Foreign and European Policy Issues in the 2002 Bundestag Elections

Article excerpt

Is it always the economy, or do external issues sometimes matter, too? Consistent with the Clinton campaign slogan of 1992, political scientists generally predict that domestic economic issues are primary in determining election winners. This proposition, with its several variants, tests on many years of survey data and analysis that have consistently indicated that international conditions and foreign policy rarely, if ever, rate highly in public concerns and therefore seldom affect election outcomes.

Just two months prior the Bundestag election, in the face of a stagnant economy and popular dissatisfaction over the failure of the government to reduce unemployment, polls indicated a modest but consistent lead of about 7 percent for the Christian Democrats and Free Democrats. However, dissatisfaction with the economy did not prove to be sufficient to force the ouster of the government. (1) Other factors intervened to blunt the economic arguments of the opposition, allowing Gerhard Schroder and his coalition to be reelected, however narrowly.

To better understand what happened in the 2002 election, we need to take account of the complex set of circumstances that brought victory to the incumbents. This paper explores in particular the impact of international and European issues in this election.

Among the reasons that would lead us to expect that external and European Union issues might play a more significant role in 2002 than in the past is the evolution over the past 12 years of German foreign policy away from its restricted postwar role and towards greater activism. Others involve the advance of European integration and German responses, in the first instance, to terrorism and then to the unexpected changing paradigm in US governmental thinking seen in strong rhetoric and action against Iraq. This became a critical campaign theme in the Bundestag election of 2002.

From Semisovereignty to Normality

The horrific legacy of dictatorship, followed by defeat and occupation, made any autonomous German nationalism unthinkable. As the division between two states and a heavily militarized front line between east and west solidified, German unification became an increasingly unrealizable dream as fears of communism sweeping westwards took hold. These harsh realities restricted West Germany's external influence, compared to its neighbors, especially France and Britain, and made the newly founded Federal Republic heavily dependent on US and NATO protection. These conditions limited Germany to building a new international credibility predicated on the success of parliamentary democracy, as enshrined in the Basic Law, and on its economic miracle. (2)

The prevailing policy style became one of caution and nonconfrontation, with a strong commitment to multilateralism. In European affairs this meant a strategy of consensus building and an avoidance of isolation on important decisions. In security matters, deference to allies and an aversion to the use of military force were expressions of the same multilateral mind set. External relations were restricted to "soft power" instruments of economic influence, and with respect to the construction of Europe, the reality of checkbook diplomacy. (3) Anderson's concept of "exaggerated multilateralism" corresponds with the constraining conditions of an essentially subordinate role in international affairs. (4)

For Germany in the 1990s, as military involvements have become likely, we observe a hesitant transition from a restricted self-definition to a reluctant acceptance of a more active security role. The hot debates in 1993/94 about the constitutionality of military deployments (that is, out of NATO area) were emotional, intense, and marked by partisan dispute. Without doubt the explosion of regional warfare and the brutality of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans, arising out of the meltdown of Yugoslavia, forced further rethinking of security obligations. …