Westerwelle's Woes Internal Criticism Grows over German Foreign Minister

Guido Westerwelle's image as foreign minister isn't just eroding abroad, but also at home. Inside the Foreign Ministry, German diplomats are hoping they will soon have a new boss. Chancellor Angela Merkel is also reportedly disappointed in the top diplomat, who doesn't seem to have grown into his role.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at a meeting in Berlin on April 15.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton shakes hands with German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at a meeting in Berlin on April 15.

Foto: SAUL LOEB/ AFP

Christian Hacke has already passed judgment on Guido Westerwelle's role in history. Hacke is one of Germany's leading political scientists. He is the director of the political science department at the University of Bonn and has written a standard work on German foreign policy. But Hacke now has nothing but cold disdain for Germany's current foreign minister.

"Look at Germany's foreign ministers, from Konrad Adenauer and Heinrich von Brentano to Joschka Fischer and Frank-Walter Steinmeier," he says. "These were solid, well-informed men, who mastered the core principles of diplomacy: enhancing Germany's image and representing its interests in the world."

By contrast, the professor contends that Westerwelle -- who was a protege of former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher -- has embraced a "neo-German Wilhelminism ," which he displayed in particular when he abstained from the United Nations Security Council resolution on an establishing a no-fly zone over Libya. Hacke says that Westerwelle engages in self-righteous grandstanding while, at the same time, cowardly running for cover. "He is the vainest, most narrow-minded and stubborn foreign minister since von Ribbentrop."

It is a monstrous allegation. Joachim von Ribbentrop was Hitler's foreign minister from 1938 to 1945. In Hacke's opinion, the consequences are perfectly clear: "Westerwelle must go because he can no longer properly represent German interests -- and because we have to feel ashamed of him."

Westerwelle Widely Viewed as Failure

Most German diplomats probably wouldn't compare the foreign minister to von Ribbentrop, but many would agree with Hacke that Westerwelle should go.

Westerwelle is widely seen as a failure, both in the Foreign Ministry and among foreign diplomats in Germany. It's a similar story at Angela Merkel's Chancellery. Hardly anyone understands why he wants to remain in the government until the end of the current term.

Westerwelle hasn't found his footing since he took office as Germany's chief diplomat in October 2009. At first, he showed an almost demonstrative lack of interest in his new job. Then he gave the impression that he appointed his delegations according to private and political preferences. Most recently, he made decisions in the Libya conflict that isolated Germany on the foreign policy front and created a rift within Germany's governing coalition.

No other German Foreign Minister has been as unpopular as Westerwelle. Consequently, he will have to resign from one of his positions in May. Curiously enough, though, he will only be forced to step down as the leader of the business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) -- yet still be allowed to retain his more important government office. Ever since it has been clear that Westerwelle will not remain at the helm of the FDP, his image in the Foreign Office has taken a dramatic turn for the worse. Many of his staff members never had a very high opinion of their boss, but he still enjoyed a certain amount of political clout as party chairman and vice chancellor. That also added some luster to the office of foreign minister.

All that has come to an end now. For months, the confident diplomats have suffered as the Foreign Office has become increasingly irrelevant under Westerwelle. In their view, their ministry has been relegated to the status of a venue for the doings of a political has-been, seriously tarnishing their own image as the elite of the ministerial bureaucracy.

Whatever the occasion -- from diplomatic receptions to trips abroad and chance encounters -- the normally highly reserved staff members of the Foreign Office don't hold back on their negative comments about the foreign minister. "He hasn't learned," says a veteran diplomat, "and he never will."

The extent to which Westerwelle's reputation has been damaged could be seen at the meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin last week -- an event intended to serve as a stage for a grand appearance by the foreign minister. Instead, Westerwelle's counterparts from around the world felt compelled to emphasize that their German colleague was not isolated.

Westerwelle emphasized this more vehemently than anyone else. He said that there were no disagreements between Germany and France. However, his French counterpart, Alain Juppé, apparently wasn't prepared to go quite that far to bend the truth. He merely said that the differences were "not dramatic."

