Merkel and Germany: Take Three

September 23, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Yes, it was a soporific campaign that led to Sunday’s coronation of Angela Merkel as Germany’s third-term German chancellor and (still) the world’s most powerful woman. But no, that doesn’t mean stagnation in Berlin’s foreign policy. As skillfully as she buried any policy debates under platitudes in her vigorous pursuit of votes this past month, Merkel has already planted the seeds of policy change, especially in dealing with the European Union and the euro zone.

The probable “grand coalition” between her center-right conservatives (41.5 percent of the high 72.5 percent turnout) and Germany’s other big party, the center-left Social Democrats (25.7 percent) won’t affect her policy calculus. Even as the parliamentary opposition during the past four years of euro crisis, the Social Democratic Party (SPD) basically supported Merkel’s slow, reluctant bailouts of financially strapped euro zone members in return for such tough domestic reforms in Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Italy as really collecting taxes, raising the retirement age, and curtailing the excesses of crony capitalism. And the SPD, while periodically calling for more stimulus and less austerity in recipient countries in vain, watched in amazement as Merkel committed rich Germany to ever more financial obligations to keep the euro zone from breaking apart—but at the same time increased her overwhelming popularity with German taxpayers.

Nor will Merkel be constrained by the novice anti-euro party called Alternative for Germany. This party, with its single-issue protest against the decade-old single-currency euro union among consenting EU members, did surprisingly well for a start-up. It won 4.7 percent, but it fell short of the 5 per cent minimum needed to enter the Bundestag.

Nor, to her regret, will Chancellor Merkel even have to cater to the special interests of her erstwhile coalition partner, the Free Democratic Party (FDP), the champion of small business entrepreneurs. Merkel’s popularity attracted just enough crossover voters to deprive the FDP, for the first time in its proud 64 years, of the 5 per cent minimum for parliamentary seats. As a result, the nation-wide niche FDP has probably now been consigned to the dustbin of history. In the long run, the strategic loss of their natural partner could haunt the conservatives, but in the short run of the next four years, the FDP’s absence strengthens Merkel’s solo leadership.

With her hands now free, the policy areas in which Merkel has already hinted at forthcoming changes might be summed up as Greece, France, and the European Union.

Clearly the first beneficiary of a German policy shift will be Greece. Athens faces imminent bankruptcy unless it gets another financial transfusion. During the campaign Merkel banned all public talk of the next step, but members of her team made it known that she could be persuaded to open her check book again once her  new government is in place.

This is significant, as earlier bailouts of Greece have been essentially cost-free for German taxpayers. Berlin has not yet had to ante up on its guarantees of Greek financial solvency. Its—and the European Central Bank’s—determination to do “whatever it takes” to keep heavily indebted Greece within the euro zone have sufficed to keep Greek bond yields tolerable, and the euro zone as a whole is finally showing signs of renewed growth that could eventually lift all boats.

At this point, however, economists expect the next urgent package to save Athens to come with a price tag. There is already talk in Germany of the contribution that holders of Greek bonds (including many German banks) must pay in accepting “haircut” losses on rescheduling of the debts. This suggests that the German paymaster will have to dole out real money for the first time in providing the next tranche of support.

France is a different story. Personal and policy tensions between the classical Socialist President Francois Hollande and the cautious Christian Democratic Chancellor Merkel are already legendary. Merkel’s approach to France over the past half year has basically been to put all joint business on hold until she could come back with a fresh mandate from her voters—and convince Hollande that he simply will have to deal with her for the next four years and must give up his dreams of expanding stimulus and social spending by incurring further debt.

With her resounding mandate on Sunday, Merkel now expects to see change in bilateral relations—on the part of Paris rather than Berlin. She wants Hollande to adjust at last to German ideas of fiscal responsibility that have given Germany the globe’s third-largest economy. She wants him to return to the 1980s free-market reforms of his Socialist predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, and restart the stalled French convergence upward toward German economic performance. And on this basis she wants to restore the traditional Franco-German “motor” for Europe. Under this system, any policy compromise reached by Germanyas a spokesman for stricter northern economies­ and France as a spokesman for laxer southern economies has generally been accepted by their respective regions.

