Germany unprepared for new era due to Merkelism’s failures

By far the biggest blight on my political risk industry is the notion of elite capture. As analysts and firms meet with success, becoming more famous and recognized, they are invited to the same gatherings as the political decision-makers they analyze. All too often, losing perspective, they soon become part of the elite that they are supposed to study — cheerleaders rather than analysts.

This process explains why so many of my competitors were so wrong about Iraq, Afghanistan, Brexit and the rise of Donald Trump. They had long since ceased to objectively view empirical facts and instead became mouthpieces for the conventional wisdom of the global governing class.

A final, preeminent example of elite capture must be the chattering classes’ wrongheaded embrace of Angela Merkel, who just a year ago was lauded by the commentariat as the world’s greatest statesman. Luminaries such as The Economist, Chatham House and the Eurasia Foundation saw in the German chancellor a bastion of the Western-dominated, rules-based established order.

Even at the time, as a historian this struck me as a highly dubious political risk call, being more an example of elite capture cheerleading, rather than being based on empirical facts. When I would press other members of the commentariat as to why Merkel was the greatest thing since sliced bread, they would invariably speak in generalities, never giving me concrete examples of her historical accomplishments that could be assessed. This greatly aroused my suspicions.

A year on from her retirement, the historical reputation of the former German chancellor lies in ruins, as does the analytical reputation of those that unthinkingly, and in variance with the facts, championed her. Nowadays, Merkel looks a lot like 1930s British Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, the leader who fiddled even as his country drifted into the greatest of dangers. At the time of her departure, polls showed that a stratospheric 80 percent of Germans approved of Merkel’s long 16-year reign. A year on, it is safe to say that the number is unlikely to be half of that peak.

The failure of Merkelism, as ever, comes down to major philosophical errors that informed her ultimately disastrous policies. First, Merkel — in line with standard Wilsonian and EU ideology — believed in the limitless power of dialogue. This terribly off-base view harks back to French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophy of the “general will,” the notion that, if well-meaning people talk for long enough, they will all eventually come to the same conclusion.

This is, of course, utter nonsense — a fairy tale that does away with the notion of countries and leaders having differing national interests that do not simply dissolve because of dialogue. Diplomacy is not an action verb; treaties and agreements, as all good realists know, merely codify power relations that are already established. To put it practically, Merkel’s 16-year dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin did not change his mind about the need to dominate his strategic near abroad.

Second, Merkel and Germany championed the notion that trading with other great powers had an inherently civilizing impact upon them; that economically linked countries did not geostrategically over time fundamentally oppose one another; and that revisionist powers could be transformed through trade into status quo powers. That every man is a conservative after dinner. Invariably, this was Germany’s excuse for its energy policy with Russia, as though trading with Moscow would do away with its very different national interests.

Third, Merkelism jibed with Germany’s inherently wrongheaded pacifism. The country’s governing establishment proudly (if naively) described themselves as a postmodern, post-national, even post-strategic power, as though mankind had somehow magically evolved and that “war was impossible on the European continent” (a terrible political risk call I heard all too often).

Fourth, Merkel’s Germany took a holiday from history, smugly believing it could somehow opt out of the larger global scene. In essence, Merkel outsourced Germany’s energy policy to Russia, its trade policy to China and its security policy to the US. This lack of agency has proven to be a catastrophic error.

All of these basic philosophical errors shaped Germany’s overall increasingly neutralist geostrategic orientation. Whereas the country had been firmly pro-Atlanticist and pro-American before the advent of Merkel, during her time in office it morphed into a mercantilist, commercial-first state, as its growing ties to Russia and China militated against its long-standing links with the US. As Germany drifted into neutralism, a strategic intellectual black hole opened over the whole of this past generation in Europe.

To put it mildly, all of these fundamental mistakes left Berlin horribly unready for the onset of the new era. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill was reportedly forced to send a security detail to defend his predecessor, Baldwin — a formerly popular appeasement premier — who needed protection from children who were throwing rocks at him. But the children were right; Baldwin was a major part of the cause of his country’s woeful state of unpreparedness. Today, Germany finds itself in a similar position in our new era due to Merkel’s disastrous tenure. The commentariat who celebrated her now need to explain why they were so wrong.

This post was originally published in Arab News.

