"My God, what will become of Germany when I'm gone?" Konrad Adenauer, West Germany's first chancellor, said 50 years ago. His overriding goal was to keep Germany firmly anchored in the West. He believed that integrating Germany in Europe and keeping it closely allied with the United States was necessary to protect the Germans from themselves. Adenauer was afraid that his compatriots might once again be tempted to veer out and forge their own path. Until a few weeks ago, this fear seemed absurd. But the situation has changed.
By abstaining in the United Nations Security Council vote on the resolution to impose a no-fly zone over Libya, the government has given up what had been a cross-party consensus on German security policy. Until now, Germany was committed to siding with America and France. That wasn't always easy. Sometimes, for example before the 2003 Iraq war, it was impossible. On Iraq, Germany had to choose between one of its two most important partners. But it remained convinced that on no account should it oppose both nations at the same time.
The government has now given up this basic tenet of German policy.
The official explanation is an excuse: Germany doesn't want to take part in a war against Libya, said Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle. If Germany had voted in favor of a no-fly zone, joining the military mission would have been unavoidable, he claims. But such an automatic link between voting yes and taking part doesn't exist. Germany could have voiced its quite justified misgivings and still sided with the other Western nations. That would not have forced it to commit German forces to the military operation.
Central Principles of German Foreign Policy in Doubt
In fact, much more is at stake than the question of a German military contribution. Chancellor Angela Merkel and Westerwelle have called central principles of German foreign policy into question. This will have consequences. Germany's westward integration wasn't just the obsession of Adenauer, a Rhinelander. It was a response to the fundamental problem of Europe's balance of power.
What was to become of this restless nation in the center of Europe that had spent its history shifting between east and west, that for so long entertained a special awareness of its historical role and that started two world wars?
The Germans have come up with three different answers to this question over the last 150 years. Chancellor Otto von Bismarck pursued an equilibrium, trying to preserve peace by preventing other nations from allying themselves against Germany. But even a diplomat as skilled as Bismarck wasn't able to maintain the precarious balance of power. The collapse of his system resulted in World War I. Adolf Hitler tried to solve the problem by trying to dominate Europe by force. That resulted in total defeat. Only with Adenauer's policy of firmly aligning West Germany with the West was the republic able to find its place in Europe and the world.
That makes it so alarming when Westerwelle proclaims Germany's UN abstention as the birth of a new foreign policy doctrine. In the future, Germany wants to cherry-pick its own partners in the world. That can be France, Britain and America, but it could also on occasion be Brazil or India. The principle of "If in doubt, stick with the West'" no longer applies.
Westerwelle's New Doctrine is Contradictory
This new doctrine ignores Germany's history. It is deeply contradictory. On the one hand Westerwelle is exaggerating Germany's international role -- even a superpower like the US can't keep up such a policy of shifting alliances in the long run. Germany would be hopelessly overreaching itself by doing so. If Bismarck didn't manage it, Westerwelle doesn't have a hope. It would be disastrous for Germany if its Western partners began to doubt its commitment to them.
At the same time, Westerwelle is making Germany more insignificant than it really is. He wants Germany to be a country that doesn't send any soldiers on foreign missions and instead serves as a role model for peace. This Germany wants its role in the Security Council to be about abolishing child soldiers and landmines, not about imposing no-fly zones. It wants to leave the unpleasant matters for others to sort out.
The Libyan controversy highlights this double standard. Westerwelle was at the forefront of Western politicians supporting the popular uprisings in Arab countries. But he left it to others to keep protesters from being massacred. That is simply hypocritical. One can't accuse the other European countries of being too slow in backing a weapons and oil embargo while at the same time withdrawing German ships that could enforce such an embargo.
Scoring Domestic Points at the Expense of Germany's Reputation
The pacifist cloak doesn't make the new unilateralism any more appealing. Our partners are as averse to an overbearing Germany as they are to a Germany that shirks its responsibilities. The government is currently doing both at the same time: shooting its mouth off and ducking away. This new German exceptionalism is distasteful -- just listen to how Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere or Development Minister Dirk Niebel are more or less directly accusing their allies of just bombing Libya for the sake of the country's oil.
This supposed new foreign policy doctrine smacks of domestic populism. Westerwelle has succumbed to such temptations before. He opposed the Iraq war, but then complained that Germany's "no" had damaged the trans-Atlantic alliance. He has been demanding the withdrawal of militarily redundant nuclear weapons from German soil although they are an important symbol of Germany's cooperation with the US. He's more worried about scoring political points at home than about the damage he's doing to Germany's standing in the world.
It has been the same pattern with Libya. Westerwelle's advisors in the Foreign Ministry recommended that Germany should vote "yes" in the Security Council. He ignored their advice because that would have diluted his domestic message: no involvement of German troops.
Angela Merkel didn't stop her foreign minister. She has often shown the right foreign policy instincts. But she probably wanted to avoid a public debate about German military involvement ahead of important regional elections. That kind of thinking would be in line with her character.
Perhaps she agrees with Westerwelle's view that the old certainties no longer apply. In that case a Christian Democrat chancellor would be jettisoning Germany's policy of Western loyalty -- a stance that was part of her party's creed for decades.