Schroeder's Germany: Holding Back the Tide

September 25, 2002

Schroeder's Germany: Holding Back the Tide

Gerhard Schroeder's narrow survival as German chancellor means that Europe's ongoing progress toward a new paradigm (economic, political and social) will be more protracted.


Gerhard Schroeder's narrow survival as German chancellor means that Europe's ongoing progress toward a new paradigm (economic, political and social) will be more protracted. This, in turn, has implications for the trans-Atlantic relationship.

Certainly, the chancellor's lack of strong beliefs, and his slim, nine-seat majority, do offer glimmers of hope that his principal European partners, all to the right of him, might be able to convince him of the need for reform across virtually every field involving government policy. But it should be clear, not just from the electoral campaign but also from the four years he has led a Social Democratic-Green coalition, that there's much of the former Marxist lawyer still in him. He was accompanied at his last campaign rally by the far-left author Gunter Grass, and Socialist luminaries in France rallied to his support in a joint piece in Le Monde the day before the vote.


Like those of his backers, Mr. Schroeder's reflexes are conditioned by a worldview that is increasingly obsolete and resistant to reform. The problem, of course, is really the German electorate of which Mr. Schroeder is just a reflection. If it ever can be said that a people get the government they deserve, that can be said of the Germans today. But the result either way is that Europe's largest nation and its leader seem equally ill-prepared to confront the necessary domestic and international challenges they face. Unless things change, the nascent Berlin Republic might be a wayward ally.

Here's the view to which a majority of Germans and their leader cling: There is, if not a class struggle, then at least a need to balance the juxtaposing interests of "workers" and "owners of capital", and government must be the great balancer. The Germans, and their leader, do increasingly perceive present-day demands for flexibility in the workplace and in the relationship between the government and the governed. But that doesn't mean they like these trends. Certainly, Germany must face economic and fiscal reality-- yet everyone still expects the state to continue intervening to save companies that are bankrupt.
Globalization is another one of those troublesome developments. Germany must make its sclerotic labor markets more flexible because it needs to retain capital at home. In today's borderless world, funds flow to environments that nurture profitable companies. Talent does too, and Germans have found to their consternation that few of the bright Indian high-tech wizards they imported have chosen to stay in such a constraining social setting. The Muslim ghettos that German inflexibility has created have, on the other hand, become breeding grounds for the terrorists that attacked the United States.

At the same time, Germany, an economic juggernaut of 90 million bestriding eastern and western Europe, would like to beg off the importunities of leadership. The success of Schroeder's electoral grandstanding on Iraq--his promise to keep his country out no matter how many UN resolutions are approved--has as much to do with this ambivalence as with anti-Americanism or even pacifism. In other words, all too much like Marlene Detricht, Germans "want to be left alone." But the support Schroeder's European partners are giving President Bush on Iraq is making Germany look isolated--and unilateralist.

This last issue, which has harmed German-American relations, is the most elucidating of the German refusal to shoulder the political responsibilities that its national heft entails. It becomes all the more clear when contrasted with the French position.

France has good (albeit selfish) reasons to prefer not to see an invasion of Iraq. Its centuries-old pursuit of a basically amoral foreign policy has allowed it to do business with Saddam Hussein, Iran's mullahs and other despots. Its standing is enhanced because it is seen by the rest of the Arab world as a more impartial interlocutor than either the United States or Britain. France also sees it as its national interest to check a further consolidation of the Pax Americana, which it constantly censures with such euphemisms as "la pensée unique" or "l'hyperpuissance americaine." Yet France's position, communicated to senior officials in Washington, is that if there is to be an invasion of Iraq, with a postwar restructuring of the regional order, France expects to be fully involved in both of these ventures. (1)

Not so for Herr Schroeder's Germany. Unification (which has made Germany the largest nation in Western Europe) and EU expansion to the former Soviet satellites have placed the mantle of leadership within German grasp now more than ever. But Germany, which since the war has harbored no aspiration to great power status, continues to shy from grabbing it.

Schroeder's position on Iraq is more elucidating still: It illustrates Germany's refusal to deal with the breakdown of the international system bequeathed by the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which outlawed private armies, established the primacy of sovereign states and has since dictated the contours of international relations. As Henry Kissinger rightly observed last month, the war on terrorism obviates the Treaty's principle of nonintervention in the domestic affairs of other states by emphasizing "justified pre-emption" as a casus belli and "regime change" (for governments that sponsor or support terrorism) as a goal for military intervention.

The Kosovo War also delivered a major blow to the Westphalian principles, but now Osama bin Laden's private army has left the system in tatters. Germans have been deeply troubled by these trends and events: They are ambivalent about globalization, were deeply divided by the Kosovo War and have now opted out of the war on terrorism. The reluctance of Germans to abandon the Treaty of Westphalia may be only subconsciously linked with the fact that it ended the Thirty Years' War, which devastated Germany. That is a rich subject for national psychologists to study.

In the attendant, the United States will be waiting to see how Mr. Schroeder wriggles out of his stump promises on Iraq, especially if the Security Council authorizes the use of force to secure Iraqi compliance. Schroeder may discover a face-saving mechanism that allows Germany to participate, but even that won't make Germany an easy ally. Germany's European partners, meanwhile, can expect a giant that will drag its feet on the changes that need to be made as the EU absorbs 12 mostly East European states (growing to 27 members from only 12 a decade ago). Silvio Berlusconi, Jose Maria Aznar, Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Tony Blair, the respective prime ministers of Italy, Spain, France and Britain, all have figured out that domestically and internationally new realities exist, and have tried to adapt to them. "Labor party" politics are a thing of the past for those countries whose future is high-tech and not industrial, and politicians need to behave accordingly. Statesmen can no longer rigidly apply 350-year-old rules to foreign policy. But the Germans and their leaders don't want to hear it. This is why they will be a malign presence amidst reforming Europe, and the major stumbling block within the Atlantic Alliance.

Michael Gonzalez is deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe's editorial page.

(1) A point emphasized by Pierre Hassner in his interview in the September 18, 2002 issue of In the National Interest.