Germany’s bellwether regional election lays bare the coming post-Merkel political order

As the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung put it: “There is no birth of consciousness without pain.” Thus, lost in the jumble of the recent North Rhine-Westphalia regional election, clear, indelible patterns emerge that are likely to shape German politics for the next generation.

It is hard to overstate how important NRW is to Germany as a whole, amounting to the country’s California. Traditionally the economic powerhouse of Germany and the birthplace of its heavy industry, it is also the country’s most populous state. If NRW were a separate country, its €733 billion GDP would make its economy Europe’s sixth-largest, bigger than that of Sweden, Turkey, or Switzerland. So it is entirely safe to call the state’s regional election a mini-national referendum on the state of German politics.

Traditionally, NRW has been a Social Democratic Party stronghold, as the party has run the place for much of its 77-year postwar existence. However, with the general decline of heavy industry, NRW has become more competitive politically, with the center-right Christian Democratic Union, the other “volkspartei” (the two dominant post-1945 political parties) currently running the region. Thus, given its size, economic importance, and political competitiveness, NRW is as close as we are likely to get to a national litmus test of the state of play in German politics.

The results of last weekend’s regional election are singular in that they underscore and further the seismic political trends that are already slowly remaking post-1945 German politics.

First, the results continued the trend of Germany moving away from the old two-party SPD-CDU system toward a multiparty free-for-all. Together, the two old volkspartei managed only 63 percent of the vote, forcing either into coalition with the kingmaker Greens, who tripled their regional vote to 18 percent. Along with the current federal “traffic-light” coalition (red for the SPD, yellow for the economically liberal Free Democratic Party, and the Greens), the new era is bound to be one of intricate coalition politics, moving away from the old system of two-party domination. In other words, Germany is becoming more like the Netherlands and less like the US in terms of its politics.

Second, the historically dominant CDU continues to recover from its near-death experience after being led by the hapless chancellor-candidate Armin Laschet during the last national election in September last year. With the able and energetic Friedrich Merz now at the helm, the CDU have righted the ship in both the NRW contest and in an earlier regional election in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany’s most northerly state. Taking a leading 36 percent of the NRW vote, CDU state premier Hendrik Wuest is likely to continue in power, in coalition with the Greens (also the ruling political configuration that came out of the Schleswig-Holstein vote).

Third, the Greens continue their rise, on course over time to supplant the old SPD itself as the dominant center-left party in the German political landscape. Dynamically led by two of the country’s most popular politicians, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and (especially) Economics Minister Robert Habeck, the Greens are the only member of the national traffic-light coalition having any regional political success.

Fourth, it increasingly looks as if Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s September 2021 win was a fluke. The German media had (rightly) eviscerated both Laschet and Baerbock, the other two leading chancellor-candidates, and had not yet gotten around to really scrutinizing Scholz. As the last man standing, and despite the SPD’s general downward trajectory, he managed to scrape together a victory that now seems merely an aberration, as the SPD’s decades-long slide in the polls has resumed. Despite Scholz personally campaigning, the SPD’s 27 percent vote share in NRW was its worst showing there in postwar history, as had also been the case in the Schleswig-Holstein election.

The issue that is lifting the Greens and deflating the SPD is one and the same: Germany’s conduct regarding the war in Ukraine. While Scholz was given good marks for his decisive if abrupt moves to end Angela Merkel’s ruinous almost two-decade holiday from history (by significantly agreeing to raise German defense spending to non-laughable levels, to diversify its energy imports and to spend an extra €100 billion on modernizing its decrepit ammunition stocks), he has been lambasted for his hesitancy since. While the core Anglosphere countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia) have decisively come to the aid of Kyiv, Germany has only grudgingly gone along with heavy arms transfers, and gained none of the policy credit.

Instead, Scholz’s hesitancy has started a broader strategic postmortem in the German and international press on Ostpolitik, the SPD’s failed signature postwar policy based on the belief that increased trade with Russia would over time cool the fires of revanchism. As a leading proponent of Ostpolitik right up to February, Scholz is on the back foot politically, even as he was finance minister in the last sleepy Merkel government.

The contrast with the forceful, Wilsonian liberal internationalism of the Greens is stark, and is greatly playing to the younger party’s advantage. The failure of German foreign policy over the past generation is a millstone likely to sink Scholz over time, as well as hasten the birth of a new German politics. 

This post was originally published in Arab News.

