- The Washington Times - Monday, September 19, 2005

Only three months ago German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder called an election neither he nor his party thought they could win. But it was the honorable thing to do.

Questioned openly within his own party, challenged by his coalition partners, disavowed by the electorate in successive regional elections, with a majority of just three votes in the lower house and the opposition in control of the upper house, allowing his four-year mandate to run its course would have wasted Germany’s time.

That Mr. Schroeder did not win, therefore, is hardly surprising. What is quite surprising, however, is that notwithstanding her comfortable double-digit lead during much of the summer, main rival Angela Merkel also was unable to win. The resulting deadlock could not come at a worse possible time — for Germany, Europe or the United States.

It’s the economy, dummkopf: Mrs. Merkel repeatedly argued this election was about renewal, just as Germany’s first postwar election was about reconstruction. Under any political circumstances, renewal, however defined, would have been more difficult for Mrs. Merkel to achieve than reconstruction was for Konrad Adenauer to guide. Today’s Germany bears little resemblance to what it once was. Notwithstanding the closeness of the 1949 elections, the house Adenauer built, and the people he led, showed a stability and response to a consensus that were the envy of its partners. Then, and for much of the Cold War, a two-and-a-half party system included a steadfast core of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats that used a small Free Democratic party to form centrist coalition governments. Since the end of the Cold War, however, the rise of two new parties has changed the political mix in the Italian manner, including the Greens first and now, a new Left Party that forms the most radical pillar of the opposition.

The combined votes of these three small parties — about 27 percent — approximated those gained by the two parties (around 35 percent each) with a combined total that was one of the lowest ever.

Faced with an increasingly multiparty system where the center is getting weaker and the extremes more volatile, a grand coalition, should Mrs. Merkel succeed in forming it, will have little time to put the German economy back on track.

Unlike postwar and Cold War conditions, Germany is no longer able to export its way out of stagnation, especially as energy prices continue rising, the euro remains strong, and the burden of unification is still heavy. It may well be the German electorate, which included about one-fifth of undecided voters up to the last week of a bitter campaign, aimed to force a “grand coalition” that the two major parties last entered nearly 40 years ago. But with unemployment above the dangerous 5 million mark last March (with the highest rate since the immediate postwar years), while anemic growth rates have kept Germany at the near bottom of EU-25 for the last decade, no such coalition could either perform or last, as each party that joins it, as well as every member of the government, will seek protection from the political consequences of failure by blaming the others as the causes of their own insufficiencies.

Mr. Schroeder did Mrs. Merkel a favor by putting in place an agenda of structural reforms — Agenda 2010 — upon which she can build so long as she acknowledges her predecessor’s role in launching it. But even if Mrs. Merkel were to dare move quickly and boldly, the coalition will soon become brittle as the Germans confirm they may no longer have the discipline to endure the pains of such reforms.

In short, past Mr. Schroeder’s time and at half before Mrs. Merkel, the test is not a test of will for a new chancellor but a test of efficacy for whatever government she forms, and a test of endurance for the new Germany. Prospects of passing these tests have not been improved by these elections.

It’s Europe, stupide: As was the case with arrival of a new governing majority in Spain 18 months ago, Mrs. Merkel’s presumed victory was expected to change the political dynamics of intra-European relations at an especially sensitive time for the European Union (EU): by weakening Germany’s ties with France, given the new chancellor’s known ambivalence about French President Jacques Chirac; by renewing Germany’s ties with Britain, given her affinity with Prime Minister Tony Blair on Europe’s need to resume its stalled economic reform drive; by moderating Germany’s excessive courting of Russian President Vladimir Putin at the expense of Germany’s most immediate neighbors, including Poland; and by improving Germany’s ties with the Brussels-based European Commission, given her past endorsement of Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, whom she helped get the job earlier this year.

To an extent, Mr. Blair put his country’s six-month presidency of the European Council on hold in order to wait for Mrs. Merkel’s arrival. But now, at half-past Tony Blair, and with both France and Italy also led by transition governments that await their next elections (in May 2006 and May 2007, respectively), Europe’s own daunting agenda of institutional renewal may need to be put on hold indefinitely. So, at this crucial moment in the EU’s life, there are few prospects for convincing decisions in Brussels this fall over such vital issues as a new EU budget for the next seven-year cycle, start of negotiations with Turkey, alternatives to the now-defunct constitutional treaty, and methods to rejuvenate stagnant European economies and consolidate a fragile euro zone.

It’s Germany, stupid: What does this mean for the United States, previously ready to embrace Mrs. Merkel’s arrival as the savior of its “co-partner” within the Alliance, as the president’s father once called a reunified Germany? Certainly, Mr. Schroeder’s departure — unlikely to be reversed — removes a main obstacle to renewing German-American relations.

Whatever the official embraces of the past year, Mr. Bush never quite forgave Mr. Schroeder’s outspoken opposition to the war in Iraq and his outrageous anti-American campaign that enabled his re-election in September 2002. Yet Americans were as likely to be as disappointed in Mrs. Merkel as Europeans would have been disappointed had John Kerry won last November.

To be sure, even with a grand coalition or a weak Merkel government, there will still be a change of tone and, dare one say, in body language. But in the end Mr. Schroeder’s view of the world (and of America’s role in the world) was due to what Germany and the Germans have become, rather than the other way around. Indeed, in this context Mr. Schroeder’s actions and silences are more surprising than what he said about America or failed to do in Iraq. Admittedly, Mr. Schroeder will be remembered in America for the latter. But it should also be remembered Mr. Schroeder took office just months after parliamentary approval of the first ever postwar participation of German units in an international military operation, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and departed with more than 6,000 German troops engaged in such missions, not only in the Balkans but also as a leading contingent in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. That’s about as far as the new Germany can go, irrespective of its leadership, because that’s about as far as the new Germans will go.

So, U.S. expectations will have to come down. On world matters, Germany’s differences with its new European partners are less than its differences with its old American benefactor.

Simon Serfaty holds the Brzezinski Chair in Geostrategy at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. His most recent book, “The Vital Partnership: Power and Order,” was released in June 2005 by Rowman & Littlefield.

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