The difficult path of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.08.2013
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The difficult path of Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle

A strong chancellor and an inexperienced foreign minister - how did this combination work? DW looks back at the last four years of Germany's foreign policy.

For Guido Westerwelle, the move from the opposition's bench to the head of the Foreign Ministry was a triumphant rise. Previously oft ridiculed and at times maligned, the chairman of the Free Democrats was able to bring his party an unprecedented electoral success in 2009 with nearly 15 percent of the vote.

Then, at the height of his power, he was both foreign minister and vice chancellor. But Westerwelle's start in these new roles was bumpy, as he initially continued to interfere in domestic politics, giving foreign issues short shrift.

It was only when he gave up the party chairmanship and position of vice chancellor in early April 2011 that Westerwelle was able to devote more time to his role as chief diplomat. The decision met with success, said Ruprecht Polenz, the Christian Democrat (CDU) chairman of the foreign committee of the Bundestag.

"He has put his heart and soul into the position of foreign minister, that is clear to all," said Polenz. Westerwelle knows the issues, is involved and is trying to integrate German interests in a more unified Europe. "He is a confirmed multilateralist, and does not rely on nationalistic German attempts to go it alone. That's a good thing - Westerwelle has visibly grown during his time in office."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrives for the weekly cabinet meeting at the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012. (Foto:Michael Sohn/AP/dapd)

Merkel has dominated foreign policy

Strong chancellor, weak foreign minister?

This view is shared by Gunther Hellmann, a political science professor at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. Hellmann describes Westerwelle as having become a "poised foreign minister."

Nevertheless, next to Chancellor Angela Merkel, the foreign minister has little freedom. "It is difficult for a foreign minister to score points next to a chancellor who is set in her work routine," explained Hellmann.

Added to that is the fact that many foreign policy responsibilities have been reassigned to the chancellor's office by the EU's Lisbon Treaty. Merkel very cleverly uses this to her advantage, making good use of her position of power and leaving the less pleasant foreign policy decisions to her foreign minister.

This power balance was made particularly clear in the case of the UN Security Council's decision on Libya March 2011. Westerwelle abstained in the vote to establish a no-fly zone over the North African nation divided by civil war, along with veto powers Russia and China. For that, he was inundated by criticism from political opponents and the media.

In reality, according to Hellmann, both Merkel and Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere were significantly involved in this decision. However, they stayed out of the controversy and let Westerwelle take the heat for the unpopular decision.

"That was a very smart move on their part, and Westerwelle made a few blunders at that time which he could have avoided had he been somewhat cleverer," said Hellmann in retrospect.

In the meantime, however, Westerwelle has found his place next to the chancellor and the defense minister and is now acting much more confidently than at the beginning of his term.

Criticism for Westerwelle

Rolf Mützenich, the foreign policy spokesman for the Social Democrats, allows that Westerwelle has gained in stature over the past four years. Still, he's not able to pinpoint any specific priorities set by the foreign minister, and says Westerwelle has not fulfilled the foreign policy concept presented by the government in February 2012.

Der außenpolitische Experte der SPD-Fraktion Dr. Rolf Mützenich im Gespräch mit DW-TV am 14.6.2013 in Berlin.

SPD politician Rolf Mützenich offers criticism and cautious praise for Westerwelle

Countries like China, Kazakhstan and Malaysia, defined by Westerwelle as countries with the power to shape domestic and foreign policy, were declared strategic partners without any regard for their human rights records or democratic values, criticized Mützenich.

But what goals Germany is pursuing with these countries remains unclear. "Designating these countries as powerful partners is apparently an operating guide to determine which states should be equipped with weapons," said Mützenich. In addition, Westerwelle also failed to advance his strategy for Latin America.

The same applies to Germany's relationship with Russia. There, said Mützenich, Westerwelle failed to appropriately strengthen former President Dmitry Medvedev and support his attempt to create a new security apparatus.

"What I cannot accept is that [Westerwelle] has taken no role in criticizing arms exports," said Mützenich. "In this area, I believe the foreign minister should have taken a very different role, especially because he said he supports a foreign policy led by values."

Westerwelle began his term with the promise to work toward nuclear disarmament. This effort has been contradicted, however, by the fact that Germany has increasingly delivered weapons to conflict areas such as the Arabian Peninsula.

The Merkel doctrine

In July 2011, the decision of Germany's Federal Security Council to authorize the export of 200 Leopard battle tanks to Saudi Arabia caused a considerable stir and anger. Four months earlier, Saudi troops had invaded the island state of Bahrain, to help its king quell a rebellion against him.

Kampfpanzer Leopard 2 A4 während einer Militärübung, Objekte; 2002 , Lehrvorführung der Kampftruppenschule Münster , Bundeswehr , Armee , Heer , Gefechtsfahrzeuge-Lehrübung , Gefechtsfahrzeug , militärische Übung , Militärübung , Manöver , Panzertrupp , Panzertruppe , A 4 , Panzer; , quer, Kbdig, Einzelbild, Freisteller, Fahrzeuge, Deutschland, Aktion, Militaer, Staat, Ohne, Niedersachsen

Westerwelle was criticized for the decision to sell tanks to Saudi Arabia

The decision to supply Saudi Arabia with weapons is a result of the so-called "Merkel Doctrine." It states that Germany, instead of sending troops to crisis regions to help contain conflicts, instead equip regional powers with weapons so that they may take on this task alone. Chancellor Merkel outlined this new foreign policy directive for the first time in an October 2011 speech to the Körber Foundation in Hamburg.

"We need to empower the states that are willing to step in and do something," she said. "I also want to stress that this includes the export of weapons."

A year later, Merkel clarified her remarks in a speech to the Bundeswehr, the German armed forces in Strausberg. "If we feel the obligation to act as peacekeepers, but are not able to take an active role in securing peace everywhere in the world, than we are called upon to help these trusted partners to ensure that they can take on the appropriate tasks," she said.

More global responsibility?

For the SPD's Mützenich, the Merkel Doctrine is nothing more than an economic stimulus program for the German defense industry, which is suffering from the declining demand of a scaled-back Bundeswehr.

However, Ruprecht Polenz, of the Bundestag's foreign committee, does not dismiss the delivery of arms to Saudi Arabia outright, despite some reservations. "We cannot dismiss out of hand that Saudi Arabia sees a threat on its border with Yemen," he said. In addition, he said, Germany must bear in mind that the Shiite Houthi rebels in Saudi Arabia are supported by Iran.

Polenz rejects the widespread criticism in the media that Germany would not appropriately participate in military interventions. Germany has more than 6,000 soldiers stationed abroad. All operations have been legitimized by international law, and Berlin fully appreciates its responsibility for these missions.

Hellmann agrees. "In my view, Germany's policy, as it's defined at the moment in terms of its global responsibility, is perfectly appropriate taking into account Germany's place in the world, its history, its understanding and authoritative potential."

Westerwelle stands behind this non-intervention policy. "Military operations cannot be the standard policy, but must remain the great exception," he said. He would rather be criticized for pondering too thoroughly and having the occasional doubt, "than be accused of carelessly sending German soldiers on missions."

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