The German Abstention: Domestic Upside Minimal Foreign Damage

Chancellor Merkel would like to stay in power and it therefore does not pay to jeopardize her coalition by joining the attack in Libya.

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Amiel Ungar, | updated: 21:42

Guido Westerwelle
Guido Westerwelle


An abstention on a UN Security Council resolution is in the eye of the beholder. On the one hand. it can be interpreted as a lack of solidarity with the majority that supported the resolution. One is called upon to explain why the abstaining country -in this case the Federal Republic of Germany - acted the way it did.  In the case of Russia and China, abstention invites the opposite question – given a country's hostility or suspicion of the resolution, why did it suffice with an abstention and not exercise the veto power that would have stymied the resolution?

This post will focus on German considerations; a companion post posted just before this one focuses on Russia and China.

Former US House Speaker, Thomas "Tip" O'Neil,l was the author of the famous quip "all politics is local". In the German case, one can paraphrase that remark to "international politics is national politics". Angela Merkel did what she thought was best for the prospects of her coalition retaining voter support in a series of state elections that can decide whether the coalition keeps its majority in Germany's upper house, the Bundesrat. Without such a majority, economic decision making is crippled.

Military involvement is not popular in Germany and particularly in situations that seem murky, such as Libya, where even American Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Mike Mullen, cannot rule out the possibility of stalemate. “We wish our partners success because we follow the same political goals but we are of a different position regarding the chances of success,” said Angela Merkel. “Our hearts are heavy. It is no easy decision, but one has to consider what will happen in the end.”

It would therefore be erroneous to compare Doctor Merkel to her predecessor Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Gerhard Schroeder relished taking an anti-American position during the invasion of Iraq; Merkel is doing this out of political necessity and she has already been given a form of a pass from British Prime Minister David Cameron. He noted the German Chancellor's consistent skepticism. It is also not a situation where German participation could make or break the outcome. Germany has been quick to pledge additional aircraft to Afghanistan, allowing the forces engaged in Libya to shift some aircraft from Afghanistan to Libya.

Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister and leader of the Free Democratic Party, is being cast as the villain of the piece far more than Merkel. As the German foreign minister appeared to have come out front and center in favor of deposing Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi, his opposition to a no flight zone when Qaddafi appeared on the verge of crushing the insurgents and wreaking vengeance upon his opponents appeared immoral. Obviously, the Foreign Minister cannot act independently of the Chancellor. as this is not a national unity government. but one with a senior and junior partner.  The bad cop-good cop distinction works for both Germany as well as for the United States, Britain and France who prefer Merkel to other alternatives.

There are those inside and outside Germany who claim that Germany will pay a price for this abstention in terms of Berlin's pretensions to be a major power. This begs the question of whether the Germans want the responsibility that comes with being a major power. In the recent deal making within the European Union German insistence on the terms of the economic bailout provokes a good deal of backlash and resentment of Teutonic arrogance. Who needs leadership?

In international economics great power status can frequently pose an inconvenience. It requires expensive defense commitments. Secondly it results in making enemies. Germany is the Iranian regime's favorite Western country; Qaddafi himself promised vengeance in terms of excluding Western European countries from future oil contracts but singled out the Germans for future favored treatment. Some might regard such adulation from Qaddafi as an embarrassment; others within Germany would undoubtedly view this as an asset worth preserving.

The allies will prove forgiving; domestic opinion, including the opposition, is essentially supportive. If the affair turns sour, Germany will have kept its hands clean and its options open.