On European institutions, Merkel has quietly dropped her proposal of two years ago that the EU agree on treaty changes to form an EU political union to police economic discipline of the sort she has extracted from poor euro zone performers as their price for bailouts. By now she has come to rely on ad hoc inter-governmental deals between sovereign states instead of any strengthening of the European Commission’s supranational powers to enforce fiscal rectitude in the euro zone.

This issue too will require French-German compromise. Formally, Merkel’s new position corresponds with French abandonment of its own insistence on a potentially dirigiste EU political union to oversee the currency union during the acrimonious formation of the euro zone in the 1990s. In substance, however, Paris is by now unhappy with both supranational and inter-governmental models of EU governance, since either way, Berlin’s sheer economic weight—and not Paris’s diplomatic skill—will dominate Europe.

Chancellor Merkel’s intended post-election policy changes are perhaps incremental—but they are nonetheless seminal.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of The Rebirth of Europe.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

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Berlin’s Take on Syria: Spectrum Mirrors US

September 19, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Berlin holds up an intriguing mirror to America’s Syria policy. Chancellor Angela Merkel, like President Barack Obama, has been snatched from shame by the diplomatic judo of the past two weeks. And divided opinion in Germany spreads across the same wide pro and con spectrum that the chattering classes occupy in the United States.

The one major difference is that Germans tend to see the re-entry of sulky Russian President Vladimir Putin into global politics as a positive, and possibly stabilizing, move. Americans, on the contrary, take it for granted that this month’s seizure of the Middle East narrative by Russia is negative and freezes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in place as the executor of the agreement to destroy his 1000 tons of chemical weapons.

First, to Merkel’s rescue in the run-up to next Sunday’s general election. She may be Europe’s most powerful woman and Germany’s second-most popular politician, but her government looked isolated a fortnight ago. America’s other major European allies had backed President Obama’s declared intent to strike Syria as punishment for his killing of 1400 rebels and civilians with chemical weapons last month. Germany, in a blend of happenstance and aversion to military intervention, had not signed the common declaration.

Had this become a hot topic in this year’s otherwise bland campaign, a voter defection of one or two percent at uneasiness over German exclusion from the transatlantic consensus might have followed. In turn, this shift could have left Merkel unable to leverage her 40 percent conservative base into a coalition majority. Instead, this issue was quickly forgotten in the rush to the US-Russian deal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons .

Nor is this gain for Merkel merely tactical. Germany’s expertise will be in great demand in dismantling Syria’s chemical weapons. The new German government (probably under Chancellor Merkel) will be at the center of the whole operation in the kind of non-war security task that Germans prefer. Specifically, Germany’s discreet detoxification of Soviet chemical and biological field weapons as Soviet divisions withdrew from Germany and Central Europe when the cold war ended 20 years ago offers a precedent for cooperation between Russian and German specialists now. The Russian president who welcomed German help then was named Yeltsin, not Putin. But the memory of trust (and of the absence of German gloating at the Soviet retreat) remains.

Among German foreign-policy professionals, diplomats who have been inculcated in the importance of laying the groundwork for any policy are privately dismayed by Obama’s lurches and public agonizing about Syria policy—and by the uncertainty created by Congress and the American public’s withholding of support for any punitive strike on Syria. Critics say Obama built traps for himself in declaring the use of chemical weapons as a red line and in seeking Congressional approval for military action. In addition, they fault him for not sending a representative over the past weekend to explain Washington’s new policy to the regular monthly meeting in Istanbul of Western backers and the increasingly bitter moderate elements among the rebels.

The result has been, critics conclude, an acceleration of American decline as the guarantor of world order and a risk that Obama could now lose his authority and become a lame duck for the next three years.

