Thursday, September 19, 2002

Gerhard’s Germany

Gerhard Schroeder may have done more damage to Germany than any chancellor since the Second World War. Fighting a close battle for re-election, Schroeder decided to appeal to German anti-war sentiment in the hopes of pulling off a win in this Sunday’s vote. Without consulting his European colleagues, and with little regard to the German-US relationship, Schroeder announced his unequivocal opposition to any military strike on Iraq. Now there’s a bit of unilateralism for you.

As many a commentator has already noted, both in the US and Europe, Schroeder’s stance has seriously jeopardized Germany’s position in Europe, and its relations with the American government. In terms of the EU, Schroeder’s approach scuttles any attempt on the part of Brussels to formulate a common European stance on Iraq. Personally, I have no real problem with this, but when you’re the leader of a nation that supposedly wants to have a strong voice in the new Europe, undermining the international prestige of the EU probably won’t win you any points.

But if you’re looking to pinpoint the real damage done to Germany’s international position, you need only to compare the German reaction to that of French President Jacques Chirac. Playing the diplomatic game for which the French are famous, Chirac said France would support action only but only if sanctioned by the UN. Once again, I don’t have much sympathy for the United Nations appeal, but Chirac’s position at least demonstrated an awareness of the French national interest. Chirac knows that France is not the power it once was, and that if the UN were created today, France would certainly not have a permanent seat on the Security Council. But as things stand, France is a permanent member and can exercise its veto. Accordingly, it’s in France’s interest to promote a role for the UN.

In addition, France can use its position at the UN to build alliances with other powers such as Russia and China while acting as the representative of third world nations and its former colonies. Once again, I’m not particularly fond of this rather cynical approach, but one has to admit that France wields far more influence through the UN than it would otherwise.

But Chirac also knows that, despite the advantages it receives from its permanent member status, it does France no good to antagonize the US unnecessarily. Instead, France plays a diplomatic game supporting the US, but only if the US reinforces the French position by ceremonially genuflecting before the UN. While one might question Chirac’s moral clarity, he at least understands the precarious position of his country’s international role.

Schroeder, it appears, has little awareness of where his country stands in the international scheme. Unlike France, Germany has neither the advantage of holding a permanent seat on the Security Council, nor does it posses France’s historic position as home of all things revolutionary – a great selling point among governments who like to take shots at the US. Rather, Germany is burdened with its Nazi past (though this is hardly a stumbling block in many Arab nations), and little leverage at the UN. In this situation, one would expect the Germans to be more willing to accommodate the US in order to increase their international influence. And considering France’s traditional role as both ally and thorn in the side of the Americans, Germany should be carving out a role for itself as America’s best friend on the continent. Oddly enough, we now see Spain and Italy fighting for this honor.

So, when Chancellor Schroeder announced opposition to any military action, one had to wonder what he was up to. While some may attribute it to his firm resolution and real concerns over war in Iraq, it appears to be primarily an attempt to win re-election. But in doing so, he severely undermined Germany’s international standing. To make matters worse, his actions merely reinforced France’s position as regards both the US and the rest of Europe. Germany now sits isolated in Europe and scorned by the United States. Chirac couldn’t have asked for a better blunder on Germany’s part.

In the end, Schroeder may win on Sunday, but Germany is a loser either way. However, most damaging to Germany may be the domestic fallout. Schroeder’s appeal to the anti-war crowd is also an appeal to an emotional backlash against the US. He’s pandering not to noble but base instincts among the German populous. Many observers have noted that Schroeder’s position is a departure from fifty years of foreign policy. It can also be seen as a departure from responsible domestic policy. Ever since the Second World War, Germany has tried to overcome its ethnic nationalism and build a respectable political nation. That program appears to have come to an end. Gerhard Schroeder alone is responsible.

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