What Middle East Policy to Expect from the New German Government?

When promising ideas threaten to be sunk under the transatlantic waters. . . .

On 28 October, a new German government took office.  A coalition of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s ruling conservative Christian Democratic/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP) as junior partner replaced the Grand Coalition of conservatives (CDU/CSU) and social democrats (SPD).  While the new administration is faced with multiple socio-economic crises internally, on the external front the challenges are not less significant.

At a press conference held in Berlin a few days after the federal elections, prospective foreign minister Guido Westerwelle1 refused to respond in English after a BBC reporter had asked him to do so.  Then he added, quite nonchalantly, “This is Germany here.”  That sparked speculations, not only about the FDP leader’s supposedly missing English language proficiency (although one would hardly think that any of his predecessors did better — quite the contrary) but also about the political orientation of an FDP Foreign Ministry.

Pragmatic Answers to Mideast Challenges

In an interview2 to the journal of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) — perhaps the most influential German foreign policy think-tank3 — Westerwelle’s statements were rather astonishing.  On the war in Afghanistan, he pledged “to end every German military deployment as quickly as is realistically possible.”  Though he still echoed the highly controversial claim made by former Defense Minister Peter Struck (SPD) that Germany was being defended in the Hindu-Kush, he nonetheless appeared far more straightforward than many in the SPD or even the Green Party (who tend to succumb to a paternalistic “liberal interventionism”), stating that the Afghanistan operation was not based on “altruism.”

On Iran, he recognized the central requirement of improving U.S.-Iran relations and praised Barack Obama’s “de-escalation” as opposed to George W. Bush’s “policies of containment and escalation.”  Moreover, he pointed out that, to repair the precarious security architecture, both globally and regionally, the nuclear powers would need to cut their own arsenals, thus following their obligations enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)4.  “The more seriously the existing nuclear powers take their obligation to help create a world free of nuclear weapons, the greater credence they will have in the eyes of states like Iran, who find [sic!] the prospect of possessing a nuclear arsenal extremely tempting,” Westerwelle added.

He further pleaded for a regional approach to the manifold Middle East conflicts, modeled on the so-called Helsinki Process, the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE), in the 1970s.  For some years now, conflict researchers and international peace organizations have strongly advocated that a Conference on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East (CSCME)5 be set as number one of the global political agenda.  It must be added, however, that while they envisage civil society participation, Westerwelle’s suggestion comprises the involvement of only the U.S., Russia, and the UN.

Despite the unsatisfying details of his Middle East plan, it constitutes an improvement from the previous government’s.  Given that the former Foreign Ministry headed by the SPD’s Frank-Walter Steinmeier proved to be quite indifferent to such an initiative as CSCME, its acknowledgement by the FDP, which over the last few years has consistently favored it, is at least a development in the right direction as to how to handle the much-loaded Mideast crises.

The Coalition Agreement: Westerwelle’s Foreign Policy Ideas Overwritten by a Conservative Handwriting

The conceptions promoted by Westerwelle have indeed found their way into the Coalition Agreement6 (pp. 121-122); however, they have been overwritten by a clear conservative handwriting.  The conservative handwriting is most plainly visible where the agreement states that, in Berlin’s official attempt to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, the new government, along with its partners, would support harsher sanctions against Tehran if necessary.  Such a political instrument was hardly promoted by the FDP in the past; rather, the party had been critical of the Grand Coalition’s handling of the Iran dossier and Berlin’s unflinching insistence on the “carrot and stick” approach that after all proved to be a failure.7  Voicing the intense resentment felt by considerable branches of industry, the Liberals criticized the government in Bundestag questionings8 for imposing trade limitations on German companies which went beyond the sanctions framework as mandated by UN Security Council resolutions.

In a speech at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) on 22 October, the President of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), Hans-Peter Keitel, pointed to the fact that Washington would not wish to see the sanctions regime bypassed.  This indicates that Germany still fears the U.S. Treasury Department’s warnings about exclusion from the vast American market if trade ties with Iran are maintained.  Meanwhile, German entrepreneurs are moaning about losing the Iranian market while Chinese and even American companies, directly and indirectly respectively, get increasingly involved there.

Poster Boy for “Germany’s Defense in the Hindu-Kush”

Moreover, the FDP’s fresh conceptions are likely to be counterbalanced by a strong Atlanticist camp within the much stronger Union parties.  One of the stars of that camp is the new Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU).  The Bavarian aristocrat is a member of the DGAP, the Atlantik-Brücke (“Atlantic Bridge”), and the Aspen Institute, as well as spokesman for his party’s Transatlantic Forum — all of which advocate a strict Atlantic orientation of German foreign policy.  Being one of the most prominent9 German politicians, the young and handsome Guttenberg is expected to provide an attractive cover for the highly controversial war in Afghanistan, which his predecessor, the sallow Franz-Josef Jung (CDU), plainly failed to do.  Jens Berger, whose blog Der Spiegelfechter (“Shadow Boxer”) is amongst the country’s most popular,10 writes11: “In Washington there is no neoconservative think-tank where the name Guttenberg would not prompt a cluck of the tongue in approval and delight.”  Besides, it is expected12 that the policies around the “Afghanistan problem” will not be set in the liberal Foreign Ministry, but in the conservative Defense Ministry.

