The German elections have shown that neither the conservatives nor the social democrats have a clear agenda on foreign policy. This greatly harms the country’s leading role in Europe and its democratic process.
Foreign policy is a realm of public life hard to reconcile with parliamentary democracy. The oversight by the people’s representatives over the executive is often a post-facto exercise which is limited by the rhythms of international relations. Not only does conflict require quick response times, but also political unity once decisions are taken: one of the reasons assemblies usually form special foreign affairs workgroups is to bypass the burden of parliamentary consultations and to stand on equal grounds with specialized bureaucracy. Still, it adds an additional filter between the policy actions and the electorate, which could be a problem if you strictly embrace the idea government policy should be directly dictated by the will of the voters.
Elections are thus a perfect opportunity to keep an administration accountable in its most unaccounted area of competence. Although it may play a minor role vis-à-vis internal affairs, foreign policy can still tip the scales in favor of one party or another if other stances are similar. In the German context, an example can be Die Linke, the successor movement of East German communists characterized by a complete opposition towards army deployments abroad (and internally for that matter), an opaque relationship with Israel and an affinity with Putin’s Russia. These extreme views often lead voters to opt for more moderate leftwing parties such as the SPD and Die Grünen, signaling that people care about the republic’s role abroad.
With the refugee crisis still at the top of German political topics, one would expect that foreign affairs would have dominated the debate of September 3rd: sadly, they didn´t. Despite dedicating half of the 90 minutes to migration-related topics, the moderators posed questions that were at best dedicated to the management of existing migrants and borderline useless at worst. Instead of inquiring on how Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel want to fix Germany’s roof, they asked about the the buckets to put under the water leaks.
The blame can’t only be put on the journalists though: during the whole campaign both candidates were too busy trying to present themselves as refugee-friendly but firm regarding deportations, to the point they both forgot to signal their plans on protecting the republic’s values and interests abroad. Despite the chatter on a transatlantic relationship “on the brink of collapse”, Merkel didn’t say what her vision for a European substitute will be. Despite attacking the defense budget increase, Schulz didn’t offer an alternative way to protect our eastern borders from a potentially aggressive Russia. Even on immigration, both parties failed to address the humanitarian concerns on creating hotspots for refugee registration in Libya and sub-Saharan Africa, as well as the commitment this would require. With few weeks left before the elections, both leaders could have rocked the coalition boat on the issue and dueled on a true moral and practical dilemma, but the pressure to appear immigration hardliners has revealed a lack of courage to entertain a political discussion.
Merkel and Schulz failed to live up to their responsibilities to open the cans of worms the Republic has long ignored thanks to the grand coalition. The Christian Democracy’s Bavarian sister party CSU has had a dangerous liaison with Moscow in the heyday of the Ukrainian crisis, but to use this fact against the chancellor would mean exposing the Social Democrats´ side on former leader Gerhard Schröder, soon to join the board of supervisors at the Russian state-controlled oil giant Rosneft. As for the immense scandal on diesel-powered cars, neither party dared to put pressure on Siemens after it breached the sanctions and exported turbines to Crimea, willing or not. To criticize the SPD’s intention to cap defense expenditures on the other hand would remind voters of the disastrous tenure of the CDU defense minister Ursula von der Leyen, under whose leadership the Bundeswehr has experienced an unforgivable material and infrastructural deficit which may have recently lead to the death of service members in Mali due to technical shortcoming of the Eurocopter Tiger in desert environments. The hardline against Turkey can be also coonsidered a paper tiger: who can consider a revolutionary move that to is block the country’s accession bid to the EU while the Turkish secret service makes headlines with threats and operations on the federal republic’s territory?
Both leaders have focused their foreign policy proposals to relentless bashing of Erdogan and Trump, trying to capitalize on low-risk, high-payoff virtue signaling which will have virtually no policy effect and is designed for internal use only. This gives not only the impression of a political class unable to forge a long term strategic plan for the country, but also limits electoral accountability on issues like the largelz forgotten “Afrikastrategie” from 2013 or the North Stream pipeline, a project which presents obvious tradeoffs between energetic security and overreliance on an antagonistic power like Russia. By doing so, the winner will lack a clear mandate on these matters. It’s a clever ruse to present both candidates as bank slates and avoiding raising any expectation in the realm of foreign policy. It’s also terribly pragmatic for an electoral system which requires coalitions to form a majority, as it removes a point of contention with the junior party. Nevertheless, it cripples the ambitions and confidence of a nation that will face more challenges than easy victories in the next four years: how can a country that only produces average to good administrators lead a continent which needs an active and dynamic lead more than ever?
All the articles by Michelangelo Freyrie.