At the other end of the spectrum, some German academics, like their American colleagues, point to that other diplomatic skill of creative ambiguity. They see a window of opportunity in the very fluidity and unexpectedness of recent developments. In Putin’s new engagement, they detect a desire to break out of being ignored as a second-class power. They think Putin now discerns some common interests with the West in keeping Syria’s huge chemical weapons stocks out of the hands of the jihadists—including Chechen insurgents who are training in Syria to fight Russian rule in the North Caucasus—that now dominate the Syrian rebels.

In the United States, Assistant Professor of Political Science Phil Arena at SUNY Buffalo, contends that Obama’s dithering may have in fact helped persuade Assad to admit that he had chemical weapons, sign the treaty banning these weapons, and produce a map of his holdings within a week. “The most relevant obstacle to negotiation, up until very recently, might well have been a belief on behalf of Putin and Assad that the United States couldn’t be appeased,” no matter what they did. As Max Fisher commented in the Washington Post, “It’s easy to imagine both Putin and Assad concluding that because Obama was uncertain, he was also persuadable. And that gave them a big incentive to try to persuade him.”

Josef Janning, Mercator Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations, makes the same case. He urges the West to rethink “the whole system of incentives and disincentives” in an era when the British and American publics (like German and other continental European publics long before the Anglo-Saxons) have become disillusioned with the results of military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan. He argues that the chemical weapons inspection in Syria should lead to a ceasefire to protect the inspectors—and this could actually lead to a final effort to end the vicious civil war there with a political settlement.

Nicholas Burns, former U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs who is now teaching at the Kennedy School at Harvard, offers a hybrid view. He first faults the bad workmanship of the Obama administration in recent weeks, but then concludes, “there is more good than bad in this deal…[T]he chemical weapons agreement may end up weakening Assad, not strengthening him…. Like Saddam and Qadafi before him, Assad will soon discover the public humiliation of being forced by the outside world to give up an important symbol of his government’s military power. This could translate into a loss of face for Assad personally. And in practical terms, Assad will lose some of his power to intimidate and to be feared…. Moscow will come under tremendous international pressure to hold Assad’s feet to the fire. ”

Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei might even have similar ideas. As recently as two weeks ago he was still scolding Western powers for alleging that Assad had fired chemical weapons as a “pretext” to attack Syria. Yet on Tuesday he suddenly told the Spanish broadcaster Telemundo that it is time for “heroic leniency” and Iran should choose diplomacy over militarism.

Stay tuned.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and the author of Beyond the Wall: Germany’s Road to Unification.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

Losing Afghanistan

September 11, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond 

Who lost Afghanistan? President George W. Bush, by hubris? Gen. David Petraeus, by his faith in counterinsurgency doctrine? Afghan President Hamid Karzai, whose clan skimmed off fortunes from the 90 percent of the Afghan budget funded by the West? Warlord brigands and drug mafias? Pakistani manipulators of jihadis?

According to Ahmed Rashid and US Army Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, the answer is perhaps all of the above. Rashid, a Pakistani, is dean of all journalists who ever covered Afghanistan. Eikenberry was an ambassador to Kabul after an earlier tour as commander of the NATO-led forces there.

To be sure, neither Rashid, addressing a rapt audience at the Berlin Literary Festival, nor Eikenberry, writing in the current Foreign Affairs, ever concedes that Afghanistan is “lost.” But the pessimism of both seeps through the pores of their rhetoric as they anticipate the withdrawal of Western combat troops from Afghanistan next year.

“The media are constantly writing about the transition from Western forces to the Afghan army,” begins Rashid, and chides his guild for its fixation on this military issue. “We should ask [instead], will there be a transition from war to non-war? A peaceful political transition? That is the critical transition.”

Rashid’s assessment is not reassuring.  American commandos were greeted with smiles and joyful kite-flying as they helped the Afghan Northern Alliance liberate Kabul from repressive Taliban rulers and Al Qaeda militants in the wake of 9/11, he notes. But Washington squandered its good will thereafter. It failed to find the right local partners to convert military security into fair governance. It overextended itself by launching another foreign land war and redeployed GIs from the Afghan to the Iraqi theater prematurely. As American troops were thinned out in Afghanistan, the Taliban seeped back from sanctuaries in Pakistan. Afghan villagers once again had little choice but to resort to regional militias for protection.