An unlikely defense of German foreign policy

Germany is a country I came to know well in the 10 years I lived there, in Berlin and Bavaria. Despite the many sterling virtues of its people, lodged deep in the German collective psyche is a characteristic that I cannot abide — schadenfreude.

While not directly translatable into English, it is best thought of as “to take pleasure in the misfortunes of others.” For example, I remember once riding a perpetually late German train and asking the off-duty conductor if he knew where I needed to go, as my route had been altered. He snarled at me: “Yes,” then went back to reading his paper. Exasperated, I asked him: “Are you going to tell me?” He smiled malignantly and said: “No.”

I must admit to feeling a good deal of schadenfreude myself at present, as two decades’ worth of the German political elite’s dim, arrogant, and complacent policymaking has come home to roost because of the war in Ukraine.

For literally 20 years I have pleaded with the Germans to stop free-riding on American defense expenditure, to wean themselves off their strategically dangerous dependence on Russian energy, and to stop drifting toward a mercantilist, isolationist, even neutralist geostrategic position. Insufferably, I was invariably met with a German elite who blandly assured me that trade would tempt Moscow away from revisionism in the international sphere, that war was an unthinkable anachronism in Europe, and that they — rather than the simplistic Americans —knew better how the world really worked. To the legions of German policymakers who said things along these disastrous lines, know that in any reasonably meritocratic society you would be shown the door.

But for all the understandable schadenfreude, I find myself in the oddest of positions: A champion in the defense of current German foreign policy. Where the Ukrainians and many in the Western media decry Germany’s strategic slowness, I see a highly favorable geostrategic shift occurring — and at the speed of light. The Germans have done more strategically in the past two months than they accomplished in the previous two decades.

First, when Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, the able Green Energy Minister Robert Habeck immediately scuppered the egregious Nord Stream 2 pipeline. This latest Russo-German energy link-up, the culmination of the disastrous Angela Merkel’s geoeconomic policy, would have left Berlin dependent on Moscow for 70 percent of its natural gas.

Despite earlier US, Eastern European and French pleas to forgo the program (though Joe Biden quietly dropped the Trump administration’s earlier vociferous objections), Merkel had stubbornly refused to reconsider. Habeck, by German terms moving at quantum speed, ended this decade-long potential calamity, which would have left Europe’s most important country entirely at the mercy of Russia.

Second, under the new Scholz administration, a generation’s worth of free riding over defense issues has also abruptly come to an end. When the Cold War finished, Germany was not shy about immediately cashing in on the so-called “peace dividend,” becoming lotus-eaters in the process. Worse, in typical, maddening German fashion, the country’s elite constructed a holier-than-thou ideology as a cover for their short-sighted holiday from history. War was unthinkable, trade was the way to convert possible rivals into allies, and nationalism itself was an outmoded, dying way to think about the world. All of this, of course, was a convenient excuse for the Germans to do precisely as they wanted, and ignore the fact that all of the above was obvious nonsense.

In contrast, a heretofore complicit Scholz (he was finance minister in the last Merkel government) has moved fast — suddenly and dramatically agreeing to NATO’s terms of 2 percent of GDP spent on defense (in Germany it is currently only 1.5 percent, and has often been even lower), and to the establishment of a separate €100 billion fund to update Berlin’s woefully out-of-date defense systems. Incredibly, it has been estimated in the British newspaper The Times that a hollowed-out German military has only enough ammunition to fight for 3-4 days at a Ukraine-style level. From the bottom of the barrel, Scholz has made it clear that his government intends to redress the criminal defense negligence of the Merkel years.

Last, and most importantly, German has acquiesced in the EU’s application of vital energy sanctions on Russia, even though doing so will cost Berlin at least 1 percent of its GDP. Just this past week, EuropeanCommission President Ursula van der Leyen announced ambitious plans by Brussels to stop funding the Russian war machine. Since the invasion began, the EU’s imports of Russian oil have been worth about €22 billion to the Kremlin. Europe is the biggest buyer of Russian crude, accounting for fully 53 percent of the country’s total exports, which are worth a substantial $104 billion a year. Van der Leyen has proposed a full EU embargo on Russian oil within only six months, and all other petroleum products by the end of the year. Only with staunch German backing would such a proposal have been made.

So, despite me wanting to scream: “I told you so!”, here’s to German foreign and security policy awakening from its long hibernation — and not a moment too soon.

This post was originally published in Arab News.