Growing up is Hard to do

Germany under Angela Merkel is emerging as a leading European power on the international stage, but when it comes to an interest-driven foreign policy, Berlin must learn to walk before it begins to run.

Hormones and growth spurts complicate adolescence for teenagers, but the path to adulthood is even more labyrinthine for nation-states. While 16-year-old Americans are learning to drive, 16-year-old re-unified Germany is learning to assert itself and defend its national interests in the international arena.

Jan Techau, director of the Alfred Von Oppenheim Center at the German Council on Foreign Relations, and John Hulsman, the Von Oppenheim Scholar in Residence at the GCFR and a contributing editor to The National Interest, spoke at a TNI panel discussion on the Federal Republic's emerging role as a major European actor in international affairs.

Though the awkwardness of puberty might seem like a poor metaphor for one of the world's most developed countries, that is exactly what Berlin is experiencing on the international stage.

In November 2005, Angela Merkel took the reins in Berlin and over one year later, she is America's strongest ally in Europe, as succession battles impede French and British leadership efforts. This presents a unique opportunity for the Germans, Hulsman argued, who represent a fourth path for transatlantic relations, distinct from the loyalty-first British approach, the unbridled oppositionist French approach and the "trust us" American approach.

"It is only now that we have discovered that a ‘national interest' is a good thing to have", Techau said.

Though Germany's performance training Afghanistan's police has been disappointing, this is no cause for lowering expectations of Berlin. Asking more of the Federal Republic will force an internal policy debate within Germany, expediting its maturation. This is the only way to overcome the German public's hesitancy to defend its interests abroad, a hesitancy that lingers from the Nazi era.

Such an approach would be useful in Afghanistan, where NATO's future may well depend on the mission's success. But if Germany meets America's request for a stronger commitment to the mission, it will expect an increased role in formulating a civilian-military strategy for pacifying the country and further empowering Hamid Karzai's government.

In balancing her disagreements with the Bush Administration while maintaining a strong relationship with the United States, Merkel has skillfully walked a tightrope so far. But at what point does accommodating American demands that run contrary to Germany's interest-e.g., engaging Syria-become a reversion to a pre-unification, non-sovereign foreign policy? These are the challenges of Germany's maturation.

Three areas of German foreign policy are of crucial importance to the United States-Russia, Afghanistan and Iran.

Because of its dependence on Moscow's energy, Germany's economy depends on a stable and reliable Russia. Techau and Hulsman both emphasized understanding Vladimir Putin from a Russian perspective; as a man who has stabilized Russia-no easy task given its geographic, ethnic, economic and cultural diversity. Hulsman suggested engaging Russia "based on their interests." Such an approach is imperative for Germany because of its geographic proximity to the Russian Federation.

In the intensifying showdown over Iran's nuclear program, Germany is in a vastly different bargaining position than the United States. It maintains diplomatic relations with Iran and its businesses have made substantial investments in the Islamic Republic, and Germany is therefore poised to play a role in any diplomatic resolution.

Whether in Afghanistan, Iran, Europe or elsewhere, Germany's changing perception of its foreign policy interests has serious implications for transatlantic relations.

"Yes we are smaller, yes we have our baggage, but who else is going to carry it?" Techau said.

Sean R. Singer is an apprentice editor at The National Interest.