Angela Merkel's Foreign Policy

By Muller-Harlin, Bernhard | Contemporary Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Angela Merkel's Foreign Policy

Muller-Harlin, Bernhard, Contemporary Review

ON 4 May 2006, Angela Merkel delivered an official speech to 1,500 guests at the centenary dinner of the American Jewish Committee in Washington. She was introduced by George W. Bush who, having fulfilled his official duty, not only stayed and took a seat on stage, but also allowed the German Chancellor to use his speaker's desk with the Presidential emblem--a rarely afforded privilege and a sign of high esteem for a chancellor who had been in office for less than a year. [1]

Since Gerhard Schroder left office in October 2005 and Angela Merkel became Chancellor, Germany's role on the international stage has changed substantially. Mrs Merkel has strengthened the transatlantic dimension while maintaining the relationships with Gerhard Schroder's 'buddies' Vladimir Putin and Jacques Chirac. After difficult times between Germany and the US caused by Schroder's objections to the invasion of Iraq, relations seem to be 'repaired'. That does not mean, though, that Germany has become an uncritical vassal of the US--Mrs Merkel has, for instance, requested repeatedly since January 2006 that the US close the prison at Guantanamo. Relations with Russia have not deteriorated but have become more sober: for Merkel, the Russian President is not a 'flawless democrat' and meetings between her and Putin are less cordial and intimate than the meetings with her predecessor were. In relation to France and Great-Britain, Germany has become slightly more self-contained. This has nothing to do with isolation. Rather, it seems, Germany is gaining weight, reputation and self-confidence on the international stage, mediating either between the US and Russia or between France and Britain. It is sending troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, frigates to the Lebanese coast and soon jet fighters to Afghanistan. On her last visit to Washington, Angela Merkel launched the initiative to revive the Quartet on the Middle East which was warmly welcomed by her American and French counterparts--the Quartet met on 2 February 2007, in Washington. Another sign of the high esteem Germany has attained is that, with regards to its double presidency of the EU and the G8, expectations have risen to an unusual extent. In search of an explanation for this shift of Germany's foreign policy the key element is the international reputation Angela Merkel has gained within a very short time.

Angela Merkel's Reputation on the International Stage

The reasons for Angela Merkel's reputation are to be found on the one hand in her personality--her style, her origin and her generation--and on the other hand in the external conditions in German domestic policy, on the national and the international level.

Asked about her political motto, Merkel answers 'think, consult, decide' or 'step by step'. She does not consider her point of view to be unassailable and will force it through; she is not someone who can always offer prepared answers, but rather a patient observer assessing the advantages and disadvantages of different opinions and positions. That is why during discussions her argumentation often confuses her partners who, at the end, do not know any more what she is for and what she opposes. [2] Not gifted rhetorically, she is essentially a pragmatist who accepts the available circumstances in her search for a problem's solution. Angela Merkel does not put herself in the limelight as her predecessor and thus does not embody the power she bears--a property which is often interpreted as a lack of leadership and charisma and which is the reason her adversaries tend to underestimate her. Those who accuse her of trying to please everybody should bear in mind that it is difficult to corrupt her honesty. During confidential meetings, she treats her partners with openness, talking much about herself and thus finding out a lot about the other.

Whereas this quiet way of going about politics is sometimes a disadvantage in domestic policy, it works very efficiently in foreign policy where negotiating as much as possible is the only way to succeed. However, she would not be half as successful if she did not combine her modesty with toughness.

The origins of this inconspicuous and untypical manner for a politician lie probably less in her gender than in her past and her generation. Angela Merkel, who grew up in the country, in Templin, a small town 50 miles north of Berlin as the daughter of a Lutheran pastor, became a physicist. Her early decades were spent under communist rule of the former East Germany. In contrast to most of her colleagues in German politics, she did not have to climb up the party ladder from the bottom, but became, in 1991--just one year after having entered politics--Federal Minister for Women and Youth in Helmut Kohl's Cabinet.

Aside from her East German origin, Merkel's government marks 'the advent of a third postwar generation', as Henry Kissinger described it: 'less in thrall to the emotional pro-Americanism of the 1950s and 60s, but also not shaped by the passions of the so-called '68 generation', [3] which formulated harsh critiques of the US. Thus Merkel has a more balanced attitude towards the US than her predecessors Gerhard Schroder and Helmut Kohl which makes it easier for her to play the role of the 'honest broker': she avoids choosing between Atlanticism and Europe or between the US and Russia but strives to establish a framework embracing both sides.

