A New Era in International Relations Germany's New Government Faces Tough Work Abroad

For four years, Angela Merkel's government was unable to find common ground when it came to many foreign policy issues. Now, armed with a new coalition partner, the chancellor must develop a clear German position on a host of issues. The clock is ticking, argue foreign policy experts.

Pressing issues: The new German government will have to make some tough decisions on foreign affairs. One of the toughest will involve German troops in Afghanistan.

Pressing issues: The new German government will have to make some tough decisions on foreign affairs. One of the toughest will involve German troops in Afghanistan.

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.

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Photo Gallery: Germany's Foreign Policy Backlog
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.

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