Nuclear issues have a special allure in foreign policy. The business of diplomacy is tough, discreet and often a bit complicated, and sometimes talking about a subject as spectacular as nuclear weapons can be helpful. Taking a stance against nuclear bombs is always popular, and it allows foreign affairs politicians to promote themselves and their views.
Former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer used this trick often. When Fischer, a member of the Green Party, became foreign minister in 1998, he challenged the NATO doctrine on the preemptive use of nuclear weapons. He was reined in by the United States and by his own chancellor, but he made a name for himself in the process. In 2005, Social Democratic Defense Minister Peter Struck -- not surprisingly, with Fischer's support -- called for the withdrawal of an estimated 20 nuclear bombs the Americans were storing at a German air base near the town of Büchel in the Eifel Mountains.
The bombs are still there, as is their convenient symbolism. "In the coming legislative period, Germany will finally become free of nuclear weapons," Guido Westerwelle, the chairman of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP) recently promised. Outgoing Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier made a similar statement this year, but both politicians were rebuffed when Chancellor Angela Merkel declared her support for the storage of the US nuclear bombs, noting that it bolsters Germany's "influence in the alliance, particularly in this highly sensitive area."
Despite the popularity of opposition to nuclear weapons, there are more important issues, and the chancellor and foreign minister will face more urgent tasks in the next legislative period. The world of diplomacy will turn more quickly in the coming years, as a long waiting period draws to a close. The world yearned for the end of the hapless former US President George W. Bush's term in office. The European Union, for its part, spent almost 10 years wrapped up in a dispute over its internal constitution.
This wider diplomatic state of affairs was ideal for the grand coalition, in which the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) differed on many issues. Both parties were relieved not to have to make any decisions on Turkey's accession to the EU, a trade war with Iran or sending combat troops to southern Afghanistan. Instead, they argued over the conditions under which German politicians should interact with dictators, warlords and the Dalai Lama.
Obama to Demand More Engagement
In retrospect, these debates seem rather academic. US President Barack Obama has since made it clear that there are more important issues to be addressed, and that he wants to achieve results in the management of the world's most dangerous hot spots: Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East.
The United States expects Berlin to react to Obama's initiatives, and not without reason, given that Germany is Washington's most important European ally. The next administration will likely be called upon to make some tough decisions in international crisis management.
A waiting period is also coming to an end for Europeans. When they direct their attention outward again following ratification of their Lisbon reform treaty, they will discover that there is much to be done in their immediate neighborhood. And when this happens, Germany -- the EU's most populous member state -- will have to do what it has largely avoided in the recent past: lead.
Foreign affairs experts in Berlin see a staggering agenda on the horizon in the coming years. The new administration faces the challenge of clearing up a backlog of postponed strategic decisions that has developed in German foreign policy.
Berlin will likely face some of its toughest decisions when it comes to crisis management. For years, Germany's policies on diplomacy on Iran, the Afghanistan mission and the Middle East conflict have hardly deviated from previously established approaches -- at a high diplomatic, military and economic cost, but without any fundamental reorientation.
New Momentum Expected on Iran
This could quickly change after the election. Berlin could already modify its approach toward Iran in the next few weeks. Although the new US administration has attempted to win over Tehran with offers to negotiate, the deadlines set by Washington will soon expire, and the last serious attempt to initiate talks could happen as early as next week.
At the same time, the United States is preparing a new set of punitive measures against Tehran, which will likely destroy all hopes for dialogue. Washington and Israel are pushing for increasingly sharp sanctions should negotiations fail, and a trade war can no longer be ruled out. If that happened, Germany would have to decide whether to go along with massive economic sanctions, such as a fuel embargo and restrictions on shipping and aviation -- which would be extremely unpopular among German businesses.
'The Clock Is Ticking'
Meanwhile, Israel has launched into a new debate over a possible air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities. It is hard to imagine that this discussion will last another four years without anything happening. Although Germany would not be asked to take part in a military attack on nuclear facilities, it would be expected to take a position. And in the event of a trade war, Germany, as Iran's biggest trading partner, would play an indispensable part.
"The clock is ticking," says Volker Perthes, 51, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). By the "end of the year," he says, it will have to be clear "whether or not we are in a serious negotiating process." Perthes, an expert on the Orient, believes that Obama will urge his allies to make decisions, not just on the Iran question but in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well.
The US president apparently wants to see the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of his term in office. This would require Israel's substantial withdrawal from the occupied territories -- and a security guarantee that the new Palestine would not pose a danger to Israel.
Perthes is not given to exaggerated expectations. He does not feel that a rapid resolution of the Palestinian conflict is a foregone conclusion, but that it is possible -- and he knows what the establishment of a Palestinian state means. "It will raise the question of a military presence, not of the United Nations, but of NATO," he says. In other words, NATO partner Germany would also be called upon to ensure that Palestine does not pose a threat to Israeli cities like Haifa, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
But the most pressing problem will likely be the development of a new course in Afghanistan, Perthes says. Although the Afghanistan mission, he says, is not a "vital question for NATO" -- the alliance is too stable for that -- Germany's behavior could clearly become a "vital question for our position within NATO."
