The violations of Gerhard Schröder

John C. Hulsman
18 December 2002

By unilaterally ruling out German participation in any western campaign against Iraq, Chancellor Gerhard Schröder violated two cardinal tenets of post-war German foreign policy. First, he failed to bow to the perceived multilateral collective wisdom of the United Nations (UN). Secondly, he also failed to consult Paris (as well as, of course, Washington) before his initiative of militant pacifism.

What is going on here?

The simple answer is that Schröder engaged in a brilliant political calculation, but one with predictably dubious policy ramifications, both for US–German relations as well as the long-term geo-strategic situation in the Persian Gulf itself. There can be little doubt that Schröder’s election gambit paid immediate and handsome dividends. In an exceptionally close election, unable to campaign on his stewardship of the moribund German economy, the Chancellor found an issue that resonated with key constituencies that he had to energise if he was to retain his position.

By unilaterally ruling out German involvement in unseating Saddam, Schröder achieved three immediate advances in the election campaign.

First, he mobilised the left wing of his own SPD – followers of Oskar Lafontaine, the very people who so recently advocated unilateral nuclear disarmament in the waning days of the cold war, and were always suspicious both of the US and military force itself as a tool of international relations.

Secondly, Schröder’s stance boosted the recently demoralised Greens, a party founded on the notion of pacifism before all else.

Thirdly, and critically, the stance won over floating East German voters (already favourable to a leader who had responded to catastrophic floods there by spending money like a drunken sailor) who, given their fraught history and relative economic woes, are not nearly as loyal to any of the major parties as are voters in the west of the country.

Politically, the strategy worked like a charm, with Schröder winning the poisoned chalice of governing a country unable to reform its economic way of doing things, and consequently, unable to create jobs. Here, it is likely there will be a political reckoning for the Chancellor in the near term.

Disengage, and lose influence

However, it is the longer-term consequences of the Chancellor’s cynical political decision that will continue to resonate. One need only compare the relative importance in the US of Germany, geo-politically the pivot state in an expanding Europe and a country that still possesses the world’s third largest economy, and Britain, a country with the world’s fourth largest economy.

US–German relations have been left in a ghastly state as a result of Schröder’s lack of consultation with Washington (ironically the very bugbear Europeans so often whip themselves into a lather decrying when Uncle Sam ignores their wishes), his ruling out of any direct involvement in the Iraq operation, and the obscene moral relativism displayed by a minister in the outgoing government comparing Bush to Hitler. As upsetting as this is for the US, it is a diplomatic disaster of the first order for Berlin to have such little sway over the only remaining superpower.

By contrast, the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, has emerged as one of the most critical advisers to President Bush. His unstinting support of the broad strategy to disarm Iraq (surely this shouldn’t be controversial?) has allowed him to play a central role in setting the tactics for the anti-Saddam coalition – most clearly by successfully pressing the President to go through the cumbersome UN process in order to win over wavering allies, a piece of excellent advice that was soon taken up as the official position of the US government.

As a result of its exceptionally close ties with the US, Britain is once again the second most important country in the world; in contrast, it currently makes news when President Bush shakes the Chancellor’s hand. Berlin forgot the cardinal rule of its avowed post-war foreign policy – engagement leads to influence.

Europe and Saddam: the folly of inaction

So often, the American experience of trips to European (and especially the German) chanceries saps the will to live. There is, of course, much carping from the cheap seats in the form of criticism of American politico-military policies by countries spending laughably little for the common defence. But that is only the start.

An even more egregious policy bankruptcy is that, while Europeans are exceptionally quick to tell Washington what they are against, it is rare indeed that Europeans tell the US what they are for – that is, provide a coherent policy alternative. In the case of Iraq, this negativism is fatal; for burying one’s head in the sand, doing nothing, and letting the threat of proliferation continue to grow (after the failure of non-proliferation treaties and UN resolutions over the past decade, this would seem beyond any empirical doubt) is simply not a grown-up option.

What, precisely, would Gerhard Schröder advocate doing instead of following the American line, given that reliance on dictators from Pyongyang to Baghdad to observe diplomatic niceties has failed? Here in Washington, the silence from across the Atlantic seems telling.

For there is little doubt that Saddam has pursued a coherent, rational (if ruthless) strategy for the past two decades. His desire is to geo-strategically dominate the Persian Gulf region. This explains his brutal invasion of Iran in the 1980s, his war with Kuwait in the 1990s, and his desire to politically dominate oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction plans are a critical part of this overall strategy, designed to keep the rest of the world at bay while he completes his life’s project. Based on the historical record, can there be any serious doubt that Saddam with a bomb in five-to-seven years would quickly reinvade Kuwait and then defy the world to come and get him?

The difficulties in such a situation can easily be imagined. A country that possesses nuclear weapons (as North Korea, and Russia vis-à-vis Chechnya, illustrate) is simply treated differently in the real world than countries without nukes, whatever Greens and other fantasists may wish.

Saddam-with-nukes would not only directly control Kuwait as well as Iraq; he would dominate Saudi Arabia – for a west made inactive due to the nuclear threat will leave the House of Saud dependent on Saddam. At that point he will control the economic life-blood of the west, particularly that of Europe. This is the nightmare scenario that doing nothing does nothing to redress.

The German Chancellor has made a common mistake; he has confused caution with wisdom in the international sphere. Despite his electoral victory, his Iraq policy will bring no lasting benefit – on the contrary. In terms of his relations with and relevance to Washington, and in light of his ostrich-like refusal to see a threat where one so obviously exists, the Chancellor will pay a heavy political price.

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