Schröder, a surrender monkey or the dove of peace?

Article published on Feb. 24, 2003
community published
Article published on Feb. 24, 2003

This article has not been vetted by an editor at Paris HQ

Ambiguity, or not? On the one hand, some political and historical prerogatives dictate Germany’s what policy to adopt, and on the other hand it faces the risk of isolating, if not putting itself at odd, with its most important partners.

“Monstrous Ingratitude” screamed the front page of The Daily Mail on February 11 2003. This inimitably vitriolic headline followed Germany’s veto of Turkey’s request for patriot missiles and AWACS from the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) in order to defend itself against possible Iraqi aggression. The NATO crisis is only the latest in a series of events in the build-up to war against Iraq, pitting conciliatory “Old Europe” against the warmongers of the Bush Administration. Blistering criticism of Germany and France has arrived not only from across the Atlantic but also, and rather worryingly for European unity, from across the Channel. The Bush Administration and tabloid newspapers in both countries are keen to remind Germany and the other European advocates of “appeasement” that if it were not for US military backing during World War II, the continent would currently be living under Nazi rule.

Looking back over the past few decades, dissent seems to come naturally to France but why has Germany, a country which since the end of WWII has enjoyed a special relationship with the US, positioned itself so dogmatically against American foreign policy? What are the consequences of such a radical stand? How will it affect Europe? And will transatlantic relations survive the strain?

Schröder’s Germany had no other alternative

There are several reasons behind the red-green coalition’s opposition to war. Ideologically, the SPD and the Greens, particularly the Greens, are in favour of containment and economic sanctions as an alternative to belligerence. And for obvious historical reasons, the German population as a whole is reluctant to get involved in a war and be on the side of the aggressors. Indeed, German public opinion to date has been overwhelmingly against the war. This was reflected in the results of the federal election of September 2002, when Gerhard Schröder’s much trumpeted opposition to war against Iraq gave him the edge over rival Edmund Stoiber.

Another important factor influencing the German position is the parlous state of the national economy. Schröder is having immense difficulty keeping government spending in check and growth has been slower than that of the other EU member states for almost a decade. War may not be the best way to turn the economy around (although some would argue otherwise).

There is also fear in political circles that a war on Iraq could undermine the “other wars” in which Germany is involved- the War on Terror and the war against weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Going to war on Iraq could provoke a backlash in the Muslim world and give terrorist groups grist to the mill. Iraq, if it does indeed possess WMD, certainly does not have a monopoly on WMD. Will war in Iraq set a dangerous precedent? Will future regimes (Pyongyang for example) have to be disarmed in the same manner? Germany thinks it would be more coherent to pursue weapons inspections in Iraq not only for the reasons mentioned above but also because it sets a reasonable precedent for future disarmament of rogue states.

As a major world player, Germany is actively involved in a variety of international institutions. It has been interesting over recent weeks to observe how the various long-standing political alliances involving Germany (both formal and informal) have reacted to the Franco-German “challenge” to US foreign policy. Germany was recently elected for a two-year term as one of 10 non-permanent members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). Its role as president of the Council in February has placed it in a prominent position on the world stage. Has it used this position to promote its policies towards Iraq? Commentators point out that it would be unlikely to use this ceremonial role to advance its national position. But Germany’s neutrality as president does not prevent it from adopting a contentious position vis-à-vis other members of the council outside of its official role. The past couple of months have seen Germany form a so-called “axis of scepticism” with France (a permanent member of the UNSC). France and Germany recently celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty by pledging even greater Franco-German cooperation. After Colin Powell’s presentation to the United Nation (UN) on February 5, Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, echoed Dominique de Villepin’s suggestion that more weapons inspectors should be sent out to Iraq by underlining the need to “enhance the instruments of inspection and control” in the country. However, Germany’s detractors and even Chief Weapons Inspector Hans Blix have pointed to the German government’s political naivety in this matter: the problem is not that there are too few weapons inspectors in Iraq but rather that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating fully with the present team.

Germany at odd with the US

This alliance building has not only caused a huge rift within the UN but also, and quite predictably, undermined relations within the European Union. Recent events have seen the UK, Spain, Italy, Portugal and Denmark (among others) pledging to support the US in any potential military incursion into Iraq and the Franco-German alliance (and friends) vehemently advocating a diplomatic solution to the crisis. This divide calls into question one of the cornerstones of European unity, the CFSP (Common Foreign and Security Policy), which, in order to be effective, requires all members of the European Union (EU) to present a united front on the world stage. It remains to be seen whether the 15 will be able to patch up their differences and agree on a coherent course of action or whether the present crisis adumbrates an altogether more unstable phase of European integration.

Germany has found its fiercest critics within the US administration. There have been repeated verbal skirmishes between members of the Chancellery and Hawks in the Bush government. The US claims to feel betrayed by its former protégé, which achieved its economic miracle on the back of US Marshall Aid in the Postwar. So far German-US relations have remained civil, but as the stakes rise and Germany continues to dig its heels in, it is likely that the transatlantic relationship will gradually deteriorate. However, it is important to note that Germany has offered its military bases to NATO in the event of a war. For this reason alone (and despite the fact that the US is shifting many of its bases into the former Eastern bloc countries), the US will probably work to avoid an outbreak of “hostilities” with Germany.

A potential diplomatic power

If indeed war does break out in Iraq, Germany could be in an extremely invidious position. If the campaign is a success, Germany could be pilloried for having doubted in her erstwhile allies; if it is a disaster, Germany may be made to carry a heavy burden of guilt for thwarting a humanitarian mission to deliver the Iraqi population from an evil dictator. However, in the light of the recent mass demonstrations against war, it looks increasingly likely that Germany and the other members of the peace camp will have their way. It now seems that war just might be avoidable. Germany has gained strength and political clout from these public protests and is no longer isolated on the world stage. It would not be surprising in the present context if Germany came out of the Iraq crisis with reinforced diplomatic credentials. Sticking to one’s principles is a delicate enterprise but the rewards are sometimes considerable.

Since the Second World War and despite rising to become a major economic power, Germany has played a rather understated political role on the world stage. The Iraq crisis could provide an important catalyst for change. In one way or another, the dynamics of international relations will never be the same again.