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Germany's Tough Year

DW staff (nma)
December 28, 2008

Germany's government in 2008 was tested by the world's financial crisis and the military mission in Afghanistan while frictions dominated the ruling coalition. Barack Obama, however, was cheered across party lines.

Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Angela Merkel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier lead Germany's coalition governmentImage: AP

During the most dazzling event of the year in foreign policy in Germany, the spotlight wasn't on the German government, but on an American: Barack Obama. As the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party, he visited Berlin and held a much-anticipated speech at the Victory Column in front of 200,000.

It is highly unlikely -- no, simply unimaginable -- that as many people would have poured into the Tiergarten, Berlin's Central Park, had it been the chancellor or and a group of high-ranking German politicians on stage instead of Obama. Members of Germany's political class these days inspire more yawns than cheers.

Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama shakes hands with supporters after speaking in Berlin
Berliners welcomed Obama at his speech at the Victory ColumnImage: AP

Barack Obama chose the monument as the place for his speech after some discussion – looking back it proved to be an omen of success. In November, a delighted Angela Merkel congratulated the winner.

"We're witnessing a historical election victory," Merkel said.

"No, we can't"

Obama delivered a wide-ranging speech and putting the focus on trans-Atlantic ties. In the eyes of many Germans George W. Bush had ruined those. So hardly anybody noticed Bush's parting visit to Angela Merkel.

Merkel had tried to explain to him the pain threshold in German foreign policy, for example Afghanistan. Under no circumstances did the German government want to send troops to the hard-fought south of Afghanistan.

The next task is to convince the American president-elect that Germany's version of his famous slogan is: "No, we can't." The German government is convinced to be doing enough for the stabilization of Afghanistan.

Only in October, Germany's parliament voted to extend the country's military mission and to deploy an extra 1,000 troops there, boosting their number to 4,500. Germany's allies should appreciate this commitment, said German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

"We have pointed out in the past what Germany does in Afghanistan, not only the Bundeswehr, but also what our civil helpers do for reconstruction, " Steinmeier said. "We get a lot of respect for that, also in the United States of America."

Afghanistan remains key issue

Bundeswehr soldiers patrolling on top of armored vehicle called 'Mungo' on the outskirts of Kunduz
Bundeswehr forces patrolling on the outskirts of Kunduz, northern AfghanistanImage: AP

Afghanistan remained one of the most controversial security topics for the German government in 2008. The training of the Afghan police and army was plagued with problems. Regularly, the Taliban fired at Bundeswehr camps and attacked patrols.

In October, two German soldiers died near Kundus in a suicide attack. For the first time since German soldiers were sent to Afghanistan six years ago, German Defense Minister Franz Josef Jung referred in November to the Gefallene, or fallen soldiers, who had died there. Until now, any German soldiers killed in Afghanistan were referred to as casualties.

Throughout 2008, the military played an important role in German foreign policy. German soldiers were deployed to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Horn of Africa and to the coast of Lebanon. Unarmed forces were sent to southern Sudan and Georgia. At the end of 2008 the Bundeswehr took part in the European anti-pirate-force "Atalanta" along the coast of Somalia.

But seen as a whole, German foreign policy in 2008 came across as fractured and heading in too many directions. While, 2007 was dominated by major events such as the EU presidency and the G8 summit in Heiligendamm, a clear course was never set for 2008. Part of what was accomplished in 2007 fell victim to the global financial crisis and the Irish EU "no" vote.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy gestures as he attends a session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg.
Nicolas Sarkozy didn't call and invite Angela Merkel to the mini-summitImage: AP

Merkel stopped being the woman of action and was overshadowed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy's overdrive. In December, Merkel -- notable among European leaders for her wariness about increasing public borrowing to fund government spending -- was excluded from a mini-summit initiated by Sarkozy. Steinmeier was not amused.

"I'll be honest: I don't think it was nice that Germany and the chancellor weren't there," he said.

Frictions within German government coalition

Another dilemma put a strain on German foreign policy in 2008: the two most important people, Christian Democrat Merkel and Social Democrat Steinmeier disagreed on a number of issues, especially in the approach to countries like Russia, China and Syria.

Merkel either tends to be quite frank and open or she contains herself. Steinmeier places emphasis on rapproachment though diplomacy and dialogue. Their differing styles of policy-making led to some confusion in 2008 -- much to the pleasure of the opposition. The Green Party's Juergen Trittin accused the government of having not one but two foreign policies.

"One of them is responsible for the Dalai Lama, the other one for China," Trittin said. "The foreign minister advocates dialogue with Syria and is being criticized for it by the Christian Democrats. Or when asked what the government thinks of the positioning of new American missiles in Europe, you won't get a consistent answer!"

Merkel vs. Steinmeier

Frank-Walter Steinmeier
Steinmeier wants to challenge Merkel in next year's electionImage: AP

The disagreements also affected the Dalai Lama's visit to Germany: German Development Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a Social Democrat, was the only cabinet member to receive him. The year before, Chancellor Merkel's reception of the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader angered China as well as her own foreign minister, who accused her of trying to "showcase" human rights.

Foreign policy expectations for 2009 are low: in October, Steinmeier won his party's support to face Merkel in next year's election. An election campaign pitting Merkel vs. Steinmeier is likely to water down German foreign policy even more.