Syria crisis exposes rifts in U.S.-German ties

Marc Young
German Chancellor Merkel and U.S. President Obama walk together during the family picture event during the G20 summit in St.Petersburg
German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) and U.S. President Barack Obama walk together during the family picture event during the G20 summit in St.Petersburg September 6, 2013. REUTERS/Anton Denisov/RIA Novosti/Pool (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS BUSINESS) ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS

BERLIN — Angela Merkel may not personally like Vladimir Putin very much, but the German chancellor is surely pleased the Russian president’s diplomatic efforts have temporarily averted U.S. plans for a military strike against Syria.

Constrained by Germany’s jingoistic past and a looming election, the leader of the largest country in the European Union has been decidedly reluctant to follow President Barack Obama’s call for a robust response to the apparent use of chemical weapons in the Syrian civil war.

And Merkel’s aversion to getting involved in the conflict has exposed rifts in the transatlantic alliance by often leaving Berlin seemingly more in agreement with Moscow than Washington.

“Is Germany drifting away from the West? There’s an interesting shift in thinking in Berlin,” Hans Kundnani, the editorial director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Yahoo News.

Keenly aware of her countrymen’s deep skepticism of military interventions stemming from Nazi Germany’s responsibility for World War II, the naturally cautious Merkel has categorically ruled out German participation in any strike against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces — a position supported by a majority of Germans.

“There’s a small glimmer of hope that diplomacy and politics will be given a chance. We must make use of this,” said Merkel on Wednesday at a campaign rally ahead of the German election on Sept. 22, according to the DPA news agency.

However, many Germans also point to the apparent hypocrisy of what has been dubbed “The Merkel Doctrine” by the national media: wanting the country to act like an oversized Switzerland while sales of German weapons abroad are booming.

“I’m very aware of German history,” said Andreas Moser, a 38-year-old German lawyer currently living in Lithuania. “But my big problem with [Merkel’s] foreign policy is it pretends to be pacifist, but Germany is one of the biggest arms exporters to the Middle East.”

And while past German governments often engaged in so-called “checkbook diplomacy” by helping fund other Western nations’ military operations, Merkel’s center-right coalition has courted open confrontation with its allies on several occasions.

“Germany is much more assertive and confident than in the past,” Kundnani told Yahoo News. "They won’t just write a check to compensate for refusing to help militarily. They think they’re right and others are wrong.”

Kundnani said the first decade after German reunification in 1990 found the country taking on more responsibility for global security by joining the United States and NATO nations in troop deployments to Kosovo and Afghanistan. But ever since Germany’s vocal opposition to the controversial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, German attitudes toward the use of force had hardened.

“There’s a deep reluctance to use military force even for humanitarian interventions,” Kundnani said. “They just don’t want to be involved in this stuff.”

In particular, Berlin’s decision to abstain from a United Nations resolution paving the way for intervention in Libya in 2011 shocked Western nations, as Germany sided instead with Russia and China. Despite attempts to downplay its diplomatic significance afterwards, Merkel left the British and French to do the heavy lifting to help oust Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi.

And now the Syrian crisis has reawakened concerns on both sides of the Atlantic about Merkel’s seemingly lukewarm commitment to Germany’s most important allies.

“Unfortunately, prominent German political leaders … continue to believe that the country’s economic weight creates enough leverage to compensate for Germany’s failure to realize its full potential as a capable and responsible member of the Atlantic alliance and the international community,” wrote Merkel’s former defense minister, Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, in a recent editorial for The New York Times.

While Putin’s surprising diplomatic coup could reduce the friction between Washington and Berlin going forward, the damage to transatlantic ties may be already done.

As Obama made his address to the nation Tuesday evening to announce he would wait to see if the Syrian government would hand over its chemical weapons, Merkel was still smarting after being outwitted by the U.S. president at last week’s G20 summit in the Russian city of St. Petersburg.

There, the United States had garnered support from Britain, France, Italy and Spain for a joint statement backing a “strong international response” to the alleged use of poison gas by Syrian government forces only after Merkel — thinking she had effectively postponed any decision – had departed from the summit.

But Obama — even after stressing his close friendship with the chancellor during a visit to Berlin in June — clearly felt it was necessary to sideline Merkel, who is known for prevaricating on tough issues.

That left Germany appearing isolated and out of step with its closest allies as the only European nation refusing to stand by the United States after the deadly chemical attack on Syrian civilians last month. In an embarrassing foreign policy defeat for a politician regularly named the world’s most powerful woman, Merkel was abruptly compelled to reverse course and join the U.S. initiative a day later.

The conservative chancellor, who faces an election in less than two weeks, attempted to explain the debacle by saying she merely wanted to confer with smaller European Union countries on board at consultations the following day.

But Sigmar Gabriel, leader of Germany’s center-left opposition Social Democrats, slammed the chancellor’s ham-fisted diplomacy in an interview with newsmagazine Der Spiegel as “a complete blackout of German foreign policy.”