Daniel W. Drezner

The Merkel Algorithm

The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Reuters have stories about Germany’s newly announced plan to denuclearize by 2022.  See if you can find the common pattern.  Here’s the WSJ:  Germany’s move—marking a contrast with the U.S. and other countries that have largely stuck to plans to continue pursuing nuclear power—is a U-turn from a ...

The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and Reuters have stories about Germany’s newly announced plan to denuclearize by 2022.  See if you can find the common pattern.  Here’s the WSJ: 

Germany’s move—marking a contrast with the U.S. and other countries that have largely stuck to plans to continue pursuing nuclear power—is a U-turn from a contentious plan that Ms. Merkel engineered just last fall that would have extended the lifetimes of some of Germany’s reactors into the 2030s, more than a decade longer than previously scheduled. Ms. Merkel’s latest move is effectively a return to an agreement to phase out nuclear power approved in 2002 by a center-left Social Democrat-Green coalition….

In few countries is nuclear energy the hot-button issue it is in Germany, where polls show some 70% of the populace opposes it, the legacy of a broad-based antinuclear movement that harks back to the 1986 Chernobyl accident. Since the Fukushima accident, antinuclear protests have taken place across the country.

Ms. Merkel’s change in course, though, hasn’t produced the desired political effect. Conservative allies have been frustrated by her turn away from a cherished policy victory, and nuclear opponents have seen the move as opportunistic. Those perceptions contributed to several stinging regional election losses for the Christian Democratic Union this spring, and have led to a surge in clout for the opposition Green Party.

And now the NYT:

For Mrs. Merkel, the embrace of clean energy represents a transformation based on the politics of the ballot box. Just last year, her center-right coalition forced through an unpopular plan to extend the life of nuclear power plants, with the last to close in 2036. That action inflamed public opinion but the Fukushima disaster politicized it. The nuclear crisis is widely believed to have caused Mrs. Merkel’s party to lose control of the German state of Baden-Württemberg for the first time in 58 years, in a March election that became a referendum on energy policy.

By Monday, Mrs. Merkel said the country must “not let go the chance” to end its dependence on nuclear power.

And, finally, Reuters: 

The German chancellor has, in nine months, gone from touting nuclear plants as a safe "bridge" to renewable energy and extending their lifespan to pushing a nuclear exit strategy that rivals the ambitions of the Social Democrats and Greens.

Merkel had her atomic epiphany after the Fukushima disaster in Japan in March, announcing a moratorium on nuclear power and launching an urgent overhaul of German energy policy, resulting in the exit strategy announced on Monday.

Her change of heart, however genuine as it may be, coincides with a string of disastrous election results for her Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Free Democrat (FDP) allies that have been partly blamed on her unpopular pro-nuclear policy so far.

With the FDP losing popularity almost as fast as the Greens gain it, and the Greens unseating the CDU in their heartland of Baden-Wuerttemberg in March as well as outpolling them for the first time in Germany in Bremen this month, Merkel has upgraded the nuclear moratorium to a rush for the exit.

Watching Merkel’s performance during the myriad euro crises of the past two years, I’m beginning o detect a decision-making algorithm at work.  Let’s call it The Merkel Algorithm.  It consists of the following steps:

1)  A problem festers;

2)  Dither and do nothing;

3)  Public opinion polls drop;

4)  Let things fester some more;

5)  Lose an electioon somewhere;

6)  Announce new policy that reverses prior position

7)  Lose even more political support. 

Merkel appears to have brilliantly executed this strategy on both the eurozone and nuclear power.  In all seriousness, what I don’t understand is the long periods of dithering and festering.  I get that politicians will sometimes be wrong-footed on policy shocks.  Merkel, however, really does seem to wait until the worst, most cravenly political moment to do something.  Why? 

Your humble blogger hereby calls on all Germany-watchers to offer either an explanation or a more nuanced take on the Merkel Algorithm — because your humble blogger is good and truly flummoxed. 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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