September 30, 2009

Nothing New on the German Front?

With parliamentary election past and a new coalition of the willing, composed of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Guido Westerwelle’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), in the starting blocks to replace the little liked marriage of convenience between the CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD), it is time to take a look at the portents this new leadership casts over the future of German foreign and security policy.

With parliamentary election past and a new coalition of the willing, composed of Chancellor Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Guido Westerwelle’s Free Democratic Party (FDP), in the starting blocks to replace the little liked marriage of convenience between the CDU and the Social Democrats (SPD), it is time to take a look at the portents this new leadership casts over the future of German foreign and security policy.

By and large, the past four years of German politics have been characterized by a marked lack of movement, owing to the fact that the badly named ‘grand coalition’ was in power. This less than wholesome union between the two principal rivals in German politics (the CDU and the SPD), forced its participants into a rigid form of governance, following strictly the lines laid out in the coalition contract, which was negotiated and agreed upon before the formation of the government. This was the only way to make such a union stable for the four year term, but led the previous administration to be little more than a lame duck (the only exception here were emergency measures taken in light of the international economic crisis).

Many analysts concerned with economic, fiscal and labour-market policies will feel a certain amount of positive excitement over the outcome of the elections, for the FDP (the only party in Germany pursuing a liberal economic agenda) has gained tremendously and will be able to exert noticeable influence on the CDU. Hence, one can expect a good deal of movement in German economic and fiscal policy. However, the FDP is, for all practical purposes, a single-issue party, focussed on liberalizing German economic policy, reforming the tax system and supporting small and medium sized enterprises in a state mainly concerned with its big global corporations. It follows, that the FDP will use its newly gained clout to gain concessions on these issues in the upcoming coalition talks.

As the head of the FDP, Westerwelle will take over the job as foreign minister and vice Chancellor. This is, however, largely due to the tradition that the junior coalition partner gets this prestigious resort and the fact that the post of foreign minister gives a high public profile and little opportunity to lose political capital (unlike that of the economic or finance minister, who might be identified with painful reforms by the public).

Having said this, I will wager the guess that Westerwelle will find his seat much less comfortable than it has been for most of his predecessors in this office. The FDP might, at its core, be a party with purely economic policy ambitions, but Germany’s foreign and security policy is heading for troubled waters and it will take a knowledgeable and skilled helmsman to sail these gales and come out on top.

The list of topics and issues facing Germany abroad is daunting to say the least; and Germany’s inadequacy in producing a coherent and viable policy in this field since the end of the cold-war has led to an ever mounting pile of overdue fundamental decisions concerning Germany’s position and orientation for the future. This fact was only exacerbated by the grand-coalition, which left all difficult and toxic policy areas by the wayside to be picked up now.

Therefore, whatever the new coalition’s favoured pet-projects might be, foreign and security policy will demand immediate, intensive and potentially unpopular attention. This begins with general, but nonetheless crucial, decisions about Germany’s acceptance of the fact that geopolitics today is power politics. While human rights and ecological concerns might have scraped a pass-grade as drivers of German foreign policy in the past, dealing with states such as China, Russia, India and even the US on that basis is futile. Germany will have to step up and take a leading role in shaping the European policy and profile in order to foster an international environment suitable for our western democratic model.

In order to shape and sharpen European foreign and security policy Germany will need to define its own in a much more nuanced and precise way than has happened in the past. Germany will have to clarify its own belonging into the family of western democracies, organizations and institutions and be willing to pay the price. This price is potentially quite high. For one, German policy makers will have to move the security debate from the corridors and meeting rooms of ministries and think tanks into the public. This will potentially cause some problems, for such a public debate has not taken place in an honest and comprehensive fashion since the fall of Nazi-Germany, whose legacy has made strategic thinking, hard-security debates and power politics somewhat of an anathema.

Further, will this positioning mean additional demands made on Germany’s contributions towards the contingency areas of the western alliance. This will entail additional combat, policing and reconstruction troops, as well as funding for the NATO mission in Afghanistan, something that is going to be deeply unpopular among the German constituency and which will be exploited jeeringly by the opposition. It will also mean unwavering German adherence to a sanction regime imposed on Iran (an issue which is likely to become ‘hot’ before the end of the year, with all portents pointing at a failure of negotiations next week). This will be extremely unpopular among the business community, which is trading heavily and profitably with Iran.

The next important topic to be tackled in the coming years is German strategic energy security. An issue, which, by its very nature, touches upon three other sensitive spots in German foreign policy: German-Russia relations, nuclear energy and EU membership of Turkey. If not driven by dire need, any administration would happily leave these topics well alone, for they arouse strong feelings among the constituency and touch upon core German business interests. It has however been realized, if only behind closed doors, that the extend of energy dependence on Russia is a problem. For one, the Russian behaviour in Belarus, Moldova and the Ukraine has caused cracks in the German conviction that Russia is a reliable energy supplier and that the relationship in that respect can be treated as a purely business-driven policy-area. Energy diversification, however, means that Germany will have to reconsider its withdrawal from nuclear energy, for any other secure alternative is not on the horizon, which will be deeply unpopular in Germany. It also means that Turkey will have to be given an honest opportunity to join the EU, for it is a vital transit country for the Nabucco pipeline, which is intended to bring gas from central Asia and the middle east to Europe. The only way to secure Turkey as a strategic partner, and prevent it from playing its own game with Iran and Russia, is to integrate it.

Ankara is also vital in securing other western interests such as thwarting Iran’s nuclear ambitions and bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The latter is also the next future problem zone facing German foreign policy. The Obama administration has vowed to end this conflict and intends to establish a Palestinian state by the end of Obama’s term in office. This will firstly require Germany to support measures taken by the US administration to stop and undo Israeli settlement construction and, more problematically from a German perspective, will in all likelihood mean NATO troops to ensure Israel’s safety once Palestine has been established. So Germany is heading for another NATO out-of-area assignment, requiring more troops, supplies and money – in short: another very tough sell at home.

So, much is expected of the new coalition in Germany – certainly in economic policy. What is certain however, is that some of the most arduous and difficult security challenges since 1949 lie in wait for the new administration, necessitating a drastic change in old German habits of how to deal with problems outside its borders. Whether the coalition of CDU and FDP can step up to the challenge and take on the role its allies expect remains to be seen. It does, however, have a much better chance than the previous administration.

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