Germany’s lonely walk

“Never let Germany walk alone”, Francois Mitterand apparently used to tell his military commanders. But two decades after the end of the Cold War, Germany has slipped away not only from France’s embrace, but also from its traditional role within the EU. On a range of issues, Germany is going-alone, even if doing so is detrimental to Berlin’s own interests and corrosive of alliance relations.

On Russia, for example, Germany has been almost hysterically concerned that the Baltic states would push the EU towards an anti-Moscow stance. In NATO and EU discussions, it has often been German diplomats who have debased the debate, accusing those, like Britain and Sweden, who want a tougher post-Georgia policy towards Russia as wanting to start a new Cold War.

To The Economist, these mishaps are a function of Germany’s political situation. Facing a general election next year, Chancellor Angela Merkel is locked in a battle with the SDP’s likely front-runner and current Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, making every foreign policy issue a battle for domestic advantage. Things have not been helped by the notoriously poor relationship between Mrs Merkel and France’s president, Nicolas Sarkozy, who’s frenetic diplomatic style cuts against the German chancellor’s measured ways.

But the problem runs deeper and may not be solved by the future German elections or the recently held U.S ones. For while the polls show the CDU in the lead, they are sufficiently tight to be able to force another so-called “grand coalition” between CDU and CDU, which would see a re-run of all the foreign policy battles.

The election of Barrack Obama in the U.S is also unlikely to make a big difference. On Iran, Afghanistan and Iraq — trouble-spots that will to occupy the Obama administration’s time —Germany’s position is at best awkward. Germany’s industry still has strong links with Iran; last month Germany’s ambassador to Iran, Herbert Honsowitz, told his Iranian hosts not to worry about Berlin’s announcement that it would reduce trade links as German companies would use the United Arab Emirates as a middleman for more than $4 billion in commerce.

And everyone expects President Obama to ask Germany to send more troops to NATO’s Afghan mission and deploy some of those 4500 soldiers already there to the war-torn south. German diplomats are furiously compiling arguments that would counter such a request –- and may offer police officers instead — but these are unlikely to make too much of an impact when President Obama makes the public case and Secretary Clinton does the follow-up.

Then there is climate change? Mrs Merkel was once seen as of the key reformers, even at one point dubbed “the climate chancellor”. But she is now pushing for parts of Germany’s industry to be exempted from emissions trading. This may put her at odds not only with the Obama administration, but also Congress, now that Democratic congressman Henry Waxman has taken the reigns of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Running through all these issues is one big question: what role does Germany want to play in the world? Does it want to be a large Switzerland – unarmed, mediating between all sides, but unwilling to take bold positions, devote resources and make sacrifices? Or does it want to be a key ally for the U.S, Britain and France, a motor of the EU and a pillar of the Euro-Atlantic community?

On my recent visits to Berlin I have become convinced that many of Germany’s politicians know current policy is not working. They also know that many of the world’s problems –- from Russia to Iran –- can only be solved by Germany’s active involvement. However, a large proportion of the public does not want to accept the price that has to be paid for Germany’s freedom, security and prosperity. And German politicians of all hues have been unwilling to make the case as forcefully as required, in part –- but not exclusively — because of the political situation. However, neither Germany nor its allies can afford for Europe’s largest country to walk alone.