Photo Gallery: Merkel's Travels

Foto: Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Germany's Waning Influence An Outsider on the Global Stage

Angela Merkel's recent trips to India, Singapore and the US revealed a lot about Germany's current international role. On her foreign visits, the chancellor is a listener rather than a talker, eager not to ruffle any feathers. In its desire not to offend, Germany is becoming increasingly marginalized on the global stage.

Is it possible that Angela Merkel has "inspired" millions worldwide, and that she is an "exceptional" leader? Is it possible that Merkel has made an "outstanding" effort to promote "harmony, stability and progress" in a time of international transition? Is it possible that Merkel exudes a "warmth and kindness" that contributes to her "stabile and clear vision?"

In other words, is it possible that Germans are largely wrong in their view of their own chancellor?

At home, Merkel hasn't read or heard such praise about her in a long time. She had to fly to Washington  and New Delhi, and accept the American Medal of Freedom and the Indian Nehru Award, to be able to hear such nice things being said about her. In Washington, she sat in the White House Rose Garden and listened to US President Barack Obama's enthusiastic words of praise. In Delhi, she sat in a magnificent palace and listened to a flowery laudatory speech by Indian President Pratibha Patil.

She seemed to have been transported to a dream world, one in which she was Merkel the Great. There is indeed some truth to the praise. Merkel is undoubted valued internationally, and there is nothing false about the awards. Nevertheless, they are not the whole truth.

Germany's Sonderweg

This year, Merkel's Germany embarked on a curious course, a new version of Germany's famous Sonderweg ("special path"), if you will. It let down its Western allies in the war over Libya, and it was the only country to conclude, as a result of the Fukushima nuclear disaster, that it had to get out of nuclear power as quickly as possible. And in the euro crisis, Germany has acquired the reputation of being principally concerned with protecting its own money.

In principle, this behavior reflects postwar Germany's fundamental fear of war, nuclear power and inflation. And these fears are currently shaping Merkel's foreign policy.

She has made two trips abroad in the last couple of weeks. They were two trips along Germany's new special path, so to speak, a small test of the country's role in the world outside Europe. She traveled for a total of 113 hours, of which 44 were spent flying, and visited three cities -- Delhi, Singapore and Washington -- and three completely different systems: India, a democratic emerging economy with a population of 1.2 billion, the authoritarian city-state of Singapore, which manages to maintain an almost permanent economic miracle, and the United States, the battered superpower that clings to its desire to shape the world using military might.

The trips amounted to three different Merkels appearing in three different worlds. How did she do it? What version of Germany was she representing? And what is the country's role on the international stage?

Catching Up on Her Sleep

An initial answer was provided on the chancellor's plane, the "Konrad Adenauer," as it was en route to Delhi. Iran felt there was a problem with the plane's flyover rights  and forced it to circle over Turkey for two hours. While the diplomats in Berlin, Tehran and on board the plane grappled over a solution to the problem, Merkel slept.

In fact, she slept through the entire crisis, and when she was awake and was asked to comment on it, she played it down and said it wasn't worth making a fuss about. She had already done her hair and makeup, but she still had a bit of sleep in her eyes. Because of the delay, she had been able to sleep two hours longer than planned. Crises, it seems, can also have their advantages.

A century ago, an incident of this nature would have prompted the countries in question to send out their gunboats, but Germany is no longer particularly sensitive when it comes to questions of honor. And Merkel certainly isn't, either. She prefers to keep a low profile.

Merkel's Talent for Looking Cute

In India, she seemed almost too diminutive for this world. She spoke so reverentially of 78-year-old Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who mainly stood out at the press conference for the way he muttered his sentences in slow motion, that he seemed like a father figure to the chancellor.

In any case, Merkel does have a talent for looking cute at times, which is especially noticeable with older men she considers wise. She also felt unqualified to give Singh any advice, given that he is the leader of a nation of 1.2 billion people, while she is only responsible for Germany's 82 million. She also didn't try to convince him of the merits of the German model for phasing out nuclear power. In fact, atomic energy was not a significant issue at any of the three stops on her two trips. In Singapore, a minister showed more passion in trying to persuade German government spokesman Steffen Seibert of the merits of corporal punishment than the German delegation did in relation to Berlin's nuclear phaseout.

