When Germany abstained in the United Nations Security Council’s vote on Libya, quite a few eyebrows were raised in the United States and in Europe (not to speak of the German strategic community). While the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom were united in the determination to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Libya, Germany sided with Russia and China – as well as with Brazil and India, two countries that also have ambitions to become permanent members of the Council – in basically declaring neutrality (let’s set aside how realistic these permanent member ambitions have now become in light of the recent vote). In departing from her traditional Western allies, Germany, reciprocating French unilateralism in the Libya crisis, dealt a blow to transatlantic – and European – coherence and security cooperation.
So the question is if Germany is returning to the old ways of refraining from foreign interventions, as many Germans clearly have a vision for their country to become a larger, economically successful Switzerland. Add to that the recent U-turn in Chancellor Merkel’s energy policy after the Fukushima catastrophe, basically saying goodbye to nuclear power as a source of national energy production, and to Berlin’s reaction to the sovereign debt crisis in Greece (and in other EU member states) and it is easy to see why Germany is looked at with growing irritation and concern. What is going on in Europe’s heartland?
The short answer: Quite a lot, and all of which is pulling the country in different directions. The economy has performed and continues to perform almost spectacularly well. Growth rates of 3 percent and more have brought unemployment down to levels not seen for many years. Productivity is high and so is global demand for Germany’s manufactured goods. The economic performance is almost unique in the industrialized world which makes the dichotomy even more striking: Germans are bullish on the euro and a model in economic and technological terms and in the ability to modernize the welfare state on the one hand; and on the other giving in to traditional German angst toward nuclear energy and self-righteously shying away from robustly going beyond Europe’s shores militarily. So there are both an old and a new Germany at the same time, or so it seems.
Even as it is tempting to do so, it is too early to see Germany strategically entering a phase of neo-isolationalism. And it may be wrong. The vote in the UN Security Council, embarrassing as it is, probably has more to do with the preferences, miscalculations, and predicament of a foreign minister whose party is in deep trouble, who is personally highly unpopular, and whose political future hangs in the balance. Guido Westerwelle is said to have ignored the advice of his top aides and only received support from Chancellor Merkel because she did not want his loss of reputation to go beyond the point of repair. Besides, the government has not wavered from its political and military commitment to Afghanistan. It is true that the German public is widely opposed to the deployment of the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan and wants a fast draw-down of the German contingent, which remains the third-largest among ISAF partners. In light of this opposition it is quite remarkable that Germany has not yet opted out of the mission, so some generalization may be premature.
But this is not to deny that domestic and even local factors have become increasingly relevant in shaping national politics and policies and in influencing Germany’s foreign and security policy. It is also fair to say that Germany’s energy policy is highly inconsistent: It in on course to shut down nuclear stations, disinclined to commission new coal-fired power plants, and pursuing highly ambitious renewable energy goals that, to most experts, are unachievable in the short- and medium-term (and at great cost, anyhow). The decision to immediately decommission seven nuclear power stations clearly was made with an eye on the elections in the state of Baden-Württemberg. This decision, however, did not pay off. The governing parties, the CDU and FDP, lost control of the government, and so Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany’s economic powerhouse, is bound to become the first state with a Green prime minister. It will be the first time since 1953 that Chancellor Merkel’s CDU will not be at the helm of a state which is the heartland of both the Christian Democrats’ and the Liberals’ bases. The changing of the guard here is historic; its significance for German politics cannot be overstated.
Many observers saw this change coming. There had been protests for months against a major infrastructure project in the state capital Stuttgart called “Stuttgart 21.” It pitted large parts of the public against the ruling parties and their allies in Berlin and in the business community. While the Fukushima disaster mobilized undecided voters to the benefit of the Greens, the protest against “Stuttgart 21” put the CDU and FDP on the defensive – and they did not recover. This election also emphasized how angry and bitter voters had become.
In the recent past, voter dissatisfaction and anger have not been confined to debates over infrastructure projects. They have also been highly visible in the debates and conflicts over two other issues: Muslim immigration and integration, and the euro crisis.
When the Greek sovereign debt crisis exploded in early 2010, the German public reacted with dismay, resentment, and almost hatred. The intensity of negative feelings toward any bail-out caught many by surprise. But it influenced the government’s early policy position with Merkel embracing a no-mercy posture and rejecting any form of a transfer union. The crisis, with many months of negotiations and with more countries at the brink of insolvency, has had two effects on the public’s attitude to the common currency and the EU: The public’s distrust of the EU has reached an all time low, and its enthusiasm for further political action has been dramatically reduced. While 68 percent of Germans polled say they have little or no trust in the euro, only 12 percent want to see European integration proceed further. Two months into the crisis, 63 percent said they had no trust in the EU! This loss of trust in the EU is dramatic and has far-reaching implications. The de-legitimization helps to explain a good deal why the German government behaved they way it did. It also corroborates a trend that has been going on for some time: Germany’s assertion of its national interests in ways regularly used by France or the United Kingdom, but rather new to Germany.
German voters are disgruntled and angry, both with their own politicians and with “Europe.” Voter volatility is high, and the erosion of traditional loyalties continues. This may or may not be a consequence of the profound social and economic changes the country has been undergoing since unification. But it is out there, and it will affect how Germany behaves internationally and how forcefully or timidly it does what it does. For our partners, Germany, with more options today, may become a partner who is less predictable and more difficult to deal with. It is easy to blame it all on weak leadership; it may be justified, but only to a point. One should not confuse the volatility, fluidity, and diffusion of interests of this era with previous political certainties.
Klaus-Dieter Frankenberger is Foreign Editor of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and a regular contributor to the Advisor.
This essay appeared in the April 21, 2011, AICGS Advisor.