Germany’s New Selfish Foreign Policy

The familiar postwar Atlantic order may be upset if Germany pursues a foreign policy that makes sense.

German foreign policy is changing. Its posturing in the European debt crises and NATO’s military intervention in Libya point in the same direction. Although its reluctance to support its Atlantic allies in the Libyan adventure may be unpopular now, its history, its economy and its geography suggest that Europe’s central power will emerge as its predominant one again.

Ever a strong American ally, Germany startled its friends when it not only refused to endorse a United Nations Security Council resolution that authorized military action in Libya but threatened to withdraw its forces from NATO’s Mediterranean command lest it be involved in the fight after all. While France and the United Kingdom pushed for a resolution and had fighter jets virtually on standby to launch their offensive, Germany, Libya’s second biggest trading partner after Italy, feared being drawn into a protracted civil war and warned its partners that they should not expect “quick results with few casualties.”

The results weren’t quick indeed, in part because of a reluctance on the part of the United States to take the lead but Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s imminent demise does seem to repudiate the German position. Had they miscalculated? Perhaps. The more important question though is — why?

Germany wasn’t alone in opposing military intervention in Libya. Turkey, a critical NATO partner in the Mediterranean, was also skeptical while China and Russia, two veto-wielding Security Council members, treaded carefully. They did not prevent the Atlantic powers from launching airstrikes but wouldn’t help either by cutting Gaddafi off. Both feared setting a precedent for interventions under the guise of a “responsibility to protect.” Both genuinely dislike what they perceive as Western nations enforcing their notions of democracy on other people.

Russia, moreover, had maintained amicable ties with the Gaddafi regime and remembered all to well what had happened with its friends in Serbia, Ukraine and Georgia last decade — they were swept aside in a string of color revolutions which Moscow always suspected were funded by Western governments to be replaced by more or less anti-Russian nationalists.

Across Central and Eastern Europe, Russia has lost influence to the United States which, through NATO, acts as the security guarantor of many former Soviet satellite states. Economically, they have become part of Germany’s supply chain however its dependence on Russian gas imports hinders Berlin’s ability to truly protect the interests of once East Bloc nations from within the European Union.

Germany is seeking to circumvent the problem with the construction of the Nord Stream pipeline. If it can import gas from Russia directly, Germany can balance its relation with Moscow at the expense of Eastern European states. The rest of Europe, heated by Iraqi and Turkmen gas through the Nabucco pipeline, can still come together to condemn Russian aggression in its sphere of interest whenever it sees fit but it shouldn’t expect the Germans to put European interests before their own anymore.

The German resurgence maybe started twenty years ago when Bonn annexed East Germany and ended the parity that had existed between the West German capital and Paris. It took a while for the Germans, instinctually pacifist and pro-European after the war, to reassert themselves but when Greece, Ireland and Portugal came begging for their help, the German voters said “no” — even if their government agreed to multibillion euro bailouts for the eurozone periphery.

As Europe’s largest economy, it inevitably bears the financial brunt of any pan-European effort. Within the single currency area, it had little choice not to but the German electorate isn’t convinced. German participation in the Greek and Irish bailouts cost the ruling liberal and conservative parties dearly in location elections in industrial North Rhine-Westphalia last year and the southern Christian Democrat stronghold of Baden-Württemberg this year.

Hard nosed, sober and financially conservative, the average German sees no justice in bailing out spendthrift neighbors to the south who retire years ahead of him. Chancellor Angela Merkel cannot afford politically to be perceived as anything but extremely reluctant to write cheques for the heavily indebted eurozone economies, even if it comes at the expense of financial stability in all of Europe.

Her government’s more self-centered foreign policy has invited criticism from some political heavyweights. Former chancellor Helmut Kohl obliquely chastised his former protégé when he said it was “the most important thing” for Germans to stand with the Greek people in May. He added this month that Germany had “not been a reliable power,” causing him to wonder “where Germany stands today and where it is heading.”

Former foreign minister Joschka Fischer told Der Spiegel that “the lack of fundamental convictions” on the part of Merkel’s administration irked him. He described Germany’s role in the Libyan intervention as “perhaps the biggest foreign policy debacle since the founding of the Federal Republic of Germany.” Its standing in the world has been damaged by it, he complained. “Our supreme interest should be holding tight to our anchoring as part of the West. In doing so,” Fischer added, “something that it paramount — and, indeed, essential, is finishing the process of European unification.”

Germany’s interests point the other way though — eastward.