Merkel's Final Act

German flag is seen outside the German lower house of parliament Bundestag before the election of a new chancellor in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

International security will be a crucial part of how Merkel’s last term will be remembered.

May-June 2018

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, entering his second term as foreign minister after a four-year break, was worried about this growing gap between expectations from abroad and reluctance at home. He launched a major outreach exercise to promote Germany’s “international responsibility.” He need not have worried, as it turned out. Enter Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and the refugees who opened Germans’ eyes to the outside world. Moscow’s aggressive behavior, in particular, forced many senior figures, including Merkel and Steinmeier themselves, to revise long and dearly held assumptions about Russia and the foundations for peace in Europe. Trump’s election made the United States an unreliable partner; the British vote for Brexit kicked one leg away from the three-legged stool of EU leadership. China, the main beneficiary of the American crisis, got more and more assertive—and better and better in playing the Europeans against one another.

In 2013, none of Germany’s political parties had been ready for this “world out of joint,” as Steinmeier called it in his speeches. That Germany managed to navigate those turbulent years reasonably well is the result of his and Merkel’s personal diplomatic skills, and the professionalism of a foreign- and security-policy bureaucracy that rose to the challenge. Their learning curve was a steep one, and their success in building and maintaining a responsible approach to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and many other hotspots obscured the thin foundation on which that success was built—particularly where the political parties were concerned.

German politics saw hot debates over key decisions such as sanctions on Russia and the “Turkey deal” on refugees. But the strategic challenges beyond those day-to-day decisions, how we understand the problems and what tools we have to develop solutions often went ignored outside the Berlin bubble of experts. The conservatives outsourced most difficult decisions to their leadership, while the left-of-center parties held often-vicious internal debates over tactical and operational issues while ignoring the larger strategic picture.

THE EASY part is all the traditional security challenges for which we already have well-known strategies and tools. Keeping the peace in Europe requires saving the European project and maintaining U.S. deterrence against Russia, while saving arms control and (re)building a durable regional-security order. For the Kim Jong-uns out there, we need arms control and diplomacy.

But there are also new threats to Europe’s open societies. The defining rift of our time, as the new foreign minister Heiko Maas put it in his first staff meeting on March 14, is “between those who cherish openness and those who seek to return to isolation and nationalism. When authoritarian powers try to topple our internal order, we need to react.”

There are also the consequences of the wars and violence in the Middle East and Africa. War in Syria, terrorist attacks in Nigeria, organized crime and displacement are not going to destroy European states or societies. But the dead, the injured, the fear and the economic costs are very real, and governments are expected to protect their societies from these effects. These are the security challenges that Emmanuel Macron has in mind when he suggests building a “Europe that unites to protect, intervene and save lives,” including from external security risks.

Most of the German population recognized this new international environment and supported more foreign-policy leadership; they even understood the need for increased military spending and cautiously supported most military deployments. In an October 2017 poll, 59 percent supported a more active international role, not just by way of diplomacy (84 percent) or aid (71 percent), but also military training (59 percent) and stabilization (56 percent) or police operations (55 percent).

What did Germany’s leading parties offer in this regard when the 2017 campaign season came around? In their joint manifesto, Merkel’s conservatives promised “relevant contributions” to a “sustainably peaceful, stable and just world order.” And they would start right at home: the first item on the CDU/CSU’s foreign-policy agenda was “to strengthen Bonn [the former capital] as the German seat of the United Nations, international NGOs and as a location for international conferences.” You read that right. Further down, they pledged more money for defense and development, toward NATO’s 2 percent goal and the OECD’s 0.7 percent goal, respectively. Those were the only changes from previous electoral platforms. The conservative answer to modern security challenges: more money for the same tools.

And what about the SPD? Its platform included plenty of thoughtful priorities for fixing this program and strengthening that tool, but the party’s leaders chose a mud fight with Merkel over “warmongering” (for the CDU’s claim to push defense spending toward 2 percent of GDP) versus “peace” (the SPD’s pledge to spend more on aid) as their signature international campaign issue. It’s telling that in times of a fracturing West and a world in which Europe’s role is challenged, the biggest foreign-policy idea of Willy Brandt’s old party was to criticize an increase in defense spending slightly higher than its own proposed increase.