Imperial Life in the Merkel Republic

A domesticized foreign policy.

October 3 marked the twenty-third anniversary of German reunification. But on the eve of assuming the helm of her third government, Germany’s once-and-future chancellor, Angela Merkel, celebrates another unification: that of the German people behind her brand of leadership. Through the power of sheer attrition, she has transformed the political landscape in Germany and, through it, in Europe. Merkel is perched atop the entire European political system like an inert leviathan, judiciously but rarely employing power in a style of leadership that makes an art of “leaning backward” the defining attribute of the Merkel era in Germany and throughout Europe.

A parade of global political and economic leaders has come to Germany recently to critique this form of leadership. They have hoped that a direct and earnest entreaty on Merkel’s home turf might produce some give in the country’s unyielding image of itself in Europe and the world. Poland’s energetic foreign minister, Radosław Sikorski, broke deep-seated Central European taboos with a portentous calculation: “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.” Billionaire Hungarian-American financier George Soros, in April 2013, issued an appeal against inaction. In calling for a decisive choice between a German exit from the eurozone and the common issuance of eurobonds across the currency area, Soros stated that “the crisis is now threatening to destroy the EU itself. That would be a tragedy of historic proportions, which only German leadership can prevent.”

This past summer, U.S. President Barack Obama stood on the eastern side of the Brandenburg Gate to proclaim: “…I come here today, Berlin, to say that complacency is not the character of great nations.” Sitting on the stage behind President Obama when he delivered his most searing indictment in an otherwise innocuous speech, Merkel applauded politely. She has no doubt been privy to the subsequent chorus of agreement from the international community.

Despite global consensus pushing against it, Merkel’s Germany trudges forward or, rather, remains in place—self-satisfied, reflective, inward-looking. Merkel’s potent political resonance with the population is based on her inherent caution. With some of the lowest birthrates in Europe, Germany’s aging demography might lend itself to even greater exercise of political restraint. After all, the generational center of gravity in Germany is inching upward.

But it is the eurozone crisis that has led to a significant philosophical shift in Germany’s negotiating behavior. For reasons historic, geographic and political, Germans have maintained a nested identity based on layered associations and relations. More than most other states, modern Germany has held as a strategic imperative the necessity of aligning its principal national aims and redlines with those of its partners. Germany’s relations-based negotiating style leaves observers with the sense that Germans are overly accommodationist. This relational negotiating style continues to hold globally, particularly with countries that have a growing economic relationship with Germany. Within Europe and to some extent the United States, however, this logic is no longer applicable.

A new division of labor has developed in Germany’s interstate relations recently. On most strategic questions, decision-making authority has been centralized in the chancellery to the detriment of the foreign ministry. This consolidation of power in the chancellery on seminal questions of foreign policy has been widely noted. Less noted, however, is the new role of the finance and economy ministries as the federführend (“responsible”) ministries in German foreign policy. They have been carving up the world between them.

While the broad strategic strokes of German foreign policy are made in the chancellery, the finance ministry has the lead on Europapolitik and the economy ministry plays a principal role in Weltpolitik. This gives a particular geoeconomic accent to the execution of German foreign policy, be it exclusive concessions on raw materials in Kazakhstan, an unseemly increase of weapons and dual-use exports to authoritarian regimes in countries such as Algeria, Saudi Arabia and (until 2011) Syria, or an emphasis on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) as the organizing logic for Europe’s relationship with the United States.

The Tyranny of Greece over Germany”

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