Moving Germany back to Center Stage – Merkel’s Challenge

By January 9, 2006Article, Atlantic Eye

January 9 (UPI) — Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives in Washington at a most opportune moment. The Bush administration desperately needs a European anchor, without many candidates to choose from; while Germany anxiously seeks to get beyond the frayed relationship of the Schroeder years.

Angela Merkel is Germany’s first woman Chancellor, and the first from the former totalitarian and communist GDR (East Germany). She is the result of the symbiosis of repression and freedom. She spent the first 36 years of her life in a system in which fear was ever present. She would say of herself, “I learned to hone my skills at disguising my thoughts and feelings a necessity not to attract the STASI (the notorious Secret Police) and especially for a pastor’s daughter.”

I remember Angela Merkel as Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s Minister for Women and Youth after unification in 1990. At 36, she was his youngest Cabinet Member. Later, in 1994 she would become Minister for the Environment, where I would have a chance to meet her. My first impressions were mixed, but certain characteristics stood out.

She is a contradiction. She values freedom and liberty, words constantly invoked in speeches by President Bush. Yet, she was a member of the communist-led Freie Deutsche Jugend (FDJ) and was Regional Secretary for Propaganda at the East German Academy of Sciences. Nonetheless, she did not
take the secular Jugendweihe, common in GDR – and usually a necessary right-of-passage- but was confirmed instead. She is a Protestant, divorced and has no children in a Party that is Catholic, male-dominated and socially conservative.

Merkel has a great interest in cooperation, it is her style – she is a consensus-builder. She is self deprecating, once saying, “Anyone who really has something to say doesn’t need make-up.”  She is often underestimated, with a some-what frumpy image. She did not come from nowhere, having been
hand-picked by Helmut Kohl after the fall of the wall. She slowly and methodically worked her way-up the Conservative Party (CDU) hierarchy serving as Secretary General and later Majority Leader. She is the consummate political foot soldier, having given-up a chance to run for Chancellor in 2002 to Bavarian Premier Edmund Stoiber.

She arrives in the United States with many expectations, some of which she cannot possibly fulfill without tackling Germany’s enormous domestic agenda. German foreign policy can only work, that is her ability to be a full partner with the United States, if she can get her domestic agenda in order. While Germany’s economy has begun to show sign’s of strengthening, there a several key domestic issues she must tackle – health care, the national pension scheme, flexibility in employment and taxes. This is not an easy challenge in a coalition with the left-of-center Social Democrats (SPD) whose natural constituency is mostly opposed to market flexibility.

But foreign policy and domestic policy are just portions of a single responsibility facing the new Chancellor of Germany. The fact is Chancellor Merkel must dance at 3 weddings simultaneously – Europe, Germany and Internationally. She is not just visiting Washington as German Chancellor, she is also representing Europe – with all its complications – and with an expectation that she can deliver internationally.

Chancellor Merkel must enunciate clearly issues important to the United

1) She must show resolve towards Iran, and condemn their nuclear program. She should articulate a clear policy for Germany towards the Middle-East.

2) She must present a clear picture of how she intends to wean-away Germany from dependence on Russian gas and oil. At the very least, to have options that will-not allow President Putin to once-again use energy in an attempt to bribe European countries.

3) She must reinvigorate the transatlantic alliance with a series of long term proposals for US-German and US-European cooperation, showing why Germany is the right partner in the European sphere. (She has a perfect opportunity to outline her vision and collect ideas at a public policy session hosted by the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and the American Council on Germany with forty transatlantic experts including Markus Meckel and Fritjof von Nordenskjold as part of her 24 hour visit).

4) It is acceptable to criticize the United States on Iraq, but it is more effective to offer help. This requires that Germany clearly define its security and defense policy, and shows a willingness to invest in defense
spending. A friend, and the Bush administration must accept this, has the right to criticize, and Merkel should not be a lap-dog, but a reliable partner also offers constructive criticism with proposals.

Chancellor Merkel has a unique opportunity to jump start a damaged relationship. Germany needs the United States and has a great interest in helping the United States improve its image. During the Cold War Germany was a reliable and trustworthy partner – a true friend. It still is.

A night ago, I had a drink with a German Diplomat who said Merkel’s task reminds him of a well-known saying in German Foreign Policy, “the impossible we can deliver immediately, wonders take somewhat longer.”

Let us not just wish Chancellor Merkel the best. Let us be her friend.

Marc S. Ellenbogen is President of the Prague Society