If a European leader these days can be called assertive, it’s Angela Merkel. The trouble is, assertiveness is not a foreign policy. Germany is still not thinking strategically—but that is what it needs to do. Receiving Barack Obama in Berlin on June 19, the German chancellor’s bold approach was on full display. She lectured the U.S. president in front of the press that Internet surveillance must be based on “balance and proportionality.”
A day later, Berlin blocked the restart of Turkey’s EU membership negotiations. The next day Merkel threatened to end her visit to St. Petersburg with an éclat. Russian President Vladimir Putin had refused to let Merkel speak at the planned joint opening of an exposition partly consisting of art that had been seized from Germany by the Soviets after World War II. In the well-publicized showdown, it was Putin who finally backed down.
On the same day, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to press him to let his jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko go to Germany for medical treatment. Merkel has recently stated that as long as the Tymoshenko case is not settled, the Association Agreement with the EU cannot be signed. Full stop.
And on Europe’s most pressing foreign policy issue, Syria, Merkel has elegantly managed to let Paris and London look isolated—even if their move to end the EU’s weapons embargo was supported by the United States. That’s a clear shift since the intervention in Libya. Then, it was Berlin looking isolated and unreliable.
Germany has become the EU’s indispensable power. It has also learned to master the tactical game.
An ever-more-assertive Angela Merkel is ready to pick a fight with nearly everyone in Europe and on the world stage. The only exception is Beijing. In the recent row between the EU and China over solar panels, Merkel publicly sided with Beijing against Brussels. Whereas Berlin is no longer receptive to economic and political pressure from Moscow, Germany appears to be highly sensitive to China’s potential retaliation against Germany’s leading exporters.
But even if Merkel were as tough with the Chinese as she is with everybody else, that would not make her a strategic leader. Assertiveness is not a foreign policy. Her assertiveness is certainly a step ahead, especially in German relations with Russia, as it opens the space for foreign policy. Still, that space needs to be filled with something substantial and strategic.
Instead, Merkel appears to be overwhelmingly driven by domestic considerations. Standing up against Obama on Internet surveillance was simply meant to calm German public anger. On Turkey, Merkel is trying to please her core constituency, which opposes Ankara’s EU membership. The row with Turkey provided the opportunity to delay accession talks—until after the German federal election on September 22. Cooling down relations with the Kremlin is a response to Germans’ growing disenchantment with Putin. Raising the threshold for an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine is in line with German fears of unrestricted immigration and cheap labor competition from the East. And Merkel’s efforts to keep Germany and the EU as far away as possible from the Syrian quagmire reflects a broad German consensus that Syria is “not our business,” and her opposition to the delivery of weapons to Syrian rebels helps to counter domestic criticism that she is too liberal on weapons exports.
Of course, foreign policy always starts at home, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But it shouldn’t end there. The task of a government is to translate domestic views and sentiments into a broader definition of national interests and foreign policy goals, and to develop the tools to advance the resulting agenda.
While Germany has massively gained self-confidence in recent years, especially during the euro crisis, it has not developed a foreign policy agenda that would be in accordance with its weight and the responsibilities that come with power.
On Turkey and on Ukraine, the two biggest and strategically most important countries in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, Germany is generally swimming with the EU mainstream. But when it comes to forging closer relations, Berlin is usually on the side of those who are reluctant to engage more. Germany seems to be driven by an impulse to keep Turkey and Ukraine at arm’s length.
Germany could and should be a key Western player in relations with Russia. But besides giving Putin the cold shoulder, there is not much coming from Merkel these days. Europe leaves it largely to Washington to define Western policies toward Russia.
And Merkel has missed—so far—a great opportunity to redefine Germany’s role on conflict resolution. Berlin is in a position to make an important contribution to a strategic approach to Syria. If Merkel could get the EU to come together on Syria, and pursue a common approach with the United States, the calculations in Damascus as well as in Moscow and Tehran—key backers of the current Syrian regime—would certainly change. Instead of looking reluctant and passive, Germany could use its new weight to lead on diplomacy. That might help turn the tide in Syria and also release pressure on Berlin to contribute militarily.
The obvious explanation for the fact that German foreign policy is being driven overwhelmingly by domestic concerns is that Angela Merkel is in a campaign mood. But Berlin’s foreign policy has been tied to the proclivities of German voters for a number of years now.
Meanwhile, many problems are going from bad to worse—in the EU’s Eastern neighborhood and much more dramatically in the South. Syria provides a glimpse into the worst possible future. As the United States backs away from its role as the world’s policeman, the forces of anarchy and despotism fight for control, destroying Syria, while liberal powers watch from the sidelines, unwilling to take responsibility for maintaining order.
Europeans face two options over the longer term : either build a common foreign and security policy worthy of its name and play a much bigger role in their neighborhood and beyond, or accept that there will be more and more Syrias—that is, a proliferation of spaces ruled by the forces of disorder or by actors that are only interested in forcing others into submission and extracting all kinds of resources.
Order needs to be backed by power. To the extent that the United States is retreating from its role as a guarantor of regional order in and around Europe, Europeans must fill the vacuum—and promote their model of liberal democracy.
Merkel’s new assertiveness, her readiness to confront other leaders if deemed necessary, is a good first step. Berlin has won room to maneuver. But it should not use its newfound strength merely to advance short-term interests and the swinging moods of voters. The next step is for Berlin to redefine its relations with the world according to longer-term interests and strategies and to shape a specific foreign policy role for Germany.
“Berlin can move Europe forward or hold it back. Due to its economic strength and its key role in the EU, Germany can either turn Europe into an active player willing and able to shape the twenty-first-century world in cooperation with others. Or it can condemn Europe to passivity, leaving the definition and maintenance of the future order to others. If reelected for a third term—as everybody expects her to be—Angela Merkel is going to make history either way.