It almost seemed as if the Germans felt that they themselves were a bit odd. In relation to nuclear power, Germany is an outsider on the international political stage. It goes its own way and keeps its mouth shut. The others are puzzled by Germany's behavior and may even secretly wonder if Berlin is a bit crazy.

It isn't as though the nuclear phaseout is such a bad idea, but proselytizing simply isn't Merkel's strength. That was why she did not give the leaders in Singapore any serious lectures on the advantages of democracy, only mentioning that an opposition can be inspiring. Otherwise, she listened, which is something she does well. In fact, listening during foreign trips is one of Merkel's great strengths.

She also showed plenty of respect in Singapore, particularly for the country's phenomenal economic growth, which was 13.9 percent last year. She noted that Germany's growth was significantly smaller, and that it also couldn't keep up with the island state when it came to "the diversity of flowers and the temperatures." It was hot and humid in Singapore. At least there is now an orchid named after Angela Merkel, and the chancellor was allowed to be the first person to give it a sniff in a Singapore park. She took two sniffs, because it was apparently a beautiful flower. For a moment, Merkel appeared to be representing the Floral Republic of Germany, a clean, pleasant, peaceful country blooming quietly away. Forget Tony Blair's Cool Britannia -- now we have Merkel's Clean Germania.

A Dove in the Land of Hawks

Peacefulness was also the order of the day in Washington, where the chancellor spent Monday and Tuesday. To phrase it differently: It was about the willingness to send soldiers to war. There are currently three different criteria that lend a country importance on the global stage, and each of the stops on Merkel's trips represented one of them: In Delhi it was the sheer number of people, in Singapore it was economic dynamism and in Washington it was the readiness to let weapons do the talking.

As far as population goes, Germany ranks among the medium-sized dwarfs when compared with China and India, both nations of more than a billion people. It does well by Western standards on the economic dynamism front, but lags behind China, India and Singapore. And when it comes to readiness to use military force, the Germans are generally hesitant, as shown by their total unwillingness to participate in the Libyan conflict.

In Washington, Obama staged a major spectacle for the chancellor, one with strong military overtones. There were honor guards and there was the roar of gun salutes, and there were even soldiers who collapsed, but fortunately it was only as a result of the high temperatures. It was all so staunch, proud and dressy, the sort of spectacle that only a nation with an unbroken military tradition can support or even find appealing.

Germany, of course, is not such a nation. That was why the question on everyone's mind in Washington was how the leader of the hawkish United States would talk about Libya with the leader of dovish Germany. According to participants in the meeting, Merkel always brought up Afghanistan whenever Obama mentioned Libya. Her intention, apparently, was to say: We are doing something, and we're not cowards, but it's simply not possible for us to take on more than Afghanistan. Her strategy was relatively successful. Germany will simply have to provide money to help pay for reconstruction in Libya. It's a role to which Berlin is no stranger.

But money, to make it painfully clear, simply doesn't count as much as blood in the business of international politics. Germany likes to think of itself as a mid-sized power. But on the military front, the country is fast becoming a marginal power.

Shrinking Germany

But there is one issue that did arouse curiosity in Delhi, Singapore and Washington: Germany's shift to renewable energy. It's an area where the country is on the way to becoming a kind of global laboratory. Other nations are watching from the sidelines, and if Germany manages to stall its economy while trying to make the transition to green energy, they will conclude that those Germans are indeed nuts. But if it succeeds, Germany will move up several slots in the global hierarchy.

At the moment, Germany is best known internationally as the country that produces high-quality cars for the world's drivers, even after the crisis. It also stands out because of its nice chancellor. On her trips, she seemed humble and sometimes even endearingly clumsy.

When she was supposed to inspect an honor guard in Washington, she took a few awkward steps before she managed to fall into step and get on the correct side of her military escort. On another occasion, she almost forgot to take along her husband when going to the waiting Obamas. And her facial expressions were as wonderfully childlike as always, clearly showing her joy or displeasure.

The American poet John Ashbery has written a superb poem about America called "A Worldly Country." It is not a line that one would associate with Merkel's Germany. After reunification, there was often talk of a Germany that had "grown larger." But that phrase wasn't quite true.

In fact, when it comes to world politics, Germany has become smaller and has remained provincial. It wouldn't have come as a great surprise if Merkel's plane, upon returning home, had landed in the former capital, the sleepy city of Bonn, instead of big, brash Berlin.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
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