Moreover, Merkel's origin is a reason for her reputation both in Russia and the US. In the case of Russia, it is true that the uncritical times of Gerhard Schroder are definitely over. Angela Merkel--with her past more oriented to Russia than her Western colleagues--is perceived to know about Russia's strengths, weaknesses and sensitivities. Overseas, Merkel's past is also perceived as a good basis for mutual understanding. Having lived under totalitarian rule, she is expected to appreciate freedom as a privilege and thus to defend democracy and to fight against autocratic regimes even more resolutely.

However, it is not only her personality which justifies her reputation. In foreign policy Merkel has profited from favourable external conditions during her first year of government. Firstly, there are no major controversies in foreign policy in the coalition between her party--the Christian Democratic Union--and the Social Democratic Party of Germany. No tough decisions had to be made during the coalition negotiations--e.g. the Schroder government, a coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, had to decide in 1999 if Germany should contribute to the NATO operation in Kosovo, which was Germany's first involvement in a combat operation after World War II--and both sides seem to be happy to have a domain where they do not have to quarrel as, for instance, about fiscal or health policies. Certainly, foreign policy is usually not a political field where important reforms have to be adopted, but a Christian Democratic Chancellor and a Social Democratic Foreign Minister--Frank-Walter Steinmeier--could have differed more in their views than they do. In case of differences, much depends on the Chancellor's and the Foreign Minister's characters. According to the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany: '[t]he Federal Chancellor shall determine and be responsible for the general guidelines of policy. Within these limits each Federal Minister shall conduct the affairs of his department independently and on his own responsibility'. [4] Certainly there are differences regarding the approach towards Turkey's accession to the EU. During the election campaign, Merkel rejected it by offering a 'privileged partnership', whereas Steinmeier, at that time head of the Chancellery of Gerhard Schroder, favoured an unrestricted accession. Today, Merkel keeps on stressing that the accession talks have to be conducted without any clear objective--i.e. accession or refusal--, a view which is also acceptable for Steinmeier.

Secondly, another favourable condition for an efficient albeit not more legitimized foreign policy is the relative neglect of foreign policy in German public life. Foreign policy is not the political field in which the public is deeply involved or deputies of the German Bundestag seek to develop interest and expertise. A reason might be that the possibilities of the Bundestag to influence decisions on foreign policy are greatly restricted. The important political decisions are conducted by a small number of people, the international community in Berlin is quite small and in contrast to the US, there is only one German think tank for foreign policy which meets US standards, the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Also Germany's opposition to the war in Iraq was not due to a public fascination with foreign policy but to the pacifist convictions of most Germans.

Thirdly, Merkel's rise in reputation and power is related to a large extent to the weakness of her Western counterparts. George W. Bush is in a desperate situation in Iraq--he had to recognize that unilateral action does not pay off and that it is better to consult with his partners--and has lost his majority in Congress. Besides, the Iraq invasion has lost the support of Spain and Italy, formerly the most important continental allies apart from Poland. The Spanish and Italian leaders--Jose Maria Aznar and Silvio Berlusconi--lost Parliamentary elections to the left in 2004 and 2006. Their successors, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and Romano Prodi, both critics of the invasion, withdrew Spanish and Italian troops from Iraq. Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair has lost much of his power since he announced he would resign sometime this year. Britain's involvement in the Iraq invasion has cost him a huge amount of credibility, a situation made even worse by a political scandal about party funding. In France, President Jacques Chirac will be in office until the end of his second term on 16 May 2007, but the riots in the banlieues of Paris and other French cities in 2005 and the public outrage about a new labour law proposed by his Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin in 2006 have weakened both. Thus French foreign policy is in a lethargic state. Compared to all of these 'lame ducks', Angela Merkel is fresh in office and, in spite of troublesome discussions within the coalition, is backed by Germany's unexpectedly rising economy.

All in all, Angela Merkel's star on the international stage is rising, though the most important test--the current double presidency of the EU and the G8--will have great influence on her international reputation.

The Double Presidency

In a speech at the Bertelsmann Forum in September 2006, [5] Angela Merkel defined five guiding principles for the German Presidency of the EU from January to June 2007, the last being the greatest challenge: to define Europe's values, to sharpen its contours, to promote economic dynamism, to unify the Union to face globalisation and to develop a roadmap for the adoption of a constitutional treaty.