Hawks vs. Public Opinion

A definite darling of America’s neo-cons is Eckart von Klaeden, an Atlantik-Brücke executive committee member, who is the foreign policy spokesman for the CDU/CSU Parliamentary Group.  Known for his hawkish stances, he can be expected to lobby against any FDP initiatives transgressing the transatlantic framework.  Despite a majority13 of Germans favoring the Bundeswehr‘s withdrawal from Afghanistan, Guttenberg14 and Klaeden15 have repeatedly defended the military engagement there — which the Obama Administration wants the Germans to boost even further.  In December, the Bundestag will decide upon the continuation of its mandate for what is often euphemistically called “peace and stabilization mission.”

Currently providing about 4,500 troops in the no longer calm northern areas of Afghanistan, Berlin is the third largest troop contributor after Washington and London — and it is now debating whether to increase the troop level to 7,000.  This reflects the country’s great-power aspirations, as Andreas Buro — one of the founding figures of the German peace movement — correctly notes16: “While the NATO states Canada and the Netherlands have announced their troops to be withdrawn already by 2010/2011, the Federal Government still adamantly adheres to the war alliance.  Not because of Afghanistan, but because Berlin would like to distinguish itself as an important EU military pillar for the leading NATO power, the US.”

However big the political odds against it are — given the CDU/CSU’s Atlanticist hawks and America’s call for more engagement on the part of her allies — the FDP’s pragmatic — and rational capitalist — input could constructively impact the foreign policy discourse in Europe’s largest country.  One hopes that the insight gains in prominence that the only truly responsible way to help Afghanistan to free itself from this mess is to end the NATO war.  That the latter only contributes to the continuation of armed conflict in that war-torn country must not remain a historic lesson that only the Left Party and the peace movement have learned.  Yet, it remains to be seen how successful the party and the movement on the Left can articulate public opinion and thus force the new government to abstain from a further militarization of Berlin’s foreign policy.  Germany’s — and for that matter, any other NATO member’s — security is not defended in the Hindu-Kush, but only jeopardized.


1  See Cate Connolly, “German Election: Guido Westerwelle Sets Sights on Foreign Ministry,” Guardian, 28 Sep. 2009.

2  “Guido Westerwelle’s Foreign Policy: Germany’s New Foreign Minister Answers IP,” IP Global, 27 Sep. 2009.

3  See James G. McGann, The Global Go-To Think Tanks: The Leading Public Policy Research Organizations In The World, Philadelphia, PA: Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, 2008, Table No. 2, p. 26.

4  For the text of the NPT, see www.fas.org/nuke/control/npt/text/npt2.htm.

5  “CSCME: Number One on the World Political Agenda,” 1 Feb. 2007, IPPNW.de, Initiated by IPPNW (International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War)e.V. (Registered Association) and IALANA (International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms) Germany.

6  Wachstum. Bildung. Zusammenhalt. Der Koalitionsvertrag zwischen CDU, CSU und FDP, 16th Legislative Period, enacted and signed on 26 Oct. 2009. 

7  See Christoph Bertram, “Rethinking Iran: From Confrontation to Cooperation,” Chaillot Paper, No. 110 (August 2008), Paris: European Union Institute for Security Studies.

8  See dipbt.bundestag.de/extrakt/ba/WP16/121/12109.html.

9  See e.g. “Beliebteste Politiker: Guttenberg zieht an Merkel vorbei,” FR-online.de, 24 July 2009

10  See www.deutscheblogcharts.de/archiv/2009-42.html.

11 Jens Berger, “Deutschland wird Schwarz(Gelb): Der Koalitionsvertrag steht und die Versprechen des Wahlkampfs sind vergessen,” Telepolis, 24 Oct. 2009.

12  René Heilig, “Bundeswehr bleibt an der Afghanistan-Front: Verbündete ziehen ab, Deutschland steht zum »Mittelweg« – was will Westerwelle?” Neues Deutschland (Berlin),   22. Oct. 2009.

13  See e.g. “stern-Umfrage zu Afghanistan: Deutsche für Abzug – und für Jung,” stern.de, 16 Sep. 2009.   

14  Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, “Afghans Respond Favorably to NATO Efforts in Afghanistan,” Atlantic-Community.org, 7 Jan. 2008.

15  Eckart von Klaeden, “Afghanistan: Der richtige Einsatz” [Afghanistan Is Not Iraq – Germany Must Stay!], Die Zeit, No. 30/2009.

16  Andreas Buro, “Abzug jetzt: Friedenspolitik statt Krieg,”junge Welt (Berlin), 8 Oct. 2009, p. 8.

Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a German-Iranian political scientist, currently a researcher in International Relations pursuing doctoral studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.  He can be reached through his website fathollah-nejad.com.

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