Wag the Dove: German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder Wins on Peace--and Little Else

In one of the oddest elections in post-war history, the German Social Democratic Party, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and its coalition partner, the Green Party, have inched to victory on the narrowest of margins.

In one of the oddest elections in post-war history, the German Social Democratic Party, led by Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and its coalition partner, the Green Party, have inched to victory on the narrowest of margins. Unusual by German standards, surface gloss took precedent over substance. A relaxed incumbent Schroeder, almost mockingly, played his easy charm off a stiff and preachy Bavarian governor, Edmund Stoiber. The former leftist street rebel turned Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, gained a surprising large margin (8.6%) for his Green Party, mainly on the strength of personal popularity rather than any strong voter affinity for his platform. There was mudslinging in the media where rhetorical asides rather than thought-out policy statements shifted the polls--whether it was the damaging anti-semitic remarks of Juergen Molleman, deputy chair of the pro-market Free Democratic Party (Stoiber's hope for a coalition partner), or the absurd and offensive Bush/Hitler analogy drawn by Schroeder's Justice Minister in the final days of the campaign. But most importantly, an election season largely dominated by the critical themes of unemployment and stagnation was suddenly colored by natural disasters and foreign policy--all to the benefit of the incumbent. Schroeder, who had been hounded all summer by a lackluster German economy, rebounded in August due to erstwhile "acts of God"--floods and war.

When high waters ravaged the Czech Republic and the eastern part of Germany, even threatening the cultural treasures of Dresden, he effectively used the incumbent's pulpit to dispense aid and soothing words. Then, as President Bush urged military intervention in Iraq, he called the idea an "adventure" and defiantly declared that Germany would not "click its heels" to the administration's overtures. The long-term damage to the German-American relationship remains difficult to assess. In the United States, Schroeder's defiance has been considered inappropriate and reckless; Germany was suddenly an ingrat--somehow forgetting the sacrifice American soldiers made for liberating their country from tyranny. But, for the moment, the gambit on Iraq has paid off. Even though it was read in the United States as a cynical election ploy, it clearly had popular support. The 1960s era pacifism of the Green voters jelled conveniently with the more pragmatic stance of left-centrist Germans--that with unfinished business in Afghanistan and Israel/Palestine, a sudden thrust toward Iraq would throw the Middle East into further turmoil.

What plagues the German-American relationship right now are the dramatically different damage assessments. While the Bush Administration appears deeply irritated by the turn of events, Schroeder and Fischer are almost nonchalantly confident that the friendship is alive and well--and resilient. Nonetheless, the damage has been done. In the aftermath of Germany's "unreliability", the United States will hardly welcome a permanent German seat at the UN Security Council. If the war on Iraq takes place, and "regime change" is a success, Schroeder's credibility both domestically and within Europe will be tarnished. Moreover, his "unilateralism" has undermined the already fractious attempts at a common European foreign policy.

It is not clear, however, whether any of this really mattered to the average German voter. The continuing legacy of the post-Nazi period means that, even among conservatives, there is no strong urge to play a greater role in global decision-making. Germany also has no real interests in Iraq--whether oil or outstanding debt--which requires it to carefully consider the outcome of a war. So, the German unwillingness to commit to supporting an American-led attack on Iraq is not simply the self-preservation instincts of a single professional politician, but reflects the will and mood of the nation. The irony in all of this is that the postwar de-militarized Germany that the United States helped to create has, to the dismay of many here, wielded pacifism as an excuse to abstain from the latest campaign against terror.

But even if this turns out to be a minor moral triumph, it is a hollow victory for Germany's leftist status quo. The "New Old" Red-Green coalition offers few solutions to the nation's economic woes. With high unemployment, over-priced subsidized health care, rigid labor markets, and an economy expected to have little or no growth, Germany is in dire need of reform. Just before the summer floods and Iraq, the economy was (and remains) the critical issue, and the Christian Democratic Union candidate Stoiber, leading in the polls, appeared to be the best candidate to address it. He had a first-rate economic team waiting in the wing, and a sterling track record on fiscal management--all without the country-bumpkin bluster that Germans associate with his native Bavaria. Now, Schroeder, faced with a combatant conservative opposition, must address the domestic economic malaise while repairing a soured bilateral relationship. Since his categorical position on Iraq allows little room for backpedaling, much will depend on how the White House responds. Both Condoleeza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld have declared the German-American relationship "poisoned" not only by Iraq but also by the Hitler/Bush analogy drawn by Schroeder's Justice Minister, Herta Daeubler-Gmelin. The subsequent uproar has forced Gmelin's resignation, but the White House will probably expect an even higher degree of atonement.