Many expect Merkel to end Europe's paralysis and stagnation--also called 'pause for reflection'--triggered by the French and Dutch 'no' to the European Constitution. Therefore Merkel wants to revive the European Constitution reshaping the current draft into a constitution acceptable to all member states and to be ready in time for the next European Parliamentary elections in 2009. Although this is a task comparable to finding 'the philosopher's stone', [6] she hopes that Europe will not divide into two camps of member states, one with and the other without the European constitution. 'Europe--succeeding together' [7] is the title of the work programme of the German Presidency. Thus Merkel refuses to ascribe to the idea of a two-speed Europe and envisions a teamwork of small and large countries.

Apart from the constitution, further priorities are to strengthen Europe's economy, to accomplish the European Single Market, to reform Europe's energy markets, to secure its energy supply and to promote climate protection. In European foreign policy, important issues are the resolution of international conflicts in the Middle East and with Iran, the stabilization of Afghanistan and the Balkans and the redesign of European relations with its neighbours (European Neighbourhood Policy) and especially with Russia (Partnership and Cooperation Agreement). To guarantee continuity in tackling these European challenges, Germany has decided to adopt a common programme with Portugal and Slovenia which will preside over the EU following Germany. [8]

However, the EU Presidency is only one of two major offices Germany has assumed on 1 January 2007. The G8, seven industrial world leading economies [9] and Russia, has proved unable to act on major issues, such as climate change--as the Kyoto Protocol will end in 2012, it is urgent to design a follow-up agreement. Moreover at its last summit in St. Petersburg, the Western members of the G8 have shown that they have little idea of how to deal with Moscow's new power achieved by its huge supplies in gas and oil.

Energy and climate protection linked to each other are at the forefront of the two presidencies: in the EU, Germany will advance energy efficiency, renewable energy and a common European position about these with the G8 presidency. Other EU topics which will also be discussed at the G8 summit from June 6 to 8 at Heiligendamm situated on the Baltic Sea coast, will be Afghanistan and Kosovo. Bearing the motto 'Growth and responsibility', it will focus on strengthening the world economy and introducing international economical, environmental and social standards, e.g. rendering capital markets more transparent and protecting intellectual property. From a regional perspective, Germany will focus on Africa. Instead of expanding the G8 to G13 [10] as the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has proposed, Angela Merkel only wants to establish a closer dialogue between the G8 and the leading newly industrialized countries, because, in her view, the G8 are like the EU, a community based on common values and a common past.

Angela Merkel's Strong Commitment to Foreign Policy

To explain Frau Merkel's strong interest in foreign policy, it is indispensable to take a brief look at her personal ambitions and secondly to analyze Germany's perspective on Europe and German interests in more detail.

In consideration of her international reputation and the difficult situation in both the organisations that she is presiding over, Angela Merkel has something to lose and will try hard to master the multiple challenges and meet the high expectations. Apart from her international reputation, failing or succeeding in the double presidency will have great influence on her image in Germany.

As parliamentary control of foreign policy is very restricted--the only exception being the approbation of foreign operations of the Federal Armed Forces--and only a few debates do take place in public, the power of the executive is widely recognized and the scope for leadership is great. In domestic policy in contrast, the German chancellor does not only have to cope with the coalition party, but also--a speciality of German federalism--with the strong Prime Ministers of Germany's 16 Lander. For example the current government agreed on the reform of the health care system only at the third attempt and Angela Merkel was blamed for her lack of leadership. In such a situation, escaping from domestic politics to the spheres of international politics can be quite pleasant as it requires less effort and can bring more returns. For decades, the Federal Minister for Foreign Affairs has been the most popular politician in Germany--be it because his area of responsibility does not get financed by the citizens or because German Foreign Ministers have not often had to confront the public with bad news. Anyway, foreign policy offers more laurels than opprobrium.