In the last four or five years the popular euphoria has evaporated. What remains is the traditional gap between city and countryside, along with familiar widening resentment of foreigners who were originally called in to bolster allied Afghan factions but eventually distorted local power relations with their alien wealth.

Eikenberry concurs in this thumbnail history. Formally, his critique addresses only the two-year “surge” of American forces in Afghanistan that ended last December after tactical success but ultimate strategic failure. Yet by implication, Eikenberry turns his narrow reckoning with his never-named nemesis, Gen. David Petraeus—the political high-flyer who recycled counterinsurgency (COIN) theory from the Vietnam War—into a broader deconstruction of America’s whole military-oriented approach in the Hindu Kush. “COIN failed in Afghanistan,” he declares.

In essence, Eikenberry’s words are a more polite rendering of outgoing Defence Secretary Robert Gates’ outburst in telling West Point cadets that any future defence secretary should “have his head examined” if he again sent “a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa.”

There were “three crucial assumptions” in COIN theory, Eikenberry writes. The NATO-led intervention forces should  (a) protect local populations long enough to produce (b) an accountable government, by (c) devising a joint plan with the host-country government to effect such a transformation. All three assumptions proved to be unfeasible, in part because of the hubris of expecting the “typical 21-year-old marine [who] is hard-pressed to win the heart and mind of his mother-in-law” to “do the same with an ethnocentric Pashtun tribal elder.”

Rashid, who notes in answering a question from the floor that he has read Eikenberry’s article, seconds the diplomat-general’s sentiment. He formulates his own trio of crucial steps that must be taken in Afghanistan to ward off a reversion to the two decades of civil war that preceded Western intervention. The war-distorted Afghan economy should be shifted “to create indigenous local economy which could offer young people employment.” A regional agreement should be reached that would give the country’s powerful neighbours a stake in Afghanistan’s stability. And there should be serious negotiations with those elements of the Taliban who might still be willing to reach a ceasefire.

Rashid holds out some hope that civil war can be averted. “Afghanistan isn’t a basket case,” he declares. It has good agriculture and a rich store of minerals. It still has a chance, however slim, to produce a legitimate government in next year’s presidential election.

And, he adds, “I have a great belief in the Afghans’ capacity to overcome enormous obstacles…. Everybody has a share of the blame [for what has gone wrong]….But I still believe, if the negotiating states stay engaged in a meaningful way”—and the West continues to fund health, education, and other social programs in the country that it has already supported with $5 billion—”Afghanistan could get on an even keel.”

If so—a very big if in both Ahmed Rashid and Karl Eikenberry’s judgment—no one will have lost Afghanistan.

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based American journalist and author.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond

Spanish and British Fleets Face Off Again in Gibraltar

September 3, 2013
By Elizabeth Pond

Think of Gibraltar as a whimsical footnote to last week’s abrupt abdication by Britain from “punching above its weight” for half a century in its post-empire world. Even as the mother of parliaments has barred its government from joining an American strike on Syria over the use of chemical weapons, Gibraltar has reminded nostalgic Brits of imperial glory.

The current iteration of the 300-year-old feud between London and Madrid over the British protectorate on the southern tip of Spain erupted mid-summer. Fortunately, today’s weapons of choice—apart from one potshot allegedly fired at a jet skier by the Guardia Civil and a few Gilbert-and-Sullivan gunboats deployed by Her Majesty’s government—are nothing more lethal than cement blocks and hyperbole.

The Gibraltar government, exercising the autonomy granted to it by Britain in 1969, triggered the latest row by sinking cement in disputed waters off its promontory to build an artificial reef. The rationale was that the new reef would provide a cozy home for bream, broadbill swordfish, and bluefin tuna and replenish dwindling stocks. It would only be a small add-on to the cumulative tires, barges, Mercedes-Benz sedan, and other debris dumped into the seabed in years past to improve on nature.

