Over the past year, the German soul has been exposed to diametrically different developments. Seventy years after the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust, it was voted most popular country in the world in an annual survey of the BBC, honoured by a marvellous exhibition on German history in the British Museum in London, and won a lot of sympathy through the terrific performance and respectful demeanour at the football World Cup in Brazil. Juxtapose this to caricatures depicting Chancellor Merkel and Finance Minister Schäuble as Nazis at Greek anti-austerity demonstrations, or tasteless critiques from some politicians and papers in the United States, regarding Germany’s foreign policy towards Ukraine in line with Chamberlain’s disastrous appeasement of Hitler. A recent Wall Street Journal reads ‘From Munich to Munich’, in reference to the Munich Security Conference at the end of January and the notorious conference of 1938. However, these blatant simplifications and populism blurs the actual achievements – and shortcomings – of German foreign policy over the past year.
For years if not decades, the scope of foreign political actions has been marginal relative to its economic strength. In late 2011, the Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, hardly a likely sympathiser of a strong German role in external relations, expressed that “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity.” Indeed, in an article about a year ago, I precisely criticised German passivity and inflexibility towards global crises and the Eurozone, the former of which was epitomised by the incomprehensible decision to abstain in the UN vote on mandating the use of force against Qaddafi. However, the 50th Munich Security Conference in early 2014 marked a turning point in German foreign policy rhetoric: in a coordinated fashion, President Joachim Gauck, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier inaugurated a new German leadership role in global affairs. For a country, whose identity is defined against the history of Nazism, and whose public is infamously sceptical of foreign adventures, this was a momentous step.
However, have deeds matched words since? Beyond modest yet valuable contributions to the French campaign in Mali against Islamist insurgents and the provision of armament to the Kurds, the critical realm against which the new leadership role should be evaluated is the Ukraine crisis – the most critical geopolitical crisis for Europeans since the end of the Cold War.
One face has been most associated with the recent crisis diplomacy: that of Angela Merkel. Where are Mogherini, Obama or let alone Cameron? Over the past weeks the German chancellor, with her new accompaniment François Hollande, tirelessly collected more air miles on their trips to Kiev, Moscow and Brussels than the average business man in a year. Yet at first glance, the German leadership’s efforts seem fruitless. The recent encirclement of thousands of Ukranian troops in the town Debalzewe, located in the Donbass region, was the culmination of a week-long offensive of Russian-backed separatists. Neither does the Russian President Putin seem very impressed by western sanctions aimed at stopping his active undermining of the Minsk ceasefire agreement dating back to September 2014. A closer look, however, paints a different picture.
The role of Merkel, and hence understanding her character, is pivotal in understanding the German approach (read the excellent New Yorker Magazine portrait of her for more insights). Frequently used attributes to describe her are pragmatic, cautious, humble and strategic. One personal anecdote of the Eastern German’s childhood summarises her strategic nature: she told the audience of this year’s Munich Security Conference, when she was seven in 1961, the Soviets built the much-hated Wall dividing Germany. Only in 1989, when the Mauer fell, western values peacefully trumped repression. The lesson learned, she said, was that perseverance and patience, not hysteric short-termism, are the only recipes for success – a conviction largely shared by the German populous. Only time will tell whether the strategic, cautious approach, manifested in her categorical refusal to send weapons to the Ukrainian army, will be successful. The recent renewal of the second Minsk agreement is a direct result of her tireless diplomatic efforts and provides a sliver of hope – not more. Regardless of the outcome, she has undoubtedly shown strong leadership.
The second topic that dominated the front pages has been the seemingly perpetual Eurocrisis, recently inflamed by the election victory of the anti-austerity party Syriza in Greece, with a ‘Grexit’ more plausible than ever. The single currency and the political union are of paramount importance for Germany; a possible break up would be disastrous for the ‘most connected economy in the world,’ according to McKinsey. German prosperity, competitiveness, and political ideals are reliant on European integration and continent-wide recovery. Yet, many populists across the continent blame Germany’s aggressive export policy and self-serving demands for austerity for the crisis. The complexity of the Eurocrisis could hardly be captured in a few sentences, but suffice it to say that, yes, a hint of dogmatist, inflexible austerity could well be criticised, and likewise are the social strains and high unemployment levels unacceptable, but many critics ignore the economic and political realities and misrepresent the German role. Rather than a 21st century financial dictator, Merkel has acted as the head of a large group of member countries campaigning for upholding the economic convergence criteria – most importantly a maximum deficit of 3% per annum – in order to reform and make the Eurozone competitive enough for the 21st century, an admittedly painful process which Germany went through in the early 2000s. Often ignored, Germany has provided the largest stabilising guarantees and funds in the realm of 230 million Euro. The recent recoveries of Ireland, Portugal and Spain merit this approach. Undoubtedly, strong leadership and flexibility in negotiations with Syriza will be needed to keep the Eurozone united. Judging from last year’s performance, Merkel seems set to provide.