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton showed how it was possible to criticize her German counterpart without directly attacking him. At a memorial service held last week at the American Academy in Berlin for the late US diplomat Richard Holbrooke, she recalled the lessons that the US special envoy had learned from the Balkan wars -- that it was better to intervene early in humanitarian crises than too late. "We need to remember his plea for principled interventionism," she said. That is about the most elegant way possible of expressing disapproval of Germany's policies on Libya.

Merkel Dissatisfied with Foreign Minister

Most people in Westerwelle's own party are remaining silent on the issue. Only very few have been as outspoken as the head of the Berlin state chapter of the FDP, Christoph Meyer, who has called for the outgoing party leader to resign from his position in the government. Others feel similarly, but want to avoid causing further unrest in the FDP.

Members of the FDP's coalition partner, the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), are less guarded in their comments. CDU foreign policy experts like Ruprecht Polenz and Philipp Missfelder have openly criticized Westerwelle's abstention in the Security Council. The conservatives' defense policy spokesman, Ernst-Reinhard Beck, said that he was "not at all happy with Westerwelle's foreign policy experiments." On trips abroad, Beck said that he was constantly asked about Germany's views of its European and NATO allies.

Chancellor Angela Merkel is also dissatisfied with her foreign minister. Shortly after Westerwelle took office, Merkel reportedly once said that she was surprised that he apparently took so little pleasure in his political office. Since then, she has had little reason to change her negative impression.

Month after month, the staff of the Chancellery hoped that Westerwelle would rise to the task, but this hope has slowly faded. Merkel remains unimpressed by Westerwelle's loud, simplistic rhetoric. Germany's abstention at the UN also had an unpleasant taste to it because Westerwelle had played up his role as the world's greatest freedom fighter in the run-up to the Security Council vote.

Merkel had backed the German abstention in New York. But she had not counted on Westerwelle immediately declaring that the abstention was an expression of a new German foreign policy. In her view, the indignation in Germany would not have been so pronounced if Westerwelle had done a better job of explaining the German government's approach. She would have also been prepared to leave German ships stationed in the Mediterranean to supervise the arms embargo against Libya.

Merkel is also puzzled over why Westerwelle explained at such great length to the cabinet in early April that Germany may also take part in supplying humanitarian aid to Libya. There is a broad consensus on this position within the German government. This doesn't fit, however, with the foreign minister's constantly repeated message that Germany will send no troops to Libya. On the contrary, in the minutes of a meeting of the Defense Committee, German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere assumes "that we can envision escorting ships with food supplies, or perhaps also securing airports with ground troops." Both options "are being planned."

Westerwelle then changed his tune. He said that there were no requests from the UN for military protection, and that no such requests were expected in the foreseeable future. "Absolutely no one can follow his reasoning anymore," says a leading CDU politician.

Chancellor Only Informs Westerwelle When Necessary

Now, Merkel only informs Westerwelle when it is absolutely necessary. Her foreign policy adviser Christoph Heusgen handles important issues directly with the political director at the Foreign Ministry, Emily Haber. Heusgen and Haber have known each other for a long time and they work well together. Westerwelle is only formally involved in key decisions such as NATO's strategic concept.

Just like Westerwelle's office manager Thomas Bagger, Haber is said to be highly competent. This makes them the exceptions among the minister's aides. Still, they alone cannot make up for the foreign minister's poor performance.

The job of covering for Westerwelle should actually fall to Wolf-Ruthart Born and Peter Ammon, who are state secretaries at the Foreign Ministry. Unfortunately, they have the reputation within the Foreign Ministry of being the wrong people for these key positions. Neither of them has worked in the European Union or at an international organization like NATO. They lack the necessary political instincts. Their internal instructions are said to be imprecise, and they are reportedly unable to lend any consistency to German foreign policy.

It's a similar story with the head of the planning staff, former FDP spokesman Robert von Rimscha, who the diplomats don't see as a strong choice for the job. To make way for Rimscha, his predecessor Markus Ederer was shunted off to China to serve as the EU ambassador to Beijing, which may be a prestigious position, but is of little consequence for Germany.

Meanwhile, international diplomatic observers of the political stage in Berlin have ventured their initial predictions: The foreign minister will not manage to stay in office until the end of the legislative period, at least according to a cable sent home by the ambassador of one of Germany's key partner countries. There are many in the Foreign Office, the Chancellery and the governing coalition who are crossing their fingers that this prediction will come true.

Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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