Driven by electoral pressures and Germany’s postwar aversion to war and nuclear power, Chancellor Angela Merkel has deeply strained relations with allies in the European Union and the NATO alliance, raising new questions about Germany’s ability to play a global role in foreign policy, even as its economic power and influence grow.
By abstaining in the Security Council on the resolution authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians — and by refusing on Wednesday to participate in the enforcement of an arms embargo on Libya that the United Nations authorized — Germany pointedly refused to go along with the political aims and leadership of its two most important European allies, Britain and France, as well as the United States. The decision made the idea of a united European foreign policy seem further away than ever, even if France had broken solidarity first by suddenly recognizing the Libyan opposition as the legitimate government of the country.
And by choosing to shut down seven older nuclear plants in Germany after the nuclear crisis in Japan, Mrs. Merkel reversed her own policy and further ruffled relations with France, which derives 75 percent of its electric power from nuclear plants.
The new strains come weeks after Germany issued demands for economic austerity in the countries that use the euro as the price for new loan guarantees to troubled countries like Greece and Ireland. Portugal is thought by many to be next in line for a bailout. Germany, the richest and largest member of the European Union, has been tough and not always diplomatic in refusing to come to the aid of more profligate countries unless they undergo painful budget cuts and economic restructuring.
Taken together, the actions in Berlin demonstrate anew Germany’s increasing willingness in a post-cold-war world to act like other countries, subordinating relations with allies for the sake of national interests — and even for domestic political reasons.
Mrs. Merkel’s decision to abstain from the Security Council vote was fiercely criticized by many in her own party, while Joschka Fischer, a member of the opposition Greens and a former foreign minister, wrote that ”Germany has lost its credibility in the United Nations and the Middle East” and that “German hopes for a permanent seat on the Security Council have been permanently dashed.”
Klaus Naumann, the former head of the German military, said that “even the idea of a European Union seat” on the Security Council had been damaged, adding, “Germany has turned the idea of a unified European Union foreign policy into a farce.”
In a meeting of Mrs. Merkel’s own parliamentary caucus, Ruprecht Polenz, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called Germany’s abstention “a catastrophic signal,” according to Der Spiegel. Christian Ruck of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party, complained that “the European Union is falling apart.”
It is not easy to draw a clear line through all these events, said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Germany is still “the savior of the euro,” he said, “and it’s unthinkable that one day Germany should be the savior of Europe and the backbone of the economic union and the next the funeral director of alliance politics.”
The Libyan vote was "highly disturbing,” coming out of pacifism, exceptionalism, immaturity and fear of domestic backlash, he said. “And it came at an unfortunate time for Merkel, when the country was driven by angst due to the nuclear accident in Japan. So this combination of nuclear angst and deeply rooted pacifism just ahead of very important state elections — this was the perfect storm.”
The German government, caught up in the political fallout from the Japanese nuclear calamity, decided to abstain at the United Nations because that was a “more honest” expression of Germany’s aversion to military action of its own in Libya, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol.
The official stressed, however, that the government’s attention had been focused primarily on Japan. When history is written, he said, “people will remember 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassinations and Fukushima.”
François Heisbourg, special adviser for the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said it was uncomfortable for Germany to find itself in the company of Russia, China, India and Brazil while its main European allies and the United States voted for the resolution.
Given that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France had infuriated Mrs. Merkel and other European allies by his unilateral and seemingly impulsive recognition of the Libyan opposition, Mr. Heisbourg said, it seems unfair to simply blame Berlin for the breach in European unity. “But in public opinion, it looks like Germany refused European and Western solidarity,” he said.
Mrs. Merkel is acting with serious political constraints, with her coalition partner, the Free Democrats, dropping in the polls and their leader, Guido Westerwelle, the foreign minister who came out so strongly against the Libyan operation, considered to be in danger of losing his party leadership. State elections are chipping away at her control of the upper house of Parliament.
If her Christian Democratic Union loses its traditional stronghold of Baden-Württemberg in elections on Sunday, as polls indicate it will, she will face an opposition majority in parliament, badly weakening her political authority and freedom of action.
“The nuclear decision was Merkel trying to stem a political tsunami,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “This was crisis prevention.”’
Ms. Stelzenmüller suggested that Germany’s growing isolationism was part of a larger movement away from the certainties of cold-war alliances and institutions. With the end of the cold war, these more national priorities were inevitable, but are uncomfortable. “We Germans are doing what others are doing, but we are whipsawing more.”’
Germany explained its decision to withdraw its naval forces from the Mediterranean by saying the arms embargo on Libya needed a parliamentary mandate, since it could involve military force.
At the same time, to placate German allies, the government approved sending 300 more soldiers to Afghanistan to operate NATO surveillance planes, to ease the strain on countries that are involved in Libya and may need to redeploy forces.
Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed, however. “It’s a perverse logic,” said Wolfgang Gehrcke, foreign affairs spokesman of the Left party, “to exacerbate the war in Afghanistan because one doesn’t want to get involved in a war in Libya.”