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Does Angela Merkel even have a foreign policy?

Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images
Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images

With her third federal election triumph on Sunday, Sept. 22, German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated that her preferred foreign policy direction is, well, inward — or at least one of non-intervention. Current crises around the globe — from the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons to Iran’s nuclear program to Egypt’s military coup — were scarcely mentioned in the campaign, and the German electorate awarded her introspection with nearly 42 percent of the vote. In short, in Germany today, domestic issues trump foreign policy. But as the main economic engine of Europe, can — and should — Germany remain aloof from worldwide power politics in the coming years?

Traditionally, Germany’s foreign policy of non-interventionism is a form of hardcore political realism mixed with the population’s desire for pacifism at all costs. Hitler’s defeat near the halfway mark of the last century helped inculcate a particular expression of pacifism in German society. The post-World War I Weimar-era slogan "Never again War" (Nie wieder Krieg) took on an even greater urgency after World War II. And the post-Berlin Wall period added a new layer, as Germany turned inward to rebuild the dilapidated former East. 

But one need not look beyond the current events to see recent evidence of Merkel’s desire to distance her government from the nasty vagaries of foreign policy. Just a few days before the election, the Syrian crisis unfolded as a tangential campaign issue. The fiercely anti-interventionist, radical Left Party exposed that Merkel’s government (her first coalition with the Social Democrats in 2005-2009) approved the sale of chemical substances to Syria. From 2002-2006, Germany shipped Syria 111 tons of sodium fluoride, hydrofluoric acid, and ammonium hydrogen fluoride. EU regulations designate the chemicals as dual-use goods, which can be used for civilian and military purposes — including the production of sarin. The Merkel administration flatly rejected that the German-manufactured chemicals were used to make poison gas, noting that it " has no information to suggest that the delivered goods were later used for purposes other than the originally declared civilian purpose,"

But whether out of guilt or moral obligation, Merkel’s government hasn’t been completely hands-off regarding Syria — in September, they granted asylum to 5,000 Syrian refugees and offered to send chemical weapons experts to rid Assad of his weapons of mass destruction. But entanglements breed complications, and Merkel has remained vehemently opposed military strikes in Syria. As her spokesman Steffen Seibert made clear in late August, "There has been no request to us for a military commitment, and a German military commitment has never been considered by the government. We have not considered it and we are not considering it."

It should be noted, however, that Merkel’s opponents in the last election, the Red-Green coalition — the Social Democrats and the Green Party —  also approved the sale of chemicals to Assad during their tenure as the ruling party in 1998-2005. Berlin’s delivery of chemicals to be used for warfare recalls the famous 1989 William Safire column, "Auschwitz In the Sand," chastizing former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government and German companies for helping Libya’s former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi build poison gas plants in the desert.

This interplay between captains of industry and governments has a long tradition in Germany, one that Merkel has capitalized on. In fact, her foreign policy can best be summed up as an economic military export policy. The Federal Republic’s flourishing weapons trade — coupled with the country’s profound anti-war consensus — remains a central paradox of her foreign policy. Germany’s weapon exports to the Gulf monarchies have boomed of late: In the first half of 2013, the trade reached 813 million euros. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Germany was one of the top five global suppliers of conventional weapons from 2008-2012. And yet Germany’s defense expenditures remain comparatively low. France spent three times as much on defense as Germany in 2011, according to a European Defense Agency 2013 report. 

Merkel’s determined avoidance of international entanglements was put on display when her administration abolished the country’s conscription requirement for the Bundeswehr. The announcement in 2011 to end conscription coincided with a plan to reduce troop numbers from 250,000 to 185,000.

Some analysts argue that Merkel, for all her decisiveness, prefers to outsource her foreign and defense policy to the cumbersome EU consensus-driven process, opening Germany up to the inertia of the U.N. Security Council. In sharp contrast to France’s interventionist Socialist President Francois Hollande, who unilaterally deployed troops to northern Mali to stop an al Qaeda take over of the country, Merkel would never contemplate bypassing the U.N. Security Council or the EU. Indeed, in a footnote to September’s G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg, after a declaration was issued by Secretary of State John Kerry calling for tough consequences against Bashar al-Assad for his use of chemical weapons, Germany was the only EU country to snub the initiative, preferring to defer the matter to a European consensus vote. But a day later — as news about the declaration faded — Merkel begrudingly signed the document. Then, on the campaign trail, Merkel accused other EU countries — Spain, France, Italy, and the United Kingdom — of "egoism" for signing the statement quickly without drafting a unified EU position toward Syria.

Markus Kerber, chief executive of the powerful Federation of German Industries, raised alarm bells in the Financial Times a few days before the election about the massive rift between the political candidates’ intense concentration on domestic issues at the expense of foreign affairs. Commenting on Merkel and her social democratic opponent, Peer Steinbrück, Kerber wrote: "Secretly, they are both aware that they need to change their political agenda[s] quite considerably. They are fully aware of the need for Germany to play a bigger role in European and in world politics."