The United States, as the leading power in the Western military alliance, expects its allies to make new efforts. For Germany, this would probably mean increasing its contribution in all areas, including police, military and reconstruction personnel, as well as boosting its financial contribution.
Perthes warns that the Germans must prepare themselves for his new role. "We must know exactly what we want."
Other European countries are also waiting for Germany to take a clearer stance on international issues. At this point Berlin is "no longer an inspiring force in European politics," says SWP Director Perthes. "The time will come when the biggest member state will have to answer the question: Where do we want to go?"
Chaos on the Horizon?
Ralf Fücks has thought about the decisions Europe will face in its foreign policy. The former Green Party politician, now co-chairman of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, paints a scenario with potentially horrific consequences for German policy.
Fücks pauses often when he speaks, almost as if he himself were a little taken aback by the enormity of the problems he describes. According to Fücks, the countries that make up the former Yugoslavia could descend into the chaos if their attempts to integrate themselves into the EU and NATO are delayed. Former Soviet republics like Belarus and Ukraine, he says, will need help to avoid coming under Moscow's control, while Turkey deserves a genuine offer of acceptance into the EU. "We need fundamental decisions within a politically relevant time frame -- that is, in the next few years," says Fücks.
This is particularly true of Turkey. "We will not be able to form a strategic alliance with Turkey unless we truly open the door for it to join the EU," says Fücks. Until that happens, he says, the Turks will continue to pursue a "see-saw policy," maintaining their own relations with countries like Russia and Iran.
In Fücks' view, the EU needs Ankara to strengthen its position toward Russia on such issues as the energy supply. The EU plans to bring natural gas from Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe through the planned Nabucco pipeline in Turkey. The Russians are attempting to thwart this effort by making Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan counter-offers in the energy sector.
But the EU has little interest in taking on new members, and its expansion policies have been put on ice. The negotiations over Turkey's accession, which began in 2005, have turned into a farce, in which 13 of the 35 negotiating chapters are currently not even on the table. Berlin, which has not taken a stance on the Turkey issue for years, is partly to blame. The SPD and the CDU, together with its sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), have simply ignored the issue, because they disagreed on it. The next administration will have to decide whether it can continue the same approach without jeopardizing projects like the Nabucco pipeline.
Similar considerations apply in the Balkans. The EU is keeping its distance from the successor states of the former Yugoslavia. Croatia is being denied acceptance into the EU because Slovenia, citing a border dispute with Zagreb, is using its veto to block membership. Meanwhile, Greece is blocking Macedonian membership in NATO because of a dispute over the country's name. The protectorates of Kosovo and Bosnia, where about 15,000 EU and NATO troops are stationed, are making little headway. US diplomats are already concerned that the western Balkans could "drift away" unless Europe wakes up soon.
Fücks has a simple solution to avert this danger: promoting EU membership. Even the prospect of membership, says Fücks, is an engine for reform in candidate countries. But because this prospect is becoming blurred, the Balkans threaten to deteriorate into chaos once again. "The EU must clarify whether it intends to postpone expansion policy indefinitely in favor of internal stability," he says. "This has bitter consequences."
Fücks and Perthes describe decisions that are neither symbolic nor popular. They call for a clear analysis of interests and the willingness to use political capital.
Does German Foreign Policy Whitewash the World?
Eberhard Sandschneider, 54, head of the research institute of the German Council on Foreign Relations, goes even a step further. "German foreign policy will have to slaughter several sacred cows after the election," he says.
The world Sandschneider describes is not a pleasant place. He believes that reforming the United Nations is an illusion, and that the establishment of a new world government headed by the G-20 group is nothing but a pleasant dream. "All that we will see in the future is the creation of temporary alliances in varying configurations," says Sandschneider. Germans and Europeans, he says, should get used to the idea, so they won't run out of steam when confronted with the maneuverings of the powerful -- the Americans, Russians, Chinese and Indians.
In Sandschneider's view of the world, the protection of human rights has "served its time as a maxim of foreign policy." Interests will dominate over values, he says, or else the West will be unable to find a common basis for interacting with rising major powers like China.
Sandschneider believes that German foreign policy whitewashes the world, and he cites the conflict over Iran's nuclear program as an example. For years, says Sandschneider, the West has been fighting this program, and yet most experts know that "Iran will become a nuclear state, and the West will not be able to prevent it from happening."
No German government will embark with enthusiasm on the path Sandschneider describes, which will entail radically questioning its own fundamental assumptions.
But perhaps it would be more tempting for a new government to modify the way it communicates the coming changes in foreign policy. Almost two dozen nuclear bombs are stored near the Eifel Mountains town of Büchel. Wouldn't it be an exciting disarmament initiative for the new administration, after taking office, to demand their removal from Germany?