany would be ideally suited to assume a role as a leader and mediator in a fragmented EU. But if the German government is unable to decide whether it wants more cooperation or more confrontation with Russia, Syria, Cuba, and China then how will it be able to advise eastern Europeans to ease up or southern Europeans to take a tougher line?

The same applies with regard to Germany's role in the world. For a number of years now it has been seated at the negotiating table with the major powers when issues such as Iran and the Middle East have been discussed. It has earned respect on the basis of its economic strength but also on the basis of its willingness to participate in military missions and on the basis of its clear 'no' to the Iraq War. Germany's seeming indecisiveness has caused some diplomats to speculate that its influence on world affairs could dwindle.

Things will doubtless get worse when Merkel and Steinmeier are forced to pull out the US dossier more often in the future. Merkel managed to improve relations with Washington and didn't have to pay the weakened Bush administration a major price for it either. Germany is not sending fighting troops into southern Afghanistan and it held up the NATO membership process for Georgia and Ukraine, against American wishes.

But what if there is an energetic new president in the White House early next year? What if a freshly elected John McCain wants to create a "League of Democracies" to fight against the autocrats in the world and calls for the exclusion of Russia from the G-8? Or what if a President Barack Obama extends a hand of peace to Hamas or the regime in Tehran?

The fact that the German government would then have some difficult decisions to make is something that is currently on the minds of American observers in Berlin. Gary Smith, executive director of the American Academy in Berlin, is amazed at the "lack of preparation" on the part of the Germans for the changes that are bound to be coming in Washington. John Hulsman at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) has a similar view: "Merkel had a two year honeymoon because of the weakness of the US president, which she didn't use. Now things are going to be asked of her by the new president and she doesn't have any answers regarding Iran, Afghanistan or trade."

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