Will Germany’s Coalition Work?

The Washington Post

Angela Merkel takes office as chancellor of Germany at a moment of crisis for a country poised between domestic reform and economic doldrums and social deadlock, between stalemate and new creativity on European integration, and between tradition and the need for new patterns in the Atlantic Alliance.

When I first saw the close election results and the makeup of the Grand Coalition that is to govern, I feared deadlock. How would a chancellor with disappointing electoral results tame a coalition of parties historically in strident opposition to one another, and that had bitterly split on almost all issues in the recent election? And the foreign policy issues – especially the disputes with the United States – have become so embedded in German public opinion that significant modifications might prove unfeasible, especially as the new foreign minister is one of the closest associates of the outgoing chancellor.

But there is an alternative prospect to which I am increasingly leaning. Both coalition parties know that if they frustrate each other, the coalition will break up and each will face the dilemmas that obliged them to form it in the first place. When the departing chancellor, Gerhard Schroeder, attempted marginal reforms, it threatened to split the Social Democratic Party. When Merkel offered a far-reaching, market-oriented alternative, it divided the electorate almost evenly – indeed, with a slight majority for the left if one includes former communists. Thus a deadlock might make the dominant parties irrelevant by producing a major electoral shift to minor parties or to new ones at the extremes of the political spectrum.

The personality of the new chancellor provides additional hope. It was fashionable to deprecate Merkel’s apparent charisma deficit during the electoral campaign. But for the chancellor’s office, the extraordinary achievement of her rise may prove more relevant. Within a short time, she advanced from obscure scientific researcher in communist East Germany to chancellor, without representing a special constituency of her own, against opponents in her own party who had spent their lives scrambling up the political ladder. Her single-minded persistence in the pursuit of substantive goals may create its own impetus in the day-to-day business of governing.

Foreign policy is the field where the scope for leadership is greatest. During the Cold War, Europe needed American power for its security. And the trauma of its wartime history produced a moral impulse in Germany to return to the world community as a partner of the United States. A sense of a common destiny evolved which led to the foundation of the Atlantic Alliance, spurred European integration and helped submerge tactical differences.

The collapse of the Soviet Union ended Europe’s strategic dependence on the United States; the emergence of a new generation ended Germany’s emotional dependence on U.S. policy. For those who came to maturity in the 1960s and afterward, the great emotional political experience was opposition to the Vietnam War and deployment of medium-range missiles in Germany. This dissociation from the United States escalated into massive demonstrations, especially in 1968 and ’82. When the collapse of the Soviet Union coincided with a change of government in Germany, the stage was set for a modification in the tone as well as the substance of allied relationships. A similar shift of generations in the United States moved the center of gravity of U.S. politics to regions less emotionally tied to Europe.

It is likely that any German chancellor would have been reluctant to join the war in Iraq. But no chancellor or foreign minister not of the ’68 generation would have based his policy on overt opposition to the United States and conducted two election campaigns on a theme of profound distrust of America’s ultimate motives. Nor would demonstrative joint efforts with France and Russia to thwart American diplomatic efforts at the United Nations have been likely.

Mistakes were made on both sides of the Atlantic. The proclamation by the Bush administration of a new strategic doctrine of preemptive war was one of them. The doctrine was intellectually defensible in light of changed technology, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and terrorism. But announcing unilaterally what appeared as a radical change of doctrine ran counter to traditional alliance practice.

In the end, the issue of multilateralism vs. unilateralism does not concern procedure but substance. When purposes are parallel, multilateral decision follows nearly automatically. When they diverge, multilateral decision making turns into an empty shell. The challenge to the Atlantic Alliance has been less the abandonment of procedure than the gradual evaporation of a sense of common destiny.

Both sides seem committed to restoring a more positive collaboration. In America, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice outlined a new consultative approach in a February speech. In Germany, the Merkel government marks the advent of a third postwar generation: less in thrall to the emotional pro-Americanism of the 1950s and ’60s but not shaped by the passions of the so-called ’68 generation. This will be the case with the new foreign minister from the Social Democratic Party. The generational change is especially pronounced in the case of the chancellor.

With her systematic scientist’s approach, Merkel will avoid choosing between Atlanticism and Europe or confusing sentimental moves toward Russia with grand strategy. Matter-of-fact, serious and thoughtful, she will strive to be a partner for a set of relationships appropriate to the new international order – one that refuses to choose between France and the United States but rather establishes a framework embracing both.

The Bush administration has shown willingness to cooperate. Indeed, one concern is that cooperation may shade into an enthusiasm that overwhelms the dialogue with short-term schemes drawn from the period of strain. The administration needs to take care to restrain its proclivity to conduct consultation as a strenuous exercise in pressing American preferences. Scope needs to be left for the elaboration of a German view of the future.

The key challenge before the Atlantic nations is to develop a new sense of common destiny in the age of jihad, the rise of Asia, and the emerging universal problems of poverty, pandemics and energy, among many others.

The writer, a former secretary of state, is chairman of Kissinger Associates.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company