The past few days have highlighted a key shortcoming in Germany's foreign policy. Berlin's response to the Iran crisis shows the country's limited ability to act on the world stage, says DW's Christian F. Trippe.
Donald Trump and Boris Johnson are making life easy for Chancellor Angela Merkel's government. No one in Berlin wants to join these two on a military mission in the Persian Gulf. The concern that Germany could be drawn into a war with Iran is simply too great. What's more, there is justified speculation that the two leaders are pursuing ulterior geopolitical goals beyond securing shipping routes. For weeks the United States has been playing with fire in the Gulf; after all, its unilateral cancellation of the nuclear agreement with Iran marked the beginning of the current crisis.
So the US-British alliance has brought German politics an unexpected moment of relief. There is no way Germany will take part in this kind of naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz. The government's rejection of Washington's request for maritime support was barely cushioned by diplomatic wording. You can rely on the anti-Trump reflex in Germany — even if it only conceals a large, dangerous void.
Germany's reputation in the US takes a hit
Berlin's top politicians — above all the chancellor and the foreign minister, the current coalition government's leading figures — believe that the freedom of international trade routes is a key component of the liberal world order. If push comes to shove, however, German politicians shrink back. Merkel is on holiday and has remained silent; mantra-like, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has continued to repeat the government's stance, making ample use of the terms "diplomacy" and "de-escalation." Germany's parliamentary military commissioner pointed out that the navy does not have enough operational ships. The US government responded with merciless sarcasm — a predictable reaction from the Trump team.
Germany's reputation in US foreign policy circles was tarnished even before Trump took office. Germans have for quite some time been regarded as allies who are never at a loss for swift moralistic advice, but who shy away from getting their hands dirty. Berlin's commitment to the NATO goal of spending 2% of gross domestic product on defense was, as is well known, pushed forward and formalized under President Barack Obama. The document was also signed by then-German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD).
Now the SPD is denouncing this defense spending goal, which Germany consistently and willfully misses anyway, as a demand slapped on the country by Trump. That is a polemic claim if ever there was one. The SPD is battling historically low levels of support nationally and is fighting for its survival as a major party. Military operations are always unpopular in Germany and the opposition to them among SPD left-wing circles is adept at catering to this basic sentiment.
This all may explain the current foreign policy antics. It may also explain the consideration that the Social Democrats' conservative coalition partners have shown them. Nobody wants to break up an already-fragile government because of a frigate or a few reconnaissance planes.
Britain, too, waited in vain
Germany's domestic political situation cannot entirely explain away the country's lapse in the Iran crisis. The key mistake was made days ago, when the British proposed a European mission to escort merchant ships after a British oil tanker was hijacked by Iranian special forces. Britain wanted to prepare for such acts of state-run piracy along with its European partners. The European Union has in the past completed several successful naval missions of this kind in other areas.
Anyone who had expected the oh-so-Europe-friendly Germans to act on this proposal was disappointed. There was no serious debate about a possible German participation, command structures or a mandate. A few days and a change of prime minister later, the British brought the Americans on board and onto the command bridge. Germany, meanwhile, is comfortably ensconced in the political dead-end into which the country's leaders have navigated.