When Germany abstained from the UN Security Council’s vote on Libya last month, quite a few eyebrows were raised in the United States and Europe (not to mention in the German strategic community). While the United States, France and the United Kingdom banded together to prevent a humanitarian disaster in Libya, Germany sided with the likes of Russia and China as well as with Brazil and India, two countries that also have their eye firmly set on becoming permanent members of the Council. Let’s leave aside the question of how realistic these ambitions are in light of this vote and focus on how Germany, in stepping away from its traditional Western allies, dealt a blow to transatlantic, and European, unity and security cooperation.
The immediate question that arose after the vote is whether Germany is returning to its old ways of refraining from foreign intervention, giving in to the desires of many Germans for their country to become the large, economically successful equivalent of Switzerland. When you add Chancellor Angela Merkel’s U-turn following the Fukushima disaster in which she parted ways with nuclear power as a source of national electricity production and Berlin’s reaction to the sovereign debt crisis in Greece and in other EU member states, it is easy to see why Germany is looked upon with growing irritation and concern. What is happening in Europe’s heartland?
The short answer: there are many forces pulling the country in different directions. The economy has performed spectacularly well and continues to do so. Growth rates of 3% 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. This economic performance is almost unique in the industrialized world, a fact that makes the dichotomy even more striking: on the one hand, Germany is bullish on the euro and a model in economic and technological terms and in its ability to, albeit slowly, reform the welfare state. On the other, it is yielding to traditional German angst about nuclear energy and self-righteously refusing to join a military mission beyond Europe’s shores. So you have both an old and a new Germany. Or so it seems.
Even as it is tempting to do so, it is too early to say that Germany is venturing into a phase of neo-isolationism. And such a conclusion may also be flat-out wrong. The vote in the UN Security Council, embarrassing as it was, may have had more to do with the preferences, miscalculations and predicament of a foreign minister whose party is in deep trouble, who is highly unpopular and whose political future is dangling by a string. Guido Westerwelle is said to have ignored the advice of his top aides and to have received support from the Chancellor only because she did not want to damage his reputation beyond the point of repair. Besides, the government has not wavered from its political and military commitment in Afghanistan. It is true that the German people widely oppose the deployment of the Bundeswehr to Afghanistan and want to quickly pull out the German force – the third largest among ISAF partners. In light of these sentiments, it is quite remarkable that Germany has not opted out of the mission so far. So some generalization may be premature.
But this is not to deny that domestic and even local factors have become increasingly relevant in national politics and policy-making, i.e. in Germany’s foreign and security policy. It is also fair to say that Germany’s energy policy is highly inconsistent: the country is planning once again to shut down its nuclear stations, is disinclined to build new coal-fired plants and is pursuing highly ambitious renewable energy goals that, to experts, are unachievable in the short and medium term and will cost tremendous amounts of money as well. The decision to immediately decommission seven nuclear power stations was clearly made with an eye toward the March elections in the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg. This decision, however, did not pay off. The governing parties, CDU and FDP, lost control of the government on March 27. As a result, Baden-Wuerttemberg, Germany’s economic powerhouse, will become the first state in the country’s history to be governed by a Green premier. Worse yet for Ms. Merkel, it will be the first time since 1953 that her party, the CDU, will not be at the helm of a state that is the heartland of both the Christian Democrats and the Liberals. The changing of the guard is historic; its significance for German politics cannot be overstated.
Many observers saw this change coming. There were protests for months against a major infrastructure and rail project in the state capital Stuttgart called “Stuttgart 21.” It pitted large segments 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 CDU and FDP on the defensive, and they were never able to fight their way out.
In the recent past, voter dissatisfaction and anger have not been confined to demands to have a say in – or veto over – major infrastructure projects. They have also been 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 a bailout caught many by surprise. But it influenced the government’s early policy position with Ms. Merkel embracing a no-mercy posture and rejecting any form of transfer union. The crisis, with many months of negotiations and with more countries on the brink of default, has had two effects on the public’s attitude toward the common currency and the EU: the public’s distrust of the euro has reached an all-time low, and its enthusiasm for further political unification has been dramatically depleted. While 68% of Germans polled say they have little or no trust in the Euro, only 12% want to see European integration proceed further. Two months into the crisis, 63% said they had no trust in the EU at all. This loss of confidence in the EU is dramatic and has far-reaching implications. The delegitimization helps explain why the German government acted as it did. It also underscores a long trend: Germany’s assertion of its national interests in ways known to France or the United Kingdom, but not to Germany.
German voters are disgruntled with and angry at their own politicians and “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 acts on the international stage and how forcefully or timidly it does what it does. For its partners, Germany, with more options today, may become a partner who is less predictable and has more problems on its plate. It is easy to blame all of this 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 certainties. So for Germany, it is from the Bonn to the Berlin and eventually to the Stuttgart Republic.