Post-Wall Germany flexes muscles on world stage

9th November 2009, Comments 0 comments

Vanquished Germany, cleaved in two by the war's victors, served mainly as a pawn and potential battleground during the Cold War.

Berlin -- Twenty years after the Berlin Wall fell, now unified Germany has a far bigger footprint on the world stage, demonstrating an assertiveness that was unthinkable for most of the post-Nazi period.

Vanquished Germany, cleaved in two by the war's victors, served mainly as a pawn and potential battleground during the Cold War.

"Germany was an object of foreign policy, caught between the US and the Soviet Union," said Jackson Janes of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies in Washington.

"Since then, they have become a subject, facing choices they didn't have before."

For decades, the interests of West Germany took a back seat to those of its neighbours, who still bore wretched memories of World War II. It relied heavily on "chequebook diplomacy" in forking out funds to clear impasses.

"Being European was the only nationalism allowed in Germany," said Ulrike Guerot of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

But after the two Germanys became one in 1990, the country tentatively began flexing its muscles, weighing military and diplomatic issues in terms of its own national standpoint, with less fear of offending allies.

That year Germans helped bankroll the US-led drive to liberate Kuwait from Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's invading army.

Nine years later, then Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder won parliamentary approval to participate in NATO air raids against Serbia during a brutal campaign against the ethnic Albanian majority in Kosovo.

Since then, German forces have increasingly taken their place next to international troops in the world's crisis zones, from the mountains of Afghanistan -- where they make up the third biggest contingent -- to the Lebanese coast.

But Schroeder was also the leader who drew the line at Iraq when then US President George W. Bush was assembling a "coalition of the willing" to overthrow Saddam.

He stridently rejected what he branded a military "adventure" with incalculable consequences for the region, touching off a deep transatlantic rift which endured until the end of Schroeder's tenure in 2005.

His successor Angela Merkel worked to repair the damage but has pursued the same independent course, toeing the line or going it alone as she sees fit.

In late 2008, she -- at least initially -- resisted US and European partners calling for a bigger German contribution to coordinated stimulus measures to battle the global financial crisis.

She slammed US financiers for triggering the economic tailspin, and shrugged off pressure from Washington to recalibrate the balance of trade.

"This is no longer the Germany that agrees to make sacrifices in order to be forgiven," former European Commission president Jacques Delors told French daily La Tribune.

Guerot said it was a fine line between national assertiveness and dominance.

"When we say we are normalising, we mean we are re-nationalising," she said.

She detects an impatience in the German political class and business world for the country to finally begin punching its weight in the global arena.

"The tone is 'we have paid too long for the others, it is time we recover lost ground'," she said.

Guerot said such discontent was leading the country to discard what it once saw as its responsibilities in the European Union.

But others argue that Germany, with the EU's top economy and biggest population, is still too timid.

"Germany remains prisoner of its history," said commentator Stefan Cornelius of the daily Sueddeutsche Zeitung. "German foreign policy is still very restrained. Merkel is not prepared to be confrontational."

The chancellor, however, seems to reflect the deep-seated ambivalence of her compatriots when it comes to patriotism.

A study by the University of Stuttgart published earlier this year found that 75 percent of the people interviewed said they were proud to be German, "despite the country's history" -- twice as many as in 2001.

But just 61 percent of respondents said they approved of Germans waving the country's flag on special occasions such as the soccer World Cup Germany hosted in 2006. More than 53 percent, however, said they would not do it themselves.


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