BRIC+1: Germany’s New Bedfellows?

Germany finds itself in the company of Brazil, Russia, India and China in opposing intervention in Libya.

An odd coupling occurred at the most recent summit of G20 leaders in Seoul. China and Germany teamed up to defeat an American proposal that would forcefully “rebalance” global trade in favor of net importers — i.e., the United States.

The German chancellor was unimpressed with reminders from across the Atlantic that her country’s recovery was partly due to America’s willingness to buy German products. “In the task ahead, the benchmark has to be the countries that have been most competitive, not to reduce to the lowest common denominator,” she professed. In other words: America should stop complaining and be more like Germany.

China and Germany, the world’s major surplus economies, managed to win at least some support in preventing the Americans from getting their way in Seoul. It wasn’t the first time for Germany to challenge Washington and find common ground with an emerging economy — and it wouldn’t be the last.

A month before South Korea, the leaders of France, Germany and Russia met privately at a Normandy seaside resort to discuss future economic and security cooperation in Europe. The French have long favored special relations with Moscow but Germany remained a staunch ally of America’s throughout the Cold War. Warm German-Russian ties are a fairly recent phenomenon and gas is what keeps it at temperature.

Merkel’s predecessor at the chancellorship, Gerhard Schröder, cultivated close ties with Vladimir Putin and went on to shepherd the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline after his tenure. Bypassing non-EU transit countries as well as the Baltic states and Poland, the project is supposed to bring an additional 55 billion cubic meters of natural gas to Europe every year.

Many in Central Europe remember the many gas disputes between Russia and the Ukraine between 2005 and 2009 which eventually left some countries coping with shortages. The Nord Stream pipeline frees Germany of its dependence on former Soviet satellite states which occasionally squabble with Moscow.

With France and Russia, Schröder was a prominent critic of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. There was another country opposed at the time — China.

China and Germany are major trading partners. Their total trade volume has far surpassed $100 billion a year. Last summer, when Chancellor Merkel visited Beijing, the two countries signed an additional $4.4 billion worth of trade agreements.

There has been some pushback against Germany’s cozying up with authoritarian China and Russia. Merkel’s own party urged the government to focus on Brazil and India instead if liberal democracy was not to lose appeal across the developing world. As early as 2007, a Christian Democrat policy paper warned that Germany’s policy in East Asia was “too business-centric and too China-centric.” It stirred a fierce rebuke from Beijing where a magazine blamed Berlin of conniving to “impose the Western model of values” on China.

Sino-German relations recovered however and recently, Germany had an opportunity to publicly side with all of the BRIC nations.

When Britain, France and the United States sought a UN mandate for military intervention in Libya this month, Brazil, China, Germany, India and Russia all abstained from voting on the Security Council.

Germany had many reasons not to spring into action while allied fighter jets began patrolling the Libyan skies. Foremost among them was the unpopularity of its right-wing government which is haunted by the accidental killing of more than a hundred civilians in an Afghanistan airstrike in September 2009.

Chancellor Merkel and her liberal coalition partners have also taken a beating in recent local elections for having to save the rest of Europe from fiscal collapse. The Greek and Irish bailouts have cost German taxpayers dearly. They believe that they’ve shouldered their fair share of international responsibility for the time being.

The abstentions from the United Nations vote benefited some countries more than others. Just two days after the Security Council authorized military action, Muammar Gaddafi threatened that if the West attacked, he would hand Libya’s juicy energy contracts to Chinese, Indian and Russian firms. It didn’t deter the coalition and in a post-Gaddafi Libya, the nations that did come to the rebels’ aid may find the North African country more recipient to their overtures.

Germany played it safe though and as a result, it found itself in the fortunate company of four expanding economies that will likely prove pertinent to its future prosperity.

There is a downside to being in BRIC’s company. Along with Germany’s resurgent pacifism, it may guarantee that it won’t have a permanent seat at the Security Council table any time soon.