However, this only partially explains Angela Merkel's strong commitment to her tasks during the EU presidency. Another reason lies in German history. According to the historian Fritz Stern, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries many people thought that after the unification of the German Empire in 1871, Germany's 'more natural calling' was to organize Europe. [11] After 1945, Germany had lost this 'more natural calling', but backed by the US, the Federal Republic could play a constructive and increasingly important role in European cooperation which meant freedom, wealth and reconciliation with its neighbours. After reunification in 1990, Germany saw a new role because of its past and its geographical location: uniting the Western and the Eastern part of Europe. For Helmut Kohl, German unification and European unification were two sides of the same coin. [12] Thus Germany's perspective on Europe is very different from Britain's. From the German perspective, the EU never had the single purpose of fostering economic cooperation but was also to promote mutual understanding and common values such as freedom, justice and democracy. In contrast, many British politicians do not expect more from Europe than to be a well working free-trade area. For Angela Merkel, the European values lead automatically to consolidation within the constitution and not necessarily to further expansion; Europe is still the idea of freedom for the twentieth century and the future idea for the twenty-first century. This freedom has been the prerequisite for Europe's diversity: 'Throughout our history we Europeans have learned to make the most of diversity. And the quality which enables us to do so, which enables us to enjoy freedom in responsibility for others, is a valuable asset'--tolerance. [13] Thus the Berlin declaration at the 50th anniversary of the Rome Treaties on 25 March 2007, shall become a tribute to Europe and its values. [14]

In this vision, Frau Merkel seems to be backed by a majority of the German population. Although in a recent published poll [15] 29 per cent of the population said that EU membership brought Germany more disadvantages than advantages and only 22 per cent said the opposite--a possible explanation is that Germany's financial contributions to the EU exceed the subsidies from Brussels--more than 75 per cent believe the EU is important if not very important for economic development, preservation of prosperity and the inner and outer security of Germany. 70 per cent approve the introduction of the euro, 56 per cent say that a European constitution was needed against 7 per cent who say no. From 60 per cent who knew the Constitution, in a referendum 50 per cent would have approved it and 14 per cent would not. Furthermore the population clearly favours consolidation: 91 per cent think that the EU should deepen the cooperation with other EU member states while only 39 per cent think that the EU should enlarge.

According to Christoph Bertram, the former director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 'there exists a core tenet that can be expressed in a few words, namely in Germany's case "never again on our own"--which helped beget the EU--and secondly "as much international order as possible"--expressed in support for the UN, NATO, and the transatlantic partnership'. [16] However, this does not mean that Germany is acting selflessly and does not pursue its national interests even if there is no great tradition to speak about them. In fact, Gerhard Schroder was the first to do so and to claim German rights within the EU--an attainment for German foreign policy and a considerable bequest for Angela Merkel.

To understand Angela Merkel's basic attitude to foreign policy, besides gaining reputation and meeting German responsibilities, pursuing German interests is another key element. Germany's essential interests are certainly not something you would call thrilling and are quite similar to essential interests of other Western countries: to protect its territorial integrity and sovereignty and to guarantee the freedom, security and wealth of its citizens. From the German perspective--developed out of historical necessity but today certainly more and more justified--these interests can more efficiently be pursued within the EU and other multilateral organisations.

That is why, for Merkel, the EU has to improve its decision-making processes, to increase its efficiency and its capacity to act. This has to be specified in a new major agreement replacing the Treaty of Nice which, designed for an EU with 15 and not 27 member states, was signed in 2001 and came into force in 2003. But not only politics will profit from a constitution. According to Merkel, an EU which is more pragmatic, functional and easier to manage, will also please its citizens thus closing the gap between those who govern and those who are governed. [17] To strengthen Europe inside and out would also promote the European economy and its competitiveness. In economic politics, Merkel is not only more liberal than her coalition partner but also compared to some of her own party colleagues and parts of her electorate. She wants to establish more liberal rules for the European Single Market and common standards in the EU as the way to increase employment and to show that the EU member states achieve more prosperity within the Union than on their own. Additionally, an important means to prevent the diminishment of Europe's role in the world economy is to protect intellectual property. Furthermore, energy security is also an important German and European interest. The energy crisis between Russia and its neighbours Ukraine and Belarus have sensitized Germany to its dependency on energy imports coming from Russia. Today, the renunciation of nuclear power decided in 2000 by the Schroder government is questioned more and more.

However, pursuing national interests also means to fight threats from the outside, in the first place international terrorism together with the EU and NATO, to stabilize the region and to improve relations with its neighbours in Europe. After the elections in Serbia on 21 January 2007, the UN mediator Martti Ahtisaari presented on February 2 his proposal concerning the status of Kosovo not proposing immediate independence but spelling out conditions for internationally supervised self-rule. The UN Security Council--if not vetoed by Russia--will decide on and the EU will implement the proposal. Exacerbated controversies, perhaps even violent acts are expected. Another hot spot, at least as difficult but more remote, is the Middle East where Germany is trying to relaunch the peace process in reviving the Quartet on the Middle East. With her inaugural visit in Israel in January 2006, Merkel stressed Israel's importance for Germany and reinforced German-Israeli friendship and reconciliation. In dealing with Iran, Merkel wants the EU to speak with one voice and to prevent a division as in the Iraq question. In Afghanistan, Germany has sent troops to the less violent north of the country and will send jet fighters which will operate in the whole of Afghanistan.

