Germany’s March 17th decision to abstain from the United Nations vote for a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over Libya has unleashed a firestorm of international criticism – as well as open skepticism on the country’s current and future fitness for leadership on the world stage. The tumultuous last few weeks have observers voicing three primary concerns on whether Germany should (or even could) assume the world leadership position it claims to want: 1) a paradox, both in policy and in image, 2) battered confidence on the part of its foreign partners, and 3) an uncertain future in global leadership.
Germany’s actions are paradoxical at national, European and international levels. The country long followed draconian foreign-affairs strictures such as “never alone” and “never again Auschwitz,” which guided the country since it emerged, shuddering and ashamed, from its losing role in World War II. After abstention, these tenets seem, at least in the immediate, to have largely been cast aside – with no alternatives proposed to replace them. Equally problematic are the polling results of German opinion on Libya: Reuters reported in April that a whopping 71 percent of Germans support international intervention in the country. According to a contributor at the online Atlantic Community, 65 percent of Germans – essentially, many of the same voters – would disapprove of German participation therein. The country shows a sort of diplomatic allergy to the often ugly business of conflict prevention. Berlin still insists it wants a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, but after its ill-considered abstention, its Western UN allies will surely be loath to grant such a diplomatic trump card to a partner increasingly seen as unreliable.
The battered confidence in Germany’s recent diplomacy is perhaps best reflected by the United States and France. (...) Following abstention, Germany not longer figures on US President Barack Obama’s metaphorical “closest allies” list, Spiegel writes. In a March television interview, the US president reeled off a long count of European partners – with Germany conspicuously absent. Relations are also strained between Germany and France, its partner in post-crisis EU leadership. The interventionist impulse of French President Nicolas Sarkozy in Libya and in Ivory Coast is arguably motivated by next year’s elections in France just as much as in Merkel’s Germany, but at least Sarkozy’s choice is defensible on moral and humanitarian levels.
Looking forward, the future of Germany’s world role is less a question of whether it’s uncertain – it is uncertain – but rather, to what degree. Even before the Arab Spring, the Western predominance in which Germany figures has come under rising skepticism in the face of non-Western competition from nations like China and India. The conventional wisdom of German postwar thinking advised that, ‘when in doubt, side with the West.’ Now that Berlin has broken with its strongest allies over Libya, it seems to be anyone’s guess as to how Germany’s future foreign policy sketches out.
If, as many have asked, the United Nations is breaking new ground in stopping conflict through military means, the international community may be turning a historical corner toward using hard-power solutions when extraordinary circumstances such as those in Libya demand it. Divergence in German and international values is clearly at work. Continued divergence could mean Germany gets left behind.