Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Foreign Policy, Anyone?

As the journalists of the world unite in Berlin for a quick glimpse at the wonders and oddities of the German electoral process ("Überhangmandate" easily being the total favourite of everybody I have talked to), one question is being asked more frequently again: What does all this mean for German foreign policy?

The quick answer would be: not much. There does exist a pretty stable cross-party consensus on fundamentals of Germany's external relations: Firm embeddedness in the EU and NATO, good relations with Washington, pragmatic ones with Moscow, affectionate ones (if possible) with France. All that topped off with a good moral commitment to the United Nations. With the exception of Die Linke (which is still dreaming about dissolving NATO), there is no viable force in the country that wants to go elsewhere. So it really would not make much of a difference whether Guido Westerwelle or Steinmeier will be the next foreign minister. Consequently, the campaign remained silent on any foreign policy issue. The simple truth is that, with the exception of the Linkspartei, no party deemed foreign policy a worth-while battle ground to generate votes on.

Some observers might find this boring predictability reassuring as it makes Germany a more reliable partner, and there is certainly a grain of truth in this. But behind this big consensus lurks a substantial danger. The reason is that most people in government, practically all think tankers, a majority of the more level-headed journalists, and even a handful of members of the Bundestag realize that the current German foreign policy posture is not sustainable. All of them know that Germany's new book-keepers approach to the EU, its disappointing lack of intellectual commitment to NATO, and its general disregard for its own size and the responsibilities that come with it won't be sufficient for what lies ahead. With America being relatively weaker and with the demand for global stabilizing service increasing, Germany will soon be faced with more requests for money, troops, and leadership, none of which is in ample supply.

It is understandable that foreign policy was left out of the campaign. The problem lies in the fact that no political leader and no party program is bold enough to confront the widespread German parochialism in order to prepare the people for the uncomfortable times ahead. But soon enough, reality will bite. The Afghanistan issue was only postponed, the Iran problem is approaching decision time, a new strategic concept for NATO is under way, the EU will have to partially re-invent itself no matter whether the Lisbon treaty enters into force or not. Piracy won't disappear any time soon, and neither will fundamentalist terrorism. In most of these fields, Germany is being perceived as a follower, not as a leader.

The German political elite will at some point have to explain all this to the people, not only because they owe it to the electorate but also because only the truth will buy them the political manoeuvring space they will need at crunch time. If they remain silent, they should be reminded of Humphrey Bogart's famous advice for Ingrid Bergman in the end of "Casablanca": You'll regret it. Maybe not today. Maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life.

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