The revenge of the German elite

February 4, 2014

This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”

Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.

Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.

History is “dialectical,” as Germans like to say. It rarely advances in straight lines. It usually takes jagged swings between opposites. One senior diplomat explained to me that if Westerwelle had not embraced the “culture of restraint” so proudly, it would be impossible for the current players to throw it overboard so comprehensively.

The president’s remarks had an impact because they seemed to be part of a broader campaign by the German foreign policy establishment. The new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked about “reactivating the German foreign ministry” and has offered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Germany.

Steinmeier met with his French counterpart and announced a revival of a Franco-German co-operation policy — starting with joint trips to Moldova, Georgia, Libya and Tunisia. At the same time, the new German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who has been discussed as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel as CDU leader, said that “indifference is not an option.” In recent press interviews, von der Leyen pledged an increase in the German deployment to Mali and her support for a European army.

The challenge now is public opinion. A senior official told me that “eighty percent of the elite agree with this activism while eighty percent of the public oppose it. The gap between the two is becoming unbearable. These speeches are about trying to close it.”

So will it work? And if it does, what kind of foreign policy will Germany promote?

Germany’s newly-elected chair of the foreign affairs committee, a former energy and environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, conceded to me in an interview that so far there has been “more rhetoric than substance,” but he hopes that this will change the public debate. He worries that too much talk is about the use of force, the one area that will meet the most public resistance. “In order to close the gulf with the public, we should talk less about military involvement and more about how more active diplomacy, development spending, and economic policy can help in Syria, Ukraine, Iran and on the NSA,” he said.

Germany is not the only country to deal with questions of introversion. A recent Pew poll showed that 80 percent of Americans think Obama should pay more attention to domestic problems. But Germany is unique in the way that a reluctant public has paid a price for the strategic visions of its elite — from bailing out former East Germany to shoring up the Greek economy; both causes many Germans did not support. On the other hand, Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, showed that political leaders can shape public opinion when he garnered popular support for the use of force in both Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The nations that have complained the most about Berlin’s inaction may paradoxically find German activism equally uncomfortable. As Berlin reactivates its policy, it will also more clearly define German interests. Germany’s reaction to the NSA affair shows a widening divide between the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S. and Germany’s geo-economic agenda. Germany’s stance on global economic issues, on intervention and on the balance of power in Asia will also continue to be out of sync with Washington, D.C.

The consequences within Europe could be equally disruptive. In the past, many assumed that while the EU’s economic policy would be run by Germany and France, its foreign policy would be led by France and Britain (which are both trying to compensate for lost economic power with foreign policy activism). However, Röttgen says that Steinmeier’s outreach to Paris could one day lead to a “merger of economic and foreign policy” under a re-invented Franco-German motor. As uncomfortable as it may be to find a compromise between Germany, France and Britain on military activism, it will be increasingly vital if Europe’s voice is to be heard on the world stage. “We have a choice between being as relevant as Europeans on global issues, or irrelevant as national players,” said Röttgen.

The one voice that has not yet been heard is the most important one — Chancellor Merkel. Many accuse her of being complicit in Westerwelle’s shrinking of Germany’s foreign ambitions (in fact some speak of a “Merkel doctrine” of avoiding participation in interventions while selling weapons to dubious regimes). Moreover, they suspect that she deliberately put her two successors — Steinmeier and her CDU colleague von der Leyen — into rival positions as foreign minister and defense minister so that they cancel each other out. But now the two of them — with help from the German president – seem to be circling Merkel and trying to drag her on to more activist ground. Will she wear this new mantle and satisfy the German elite, or continue pandering to the public that rewarded her in the last elections?

Newly elected German President Joachim Gauck is reflected in a glass barrier as he makes a speech after his swearing-in ceremony at the Bundestag, German lower house of parliament, at the Reichstag in Berlin March 23, 2012. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch


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“Pandering”? It’s pandering when the democratically elected leader of a country listens to its people rather than ambitious cabinet members?

Posted by minderbinder | Report as abusive

Great piece. Yet the anarchy prevailing in Libya is proof that Westerwelle and Merkel’s “restraint” diplomacy were right in their assessment of the situation then The German pacifist impulse was also right in opposing USA intervention in Iraq as well. Neither Mali nor Central African Republic have been resounding successes for French interventionist policy. Now the UN is calling on the French-imposed Mali government to enter into talks with Mali’s alienated Tuaregs, because the French army has enmeshed itself in a growing quagmire in Mali. All these would be Germany’s international burdens too, if it pursued its current and ostensibly muscular foreign policy posture. The pictures of white French soldiers pointing guns at unarmed black African civilians as they patrol Bangui, CAR, is most nauseating. It is the most racist representation of arrogant and know-it-all white European power over weak black Africans. It would be worse, given Germany’s fascist past, if Germany sends its army to CAR. And there is no doubt such envisaged German muscular foreign policy will flounder on Ukraine’s political quagmire.

Posted by CEDIA | Report as abusive

the US and France must be proud of the results of their intervention in Libya. the Arab spring has turned into the islamic winter.

Posted by dankosh | Report as abusive

I think the elite in both the US and the UK are doing other than the majority of their people want. But the elite just aren’t voicing it. The US definitely doesn’t have to as their is only a two party system made up of lobbyist from corporate America. The UK I’m not sure about as I’m not from there. But I see this happening. Immigration policy being a good example of the people wanting one thing and getting another from the elite.

Posted by tmc | Report as abusive

It is truly pathetic that a German politician should attempt to manipulate Germany into taking a more active position in the EU economy.

This would expose the German people to financial collapse through unwise support of other nations. To agree to underwrite the entire EU, when they cannot control what other nations do with that support.

It is especially egregious when the sole argument for further economic involvement is driven by the supposed guilt from Germany’s past sins.

It presupposes that Germany has “past sins” to expiate, whereas no other nation involved in WWI (which is really what we are talking about) has any guilt over their actions whatsoever.

The underlying reasons for WWI are complex, but in no case should Germany be expected to shoulder the blame for the way as they have been forced to do ever since the Treaty of Versailles.

In truth, it was the wealthy classes who began WWI. It was the wealthy class in the US that sought to prolong it for war profits. It was only when the hideous massacre of people was finally over did England, France and the US realize that they had to find a scapegoat to blame or none of them would survive the economic “collateral damage” wrought by the insanity.

Now, we apparently have another traitorous wealthy class willing to sell out their country for financial gain.

There is no other explanation for such a vile deceit.

The author buys into this wealthy class BS, by stating “will (Merkel) wear this new mantle and satisfy the German elite, or continue pandering to the public that rewarded her in the last elections?”.

ARE YOU SERIOUS? “Pandering to the public”?

Would Merkel be pandering to the German people by ignoring those who would destroy Germany (again) for financial gain as they have before?

Or will she be wise enough to keep Germany out of yet another European financial mess they have brought upon themselves by listening to their own wealthy class and becoming profligate spenders?

Let’s hope Merkel can see beyond this pathetic wealthy class ploy and make the right decision for the German people.

Posted by EconCassandra | Report as abusive