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Angela Merkel and German Leadership in Foreign Policy

Evidence of German foreign policy leadership – on the UK, Russia and beyond.

November 10, 2014

Credit: Mykhaylo

There is a constant refrain in the U.S. and British media debate about Germany that Europe’s largest economy should show “more leadership.” In light of recent moves by Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor, one does wonder what they are talking about.

Just last week, there she was in the headlines, telling David Cameron, her presumed conservative soul mate and the man at Britain’s helm, that his constant politicking to save his own skin was not welcome.

Racing to the lowest common denominator with UKIP, Britain’s sovereigntist party, has a price, she told the prime minister. It puts him in violation of EU covenants, particularly the unrestricted freedom of movement of people inside the EU. That, Merkel opined, is a bridge too far for him to cross.

She also made it clear that, if Cameron stuck to his guns on this issue, he might have to exit his country from the EU. Merkel did not say that lightly or happily.

The UK government’s general non-interventionist outlook as regards the economy is certainly something the German government wants to keep inside the EU, if at all possible. It is required to counterbalance the interventionist/statist phalanx led by France and Italy.

Either way: How is speaking about what’s at stake for Cameron and the UK not leadership? Leaders do tell allies and old friends that they better not lose their core bearings.

That kind of admonishing (or appeal to one’s better angels) certainly is what the U.S. government does all the time – except of course, a few “chosen” nations, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Taking on Cameron – and Putin

Or how about leading on Russia? There was a prolonged effort to cast the Germans as mealy-mouthed and wholly unwilling to do anything about Russia. Supposedly, that reservation was because of the German interest in doing nothing that would hurt its famed export machinery.

Well, the new numbers on exports to Russia now show that this assumption was obviously not true. Given Putin’s shameful actions, especially his constant conniving and/or steering in Eastern Ukraine, Merkel was prepared to pay a price.

Merkel, after all, knows what she speaks of when the talk is of robbing people of their freedoms. Having grown up in East Germany, to her that’s personal. Plus, if any Western leader has ever looked Putin deeply in the eyes (and discovered an unpleasant, fishy soul), then it is Merkel.

Even Washington powerbrokers acknowledge that she has access to, and insights into, Putin that are unlike those of any other Western leaders.

Chancellor Merkel is a fluent Russian speaker, while President Putin was once a KGB officer in East Germany. She has by far the most direct conversations with him among all world leaders – and not just on the Ukraine dispute.

Moreover, as many men in German politics have discovered in recent decades, once she feels double-crossed, you may well be finished.

Now, Putin – to his good fortune – in power terms is in another league than Merkel’s domestic political adversaries. Even so, Putin already senses a significant change in German attitudes to his country.

For a long time, there was the hope among some German elites that Russia, one day, some way, would miraculously come around and join the circle of civilized nations for good.

That hope is now gone. It’s as if Russia is back in the Muscovite stages of centuries ago before it ever opened up to Europe, in the desperate effort to import technology – and modernity.

That internationalizing move, of course, was largely associated with the nobles of St. Petersburg. That Putin hails from there – and played a role in city government there before he moved on to bigger things in Moscow in 1996 – is more than ironic.

He may be a native of St. Petersburg, but in ideology and worldview, he is a Muscovite through and through.

Speaking truth = leadership

Where then does Germany fall short on leadership? The odds are that those who argue that case apply a very peculiar definition of leadership – as in: Now that we have created a mess, why don’t you help us clean it up?

In short, these voices suggest, it is time for Germany to pay heed to America’s ill-advised strategy of militarizing everything.

Is that the path the Germans should be taking? Or should they rather, in the Western camp, continue their path of seeking to counterbalance the American penchant of breaking the proverbial “china” left and right, before reflecting on political ways out of a given (often largely self-induced) conundrum?

The German answer to those who now clamor for more militarization in Germany’s approaches to foreign policy is not so much to recall the obvious lessons of German history in that regard.

Rather, the question is whether taking that tack – as much as it is (still) in the U.S. and British foreign policy DNA – is the right choice. This, after all, is the 21st century – and not the late 19th century.

Germans wisely emphasize the primacy of the political over the military. And they ask: What’s the supposed outcome or endgame?

In the U.S. case, it is – largely for reasons of domestic politics – the other way around. About the only thing Democrats and Republicans can still half-agree on in the international sphere is to “rally around the flag” – which usually means that, when in doubt, send in the troops (or at least the bombers).

More often than not, that choice is made not because it is the right strategy, but the only consensus option in a nation so deeply divided at home that – from energy to the environment to wages – it sees things all other things completely from opposite – and irreconcilable – ends.


US/UK media constantly assert Germany must show “more leadership,” as if it has not.

Leaders tell allies and old friends not to lose their core bearings.

Merkel’s foreign critics simply want Germany to back America’s strategy of militarizing all problems.

Germans today wisely emphasize the primacy of political over military, in light of their history.