Spanish fishing captains, however, saw an ulterior motive—blocking them from trawling for shellfish in what were rightfully Spanish waters. Last month they mounted a seaborne protest at the entry to Gibraltar’s port. The Spanish government backed them on land by imposing long border delays and talking about introducing a €50 tax each time a car crosses from the 2.6-square-mile enclave to capacious Spain and Gibraltarians’ second homes.

British Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he was “seriously concerned” about the Spanish action.

Madrid then upped the ante by threatening stringent financial investigations of Spanish property owned by Gibraltarians. This was viewed as not cricket by the 30,000 inhabitants crammed onto the peninsula. By now most of them stem from Spanish, Maltese, and Genoese rather than English descent, but they are no less keen than other citizens in residues of John Bull’s dominions to preserve their right to immunity from both British and local taxes. In the 2002 referendum on cutting ties with London, the enclave voted 98 percent to remain a protectorate. Chief Minister Fabian Picardo speaks for his constituents when he compares Spain with North Korea and swears that Gibraltar will remain British for the next 3,000 years.

London tabloids accused the conservative Spanish government of abandoning the pragmatic Gibraltar policy of its Socialist predecessor and stirring up trouble in order to divert attention from its own scandals. Madrid tabloids scolded Prime Minister Cameron for championing Gibraltar abroad to compensate for his political weakness at home.

In the theater of confrontation Guardia Civil frogmen dived down to plant the Spanish flag on the newborn reef. The HMS Westminster frigate, sailing to exercises with allies in the Gulf, lingered briefly en route at the mighty confluence of the Atlantic and Mediterranean seas. The daily Mirror hailed the encounter with the headline, “Gibraltar: 40 Spanish fishing boats in stand-off with Royal Navy after illegally entering British waters.” In sly reference to the victory of Sir Francis Drake over the Spanish navy under the first Queen Elizabeth, it labeled the flotilla of trawlers an “armada.”

William Dartmouth, UK Independence Party Member of the European Parliament for the southwest of England and Gibraltar, insisted that a member of the royal family (third-in-line Prince George Alexander Louis perhaps?) should demonstrate British resolve by appearing in person on the Rock. The Express gleefully ran comments from readers such as “Spain runs one of the most criminal, destructive and lawless fishing fleets of the planet, raping the oceans and destroying shark (and other fish) populations and marine ecosystems everywhere.” More to the political point, Express reader “naturalspanish” skyped the message for Madrid, “No, your last colonies are Catalunya, Euskadi, Galicia, Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands. Relinquish your ownership of these… and maybe you’d have a moral authority to speak about Gibraltar.”

The choreography reminded the Financial Times Madrid correspondent  of magical realist Jorge Luis Borges’ observation that the 1982 Falklands war resembled “two bald men fighting over a comb.”

Within today’s post-bellicist European Union, of course, two members of the club will not resort to fighting each other over a comb. Prime Minister Cameron may not emulate his sister conservative Margaret Thatcher by offering Spain a compromise on Gibraltar as she did in the 1980s (along with ceding Rhodesia to the resident Africans and promising to return Hong Kong to China after Britain’s 99-year lease expired in 1997). But neither will he—especially after parliament’s revolt last week—emulate Thatcher’s dispatch of a submarine to torpedo the Argentine cruiser Belgrano in order to perpetuate British rule on far-flung oceanic territories.

Instead, both Cameron and his Spanish counterpart have appealed to European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso to send inspectors to Gibraltar to see (at London’s request) if Spain is violating EU rules on open borders or (at Madrid’s request) whether Gibraltar’s import last year of 4666 excise-free packs of cigarettes per capita raises suspicions of smuggling. When the inspectors arrive, this month or next, they will have to examine the entire context of border control, taxes, trafficking, Internet gambling, and money laundering. Given a pinch of good will, they should be able to devise face-saving solutions that won’t seem quite as anachronistic as the present arrangement.

If only it were that easy in Syria or the euro zone…

Elizabeth Pond is a Berlin-based journalist and the author of The Rebirth of Europe.

World Policy Journal
© Elizabeth Pond