But will Merkel leverage Germany’s economic weight and take the opportunity to flex some global political muscle? The eight years of Merkel’s tenure suggest that her overly cautious foreign policy agenda is unlikely to change anytime soon. There is every reason to think she will continue her longstanding resistance to Turkey’s entry into the EU, particularly after Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan put down June demonstrations in his country calling for greater democracy and less political Islam. Merkel warned Turkey at the time that EU values are "non-negotiable", and the Turkish government’s anti-democratic conduct would not conform to EU’s policies.

In this regard, at least, Merkel almost earns recent comparisons to the late British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. However, the parallel revolved mostly around Merkel’s goal to introduce domestic labor and economic reforms. When it came to foreign policy, the expectations from the Bush administration that the two nations would increasingly see eye-to-eye may have been high, but Merkel failed to produce any meaningful change in Berlin’s stance on Iraq.

It is worth thus recalling that when European countries refused President Ronald Reagan’s request to use continental bases for airstrikes against Qaddafi back in 1986, Thatcher (who granted U.S. forces access to British bases) observed, "They’re a weak lot some of them in Europe, you know; weak, feeble." In sharp contrast to Thatcher’s robust interventionism and strong trans-Atlantic foreign policy, Merkel’s foreign policy has been marked by jagged lines and erratic behavior.

Take the example of Germany’s decision to join Russia and China and remain on the sidelines during the 2011 Libyan crisis. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle abstained during the U.N. Security Council vote to authorize force in Libya, which sparked a rebuke from U.S. President Barack Obama. But Merkel went farther, still, pulling German ships from the NATO contingent in the Mediterranean, lest they somehow get involved. After the U.S., French, and British air campaign proved to be enormously successful, Westerwelle, to the shock of many German foreign policy commentators, dismissed NATO’s air strikes, declaring instead that Germany’s role in the anti-Qaddafi economic sanctions regime was a crucial factor in dislodging the Libyan dictator.

The former Green Party Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer took the Merkel administration’s Libya policy to task at the time. U.N. abstention, he said, "was a one-of-kind of debacle and perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany." And yet the German electorate strongly favored Merkel’s policy of non-intervention.

Merkel’s decidedly "non-foreign policy" policy is well known — a platform that has allowed her to skate through a number of minor scandals. Her former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg resigned after plagiarism allegations surfaced surrounding his doctorate. Nor did she suffer attacks following a previous defense minister’s mismanagement of a drone strike in Afghanistan in 2009 and his subsequent resignation. Even a trifecta hasn’t dimmed her lights: Her current defense minister Thomas de Maizière was embroiled in a scandal over the exorbitant purchase of surveillance drone technology that could not be used in Europe.

Despite Merkel’s natural reticence for foreign adventures, she has a deep distaste for disrupting trans-Atlantic relations. In this election cycle, she chose not to exploit the NSA scandal and fervent anti-Americanism among angry Germany voters to score political points. (In 2002, the then-Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder achieved a come-from-behind victory because he made great use of anti-American sentiments on the campaign trail.) The PRISM scandal’s revelations of spying on Germans, and the possible complicity of domestic intelligence agencies, failed to slash her poll numbers. The magazine Der Spiegel — widely viewed as a left-leaning publication — ran multiple cover stories on the NSA and the damage it would cause Merkel. But the magazine was forced to conclude in late July: "So far, the scandal hasn’t hurt her party."

The one constant in Merkel’s rhetoric — and in many of her actions — has been her policy toward Israel. In response to a question about Iran’s nuclear weapons threat less than two weeks before the election, she said: "That means that we’ll never be neutral and that Israel can be sure of our support when it comes to ensuring its security. That’s why I also said that Germany’s support for Israel’s security is part of our national ethos, our raison d’etre." While Merkel has made clear that she would not join Israel in preemptive air strikes to knock out Iran’s nuclear facilities, she will continue to deliver advanced Dolphin submarines on order to Israel.

But while events on the ground in the Middle East may sway other world leaders to wade into uncomfortable waters, Germany’s chancellor seems determined to not follow in their footsteps — or her predecessors’, who were at least more interested in the relations among nations: Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union predecessor and political mentor, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl, was widely considered a rock-solid ally of the anti-Communist West during the Cold War. Merkel, by contrast, is seen as the guardian of Europe’s fragile monetary union, which has advanced Germany’s economic interests. Her electoral victories are an outgrowth of a low unemployment rate, high exports, and a stable euro for consumers — not the glory of fighting monsters abroad.

And if past behavior is predictive, Germany under Merkel will continue to view its political place in the world as primarily a local enterprise.

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