Richter Scale, Globalist Perspective

Angela Merkel and German Foreign Policy

Are Germany’s recent foreign policy missteps evidence of a new neo-isolationist tendency?

Are Germany's recent foreign policy missteps evidence of a new neo-isolationist tendency?


  • With the next Secretary-General of the United Nations likely to be selected from the ranks of Western politicians, Ms. Merkel is thought to be angling to be Ban-ki Moon's successor.
  • All this alluring, tempting talk of a German "sonderweg" — or special path — is really just that, talk.
  • In the German parliament, there are curious signs that they are less international-minded than should be expected.

Part of the problem with the conduct of German foreign policy these days lies in having, at best, a lackluster foreign minister. Guido Westerwelle is a man who lacks depth and a sense of history. But he is far from the only one to blame.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, long blessed with a great degree of surefootedness in handling international matters, is not flawless herself. She is getting a bit tired of, or bored with, the German political scene. It is rumored that she has her eyes set on a job elsewhere. With the next Secretary-General of the United Nations likely to be selected from the ranks of Western politicians (if traditional unwritten rules are followed), Ms. Merkel is thought to be angling to be Ban Ki-moon’s successor.

Becoming the first woman to hold this post would be a crowning achievement. Being perceived as hesitant when it comes to European post-colonial adventurism — think Libya — should only boost her chances. No wonder she so disarmingly says that, on Libya, she chose to follow the counsel provided by her foreign minister.

Such personal aspirations aside, what about the current tendency to wrap up Germany’s recent missteps in a neat package truly indicates a German “sonderweg,” or special path? That was again the subject of debate at last weekend’s annual Venice conference of the Council of the United States and Italy.

Germany’s performance in dealing with the eurozone’s debt crisis has been anything but masterful. But then, which country’s has? In seeking to resolve these very complex matters, European leaders are entering quite uncharted territory. Hesitation, half-steps and missteps are all quite natural under those hair-raising circumstances.

Then there are those, like International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen, who see Germany having dubious tendencies, to consider Russia the “new thing,” while America apparently is made out to be the “old thing.” One would have thought that this is an old canard, one that died a long time ago.

If you want to follow this particular logic, just consider the fact that German-Russian relations reach back far longer than U.S.-German relations. Therefore, by definition, Russia is the “old thing.” Never mind that it is patently unclear who in Germany is enamored of exactly what in Russia.

There are, of course, those experts who interpret the German move away from nuclear energy either as a deliberate — or, worse, an unconscious — maneuver to fall back into the arms of the natural-gas-exporting Russian bear.

That argument, of course, misses the entire point of the new German energy strategy, which is to bring the country’s potent engineering resources to bear on the rapid development of alternative energy sources.

Yes, getting there won’t be easy, but we have always known that. What was missing was to declare this, in effect, the project of the century and to focus the full political and industrial will onto this challenge.

Germany’s industrial might and ability to engineer innovation can only help in the global effort to bring the required transformation forward. All the more so as the United States, regrettably, has been opting out of the energy innovation race for political reasons, at least at the national level.

In the bigger scheme of things, the German policy shift is critical in the West’s effort to counterbalance the Chinese government’s determination to focus intensely on energy and environmental technologies.

In light of these developments, all this alluring, tempting talk of a German “sonderweg” — or special path — is really just that, talk. And it is becoming increasingly a tool of projection, in the sense that other nations use Germany’s obvious shortcomings as a foil to explain away, or deflect from, their own hesitations, failures and shortcomings.

Now, at the same time, there cannot be any doubt that in the German parliament, especially among its younger members, there are curious signs that they are either less international-minded than should be expected, or a bit too proud of their country’s recent economic achievements.

True, and on balance comprehensible, if not really acceptable. Germans feel, with good reason, that they don’t instinctively have to walk around with their heads bowed. But that doesn’t mean that they are prideful or boastful.

A bit uninformed, yes. A bit more determined to look after national interests, yes. But that, I would argue, is a long overdue normalization.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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