With her third federal election triumph on Sunday, Sept. 22, German Chancellor Angela Merkel demonstrated that her preferred foreign policy direction is, well, inward — or at least one of non-intervention. Current crises around the globe — from the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons to Iran’s nuclear program to Egypt’s military coup — were scarcely mentioned in the campaign, and the German electorate awarded her introspection with nearly 42 percent of the vote. In short, in Germany today, domestic issues trump foreign policy. But as the main economic engine of Europe, can — and should — Germany remain aloof from worldwide power politics in the coming years?
Traditionally, Germany’s foreign policy of non-interventionism is a form of hardcore political realism mixed with the population’s desire for pacifism at all costs. Hitler’s defeat near the halfway mark of the last century helped inculcate a particular expression of pacifism in German society. The post-World War I Weimar-era slogan “Never again War” (Nie wieder Krieg) took on an even greater urgency after World War II. And the post-Berlin Wall period added a new layer, as Germany turned inward to rebuild the dilapidated former East.
But one need not look beyond the current events to see recent evidence of Merkel’s desire to distance her government from the nasty vagaries of foreign policy. Just a few days before the election, the Syrian crisis unfolded as a tangential campaign issue. The fiercely anti-interventionist, radical Left Party exposed that Merkel’s government (her first coalition with the Social Democrats in 2005-2009) approved the sale of chemical substances to Syria. From 2002-2006, Germany shipped Syria 111 tons of sodium fluoride, hydrofluoric acid, and ammonium hydrogen fluoride. EU regulations designate the chemicals as dual-use goods, which can be used for civilian and military purposes — including the production of sarin. The Merkel administration flatly rejected that the German-manufactured chemicals were used to make poison gas, noting that it ” has no information to suggest that the delivered goods were later used for purposes other than the originally declared civilian purpose,”
But whether out of guilt or moral obligation, Merkel’s government hasn’t been completely hands-off regarding Syria — in September, they granted asylum to 5,000 Syrian refugees and offered to send chemical weapons experts to rid Assad of his weapons of mass destruction. But entanglements breed complications, and Merkel has remained vehemently opposed military strikes in Syria. As her spokesman Steffen Seibert made clear in late August, “There has been no request to us for a military commitment, and a German military commitment has never been considered by the government. We have not considered it and we are not considering it.”
It should be noted, however, that Merkel’s opponents in the last election, the Red-Green coalition — the Social Democrats and the Green Party — also approved the sale of chemicals to Assad during their tenure as the ruling party in 1998-2005. Berlin’s delivery of chemicals to be used for warfare recalls the famous 1989 William Safire column, “Auschwitz In the Sand,” chastizing former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s government and German companies for helping Libya’s former dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi build poison gas plants in the desert.
This interplay between captains of industry and governments has a long tradition in Germany, one that Merkel has capitalized on. In fact, her foreign policy can best be summed up as an economic military export policy. The Federal Republic’s flourishing weapons trade — coupled with the country’s profound anti-war consensus — remains a central paradox of her foreign policy. Germany’s weapon exports to the Gulf monarchies have boomed of late: In the first half of 2013, the trade reached 813 million euros. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Germany was one of the top five global suppliers of conventional weapons from 2008-2012. And yet Germany’s defense expenditures remain comparatively low. France spent three times as much on defense as Germany in 2011, according to a European Defense Agency 2013 report.