BERLIN: Chancellor Angela Merkel has been thrust into leading Europe back from the financial brink, but Germany remains reluctant to take on global clout to match its economic prowess.
Beyond crisis efforts to save the euro, Europe’s top economy and export powerhouse remains unable or unwilling to pull its weight on major international crises, analysts say.
Its foreign policy is still defined by “caution, pragmatism, a reluctance to strike out new paths,” said Constanze Stelzenmueller of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
Josef Joffe, writing in influential weekly Die Zeit, summed up German engagement abroad in a commentary headlined “Nothing but words,” charging that “Germany follows the crises in the world according to the motto ‘hurt no-one, least of all oneself.’”
Germany, shamed by its World War II aggression, stepped lightly on the world stage for decades after, refusing to send troops abroad and avoiding muscular diplomacy.
It has since joined interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan, where it has the third-biggest foreign contingent. But it disappointed North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies again in 2011 by refusing to back the Libya campaign, abstaining alongside Russia and China.
Merkel’s erstwhile political mentor, ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl who oversaw German reunification, at the time complained that Germany lacked “a compass” in foreign policy and was “no longer a reliable force, internally or externally.”
Merkel’s former defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg recently criticized Germany’s “culture of reluctance” in foreign and security matters in a joint New York Times editorial.
Leaders across Germany’s political spectrum still believed the nation’s economic might helped compensate for its failure to pull its weight in NATO and elsewhere, wrote zu Guttenberg, who resigned in 2011 over a plagiarism scandal.
He also argued that “‘chequebook diplomacy’ by the biggest European Union member is not a viable substitute for contributing military assets to the joint defense of our common values and interests.”
The new flare-up in the Syrian crisis—just weeks before Germany’s September 22 elections—again put Merkel on the spot, as she seeks to reassure allies that Germany is a reliable partner without spooking a history-scarred and mostly anti-war electorate.
Berlin ruled out joining any US-led military strike but stressed the need for a united international response to an alleged chemical attack by the Damascus regime.
Spiegel Online said that Merkel “has to dispense her views on an American attack in such a way that they are seen as criticism in Germany and support in the United States.
“It’s a method Merkel has, to a certain degree, perfected,” it added.
Although Merkel conspicuously refrained from joining the United States and other allies among the Group of 20 in urging a “strong” response on Syria last week, a day later Germany said it had signed on after European Union (EU) foreign ministers forged a united position that also backed a strong reaction but stopped short of endorsing military action.
Germany has recently contributed to Western military efforts. Some 400 soldiers operate Patriot air defense batteries to protect NATO member Turkey from any conflict spillover from Syria, and Germany also took part in an EU-led training mission in Mali.
But Berlin is also usually quick to point to its legal restrictions in taking part in deployments abroad, which require a parliamentary mandate that can impede its ability to act quickly.
Hans Kundnani, of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the Bundeswehr armed forces were also limited by their equipment.
“In essence, it’s a choice, I think,” he told Agence France-Presse.
“I think in some ways a lot of people have, kind of, given up on Germany on these issues anyway,” he added.
While it has stayed on the sidelines of military conflicts, Germany as Europe’s dominant economy was thrown into the thick of the eurozone crisis, where its power has sparked an ambiguous response from neighbors.
When Berlin became the go-to capital, it was at once criticized for imposing diktats on Europe and failing to provide leadership.
Merkel’s “tough love” of loans in return for painful reforms drew fire especially in Greece, Spain and Portugal.
At home her center-left election rival Peer Steinbrueck has called for a “Marshall Plan II” so Germany can repay some of the post-World War II solidarity it was shown.
Germany’s real foreign policy priority has been to promote commercial and trade interests, said one Western diplomat, who asked not to be named.
Priority goes to the economy,” he said, highlighting Merkel’s multiple trips to China and even resource-rich Mongolia.
Germany has widened its arms exports under Merkel, especially to the Gulf countries including Saudi Arabia, where, for decades, Berlin declined to sell heavy weapons because of human rights concerns and fears for Israel’s security.
Kundnani also said that Germany had stopped being “apologetic” over its security stance and instead feels its own approach is better than its “way too trigger-happy” allies with their higher defense spending.
“There is a growing sense among German officials, I think, that the nuclear deterrent that Britain and France have is a complete waste of money,” he added.