Merkel Cheers Obama Exodus on Missile Defense

As Germans prepare to vote Sunday (September 27), American conservatives — thanks to Chancellor Angela Merkel — last week got a not-so-subtle reminder that the terms “right” and “left” carry very different connotations in Europe and the U.S.

When President Obama announced that the U.S. would not go through with the missile defense system that had been scheduled for Poland and the Czech Republic, Merkel, her SPD (Socialist) opponent, and the leader of the historically conservative Free Democratic Party (whom Merkel very much wants as her next coalition partner) all weighed in strongly for his reversal of President Bush’s plan.

As to why German political leaders across the board applaud Obama on missile defense at the height of a heated election, my German sources pointed to the desire of Berlin to maintain closer economic and political ties to Medvedev-Putin regime in Russia.

Eastern European leaders from Czech President Vaclav Klaus to Poland’s former President Lech Walesa made no secret of their disappointment with Obama for reversing a key policy of the Bush Administration.

But Merkel told the DPA (German Press Agency): “It’s a hopeful decision and it will get us to more international cooperation.  I hope we can get over the differences with Moscow now [italics added].” Frank Walter-Steinmeier, German foreign minister and Merkel’s opponent in the Sunday elections, agreed.  In remarks that were a near-echo of Merkel’s, Steinmeier told reporters: “Obama’s decision is a signal to all partners that the U.S.-government wants common decisions in the [NATO] alliance.”

Chancellor Merkel and Foreign Minister Steinmeier have been in the same government together for four years.  Because of the photo-finish outcome in the last national elections, neither of the two major parties received a majority of seats in the Bundestag (parliament) and were thus forced to “cohabitate” in a “grand coalition.”  That Merkel and Steinmeier are now campaigning against one another after governing together for four years, noted The Economist, “gives their contest the feel of sibling rivalry.”

Rounding out the missle defense “non debate” is the third (and very conservative) party’s comment.  FDP (Free Democratic Party) leader Guido Westerwelle said without hesitation: “Obama’s decision creates more international trust.”

“Angela in Wonderland” — and “the Bavarian Baron”

After being forced to govern with the Socialists, Merkel and her conservative party desperately want Westerwelle’s FDP as their next coalition partner.  The FDP is pro-business and near-libertarian in its philosophy and, pundits agree, that Westerwelle and friends in a government would free Merkel to move Europe’s largest economy to the right on major domestic issues:  redesigning the regulation of banks, moving toward nuclear power, and, as Merkel’s party manifesto puts it, “qualification over immigration” — meaning, a tougher line on illegal immigration.

“Angela in Wonderland,” is how a colleague of mine who covers the European parliament characterized what the outcome of an election with Merkel’s party and the FDP in the driver’s seat would mean for the chancellor.  A just-completed Forsa poll showed Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party and the Christian Social Union (the Bavarian sister party of the Christian Democrats) getting 35% of the vote and Westerwelle’s FDP 15% — just shy of a majority.  The same poll showed the Socialists at 26%, the Greens 11%, and the Left (which includes onetime Communists from the former East Germany) 10%.  

A Merkel-Westerville government is also likely to see the rise of a conservative politician increasingly seen as a future chancellor:  Theodor du Guttenberg, economics minister and considered more grounded in conservative philosophy than Merkel.  Known as “the Bavarian baron” because of his aristocratic roots in Munich, the young (38) and magnetic Guttenberg will probably emerge as Germany’s next defense minister should conservatives emerge triumphant on Sunday.

Russia Trumps All

But a conservative government in Berlin and a new defense minister won’t change the fact that ‘Old Europe’s” Germany agrees with Obama that there should not be a missile defense system in “New Europe.”

As to what is behind the position taken by Merkel and the other major political leaders, German sources told me that Berlin’s growing economic ties to Russia and a desire to have the Medvedev-Putin regime more involved in Western policy trumped all. They noted, for example, that former Socialist Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, unseated by Merkel in ’05, now has a high-paying job with the Russian company that overseas the pipeline that pumps oil into Western Europe.

“Many politicians said that Moscow’s resistance against the defense plan is not justified,” one German source who requested anonymity told me, “But foreign policy experts for all major parties in Germany have the opinion that America and Europe need Russia to solve the big problems in the world — North Korea, Iran, and the Middle East — and that the defense shield was not worth it to risk this support from Russia.”

Conservatives in this country are hoping for a triumph by Merkel and her conservative allies and a government takes some capitalist-oriented initiatives.  But “Angela in Wonderland” does not necessarily translate into national security policies equivalent to those of American conservatives.