Germany's New Government: Coalition of Compromise

Imagine American voters deciding that George W. Bush and Sen. John Kerry should form a government of Republicans and Democrats. Both parties would share control of the government.

The presidency would go to Bush, and John Kerry would be secretary of state. The two parties would govern jointly, despite their widely divergent views on many issues.

To understand the new coalition government in Germany, think about the problems this fractious team would face.

As of Nov. 22, Angela Merkel will be Germany’s first female chancellor. She is also the leader of the conservative Christian Democratic Party, which is traditionally pro-American. Her foreign minister will be Frank-Walter Steinmeier, a member of the Social Democratic Party, the main opposition party that battled Merkel to stay in power. Steinmeier reportedly helped shape much of the foreign policy for departing Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the Social Democratic Party.

Schroeder’s Germany adopted a more independent, Eurocentric world view and strongly rejected the American invasion of Iraq. The German stand infuriated the Bush administration, and relations with Berlin have reached an unprecedented low point.

The left-leaning Social Democrats are now the junior partners in the new government of Chancellor Merkel, and both parties must agree on domestic and foreign policy to keep the coalition intact. That will not be easy because the Social Democrats are not going to stop opposing United States policy in Iraq.

“Polls conducted after Merkel and Schroeder had their only televised debate clearly showed more than 81 per cent of Germans still support Schroeder’s foreign policy and his outspoken opposition to the Iraq war,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, Washington correspondent for Die Zeit, Germany’s most prestigious weekly newspaper. “There is a clear consensus among Germans against the war. It is a consensus no politician can ignore.”

What should the Bush administration expect from the new leadership in Berlin?

“When she (Angela Merkel) announced that her party was forming a coalition with the Social Democrats, she said one of her primary foreign policy goals was to improve relations with the United States,” said Hans Jurgen Mauras, a commentator for German radio.

German experts say Merkel will receive a warm welcome when she visits Washington next year.

“The relationship between Bush and Schroeder was badly poisoned, so the idea that Schroeder will be replaced by someone more sympathetic to Washington will be welcomed,” said Kleine-Brockhoff. “Even when Bush and Schroeder smiled for photographers after summit meetings, it was all show and no substance. That’s how bad it has been.”

Better relations were forecast by Professor Stephen F. Szabo, an expert on Germany at Johns Hopkins University.

“Not only will she be friendly to the administration, but she is Germany’s first woman chancellor. This is a big accomplishment in German society which is quite sexist," Szabo said. "She is a Joan of Arc kind of figure in some respects. She will get a great reception from the White House. I think the press too will be intrigued by her.”

Merkel has already publicly opposed lifting the European arms embargo against China, a position espoused by the Bush administration. Schroeder wanted to lift the embargo.

Merkel will continue to support deployment of German troops in Afghanistan to root out elements of the Taliban and in Kosovo to prevent strife between ethnic Albanians and Serbs.

Merkel opposes Turkey’s admission to the European Union. The United States favors Turkey’s entry. German foreign policy analysts do not think Turkish membership will be delayed too long.

Merkel’s success in improving ties with the Bush administration depends on how well she works with her foreign minister. The foreign minister selected by the second largest party in Germany’s parliamentary democracy has much more power than the American secretary of state who is a presidential appointee and cannot act independently. Steinmeier will have a lot to say about the country’s foreign affairs, although the constitution gives the chancellor ultimate authority to make domestic and foreign policy.

In reality, the chancellor must often compromise with the foreign minister to shape policy that is agreeable to both parties. It is often a delicate balancing act and failure means the dissolution of the coalition government.

“Merkel is in a coalition with the Social Democrats who will do their utmost to preserve Schroeder’s foreign policy,” said Kleine-Brockhoff, adding, however that "one should never underestimate the perseverance of that woman. She will not give up on her agenda easily.”

“Steinmeier knows all the players in government,” said Hans Jurgen Mauras of German public radio. “He has coordinated the secret services. He is a skilled negotiator. And he was Schroeder’s right hand man for 17 years.”

A clue to Steinmeier’s attitude toward the United States came on Sept. 21, when he addressed foreign policy experts in Berlin. He examined major international issues and said that Germany must play a more active role in foreign affairs. Steinmeier stressed the importance of Russia as a growing market for German goods and as a major source of energy. He made no mention of the United States.

“Steinmeier is largely seen as someone who would like to carry on the foreign policy of the Schroeder administration – namely distance itself from the United States and strengthen the nation’s close relations with Russia,” commented the influential German weekly, Der Spiegel.

In contrast, Merkel favors closer ties with Washington and a stricter line on Russian backsliding from democracy. She has also called for a political settlement in Chechnya, the southern Russian province where government troops have brutally attempted to suppress Muslem insurgents.

Uwe Haye, a former spokesman for Schroeder and colleague of Steinmeier, thinks the new foreign minister will be a friend of the United States.

“He is a pragmatist, not an inflexible ideologue," Haye said. "He likes Americans and sees them as open-minded and positive.”

Washington would benefit from a friendlier Germany. The nation straddling Eastern and Western Europe is the continent’s most populous country. It has Europe’s biggest economy, which is the third largest in the world.

However, Americans should not expect dramatic changes soon. When the 191-page coalition government agreement was made public on Nov. 13, it triggered withering criticism from the German press. The verdict? Too many tax hikes, too little reform of a stagnant economy and five million jobless.

Merkel’s first priority will be to start fixing Germany’s ailing economy. International relations will not top her immediate agenda.

Don Snyder was a news producer at NBC for 27 years, overseeing domestic and foreign news for the Today show. He was a foreign correspondent for the Toronto Star, and worked for the Mutual Broadcasting System. As a recipient of the Advanced International Reporting Fellowship, he studied at the Russian Institute at Columbia University.

Donald Snyder was a news producer at NBC for 27 years and has been a freelance writer since his retirement. He specializes in Germany and Eastern Europe.