Moreover, the European Neighbourhood Policy has to be redefined. On the one hand, after the expansion of the EU borders since 1 January 2007 further enlargement of the EU in the coming years is not backed by Germany and other member states. On the other hand, to take away any prospect of accession to Ukraine or even Georgia will cause bitter disappointment and perhaps lessen the will to push forward political and economic reforms. Disappointment is already present in relations between the EU and Russia. In December 2007, the Agreement of Partnership and Cooperation reached in 1997 will end. At the EU-Russia summit in Lathi in October 2006, the initiation of new negotiations was blocked by Poland suffering from a ban of meat imports from Russia. Germany has to play a special role in negotiating the new Partnership and Cooperation Agreement. Another region needing improved relations is Central Asia, which is rich in oil and gas. However, Merkel does not seem to be as interested in this question as her Foreign Minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

At the moment, Germany's weight in foreign policy is considerable. Angela Merkel, the leader of Europe's wealthiest member state, represents the EU and the G8 while the other powerful Western leaders are weakened. But having such power means also bearing a great amount of responsibility. Although Merkel's reputation is already high, this year will be crucial for her position in foreign politics at home and abroad. The most important questions are: will she succeed in giving Europe the push it urgently needs and will she be able to manage the energy issue? For her own and Germany's good, Angela Merkel will try hard to succeed but both issues are so tough that her success is anything but guaranteed.


[1] Usually, after a presidential speech, the speaker's desk is replaced by another desk or at least the emblem is taken off. See Martina Fietz, Cicero, June 2006: Die Aussenministerin.

[2] See from Gunter Bannas, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 22.11.2006: Merkel ein Jahr im Amt. Sie inszeniert sich nicht.

[3] Quoted from Henry A. Kissinger, International Herald Tribune, 21.11.2005: A new generation in Germany.

[4] Quoted from German Bundestag: Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Text Edition, Status: December 2000, Berlin 2001, Article 65.

[5] See from Angela Merkel, 22.09.2006: Speech on the Occasion of the International Bertelsmann Forum.

[6] Quoted from Roger Boyes and Bronwen Maddox, The Times, 10.01.2007: Full transcript of interview with Angela Merkel, Trouble in the pipeline will test Merkel's foreign resolve.

[7] See from the Federal Government: 'Europe--succeeding together', Presidency Programme, 1 January to 30 June 2007,

[8] See from the Council of the European Union, 04.12.2006: Draft, 18 Month Programme of the German, Portuguese and Slovenian Presidencies.

[9] Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.

[10] The five new members would be Brasil, China, India, Mexico and South Africa.

[11] Quoted from Thomas Weihe (ed.), to be published 28.03.2007: 135th Bergedorf Round Table 'Germany at the Centre of Europe'.

[12] See from Daniel Hannan, Daily Telegraph: If only their politicians would listen to what Germans want, 10.01.2007.

[13] Quoted from Angela Merkel, 17.01.2007: Speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

[14] See from Angela Merkel, 14.12.2006: Regierungserklarung der Bundeskanzlerin zur Doppelprasidentschaft, Stenografische Mitschrift.

[15] Quoted from Bundesverband Deutscher Banken, November 2006: Europa als Chance begreifen, Ergebnisse einer reprasentativen Bevolkerungsumfrage im Auftrage des Bundesverbands deutscher Banken.

[16] Quoted from Thomas Weihe (ed.), to be published 28.03.2007: 135th Bergedorf Round Table 'Germany at the Centre of Europe'.

[17] See from Stefan Kornelius und Christoph Schwennicke, Suddeutsche Zeitung, 06.11.2006: 'Fur die Turkei kann eine sehr, sehr ernste Situation entstehen', Die Bundeskanzlerin uber die Probleme der EU, die bevorstehende deutsche Ratsprasi-dentschaft und Probleme mit Ankara.

Bernhard Muller-Harlin is a German national currently reading for a Master's degree in International Affairs at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris (Sciences Po). During the last four months he worked for the Korber Foundation's Bergedorf Round Table in Berlin.

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