Monday, September 23, 2002
And finally, some brief thoughts on the German election.
First, it's clear to me that one reason that Schroeder won was that he took a strong stance on something, and in a context where he appeared to be acting patriotically. In that sense, his stance on Iraq meshed with the image he projected during the floods. The message, basically, was: I will take care of you, Germany. I care, and I care about you first of all. And I won't be distracted from my primary task by the demands of these arrogant Americans - or even those of the United Nations. The fact that he specifically said he would not support war against Iraq even if the U.N. did underscores this fact. Many commentators have pointed out that Germany has done itself enormous diplomatic harm by taking such a hard anti-war line. Germany has disrupted a common EU foreign policy, damaged its bid to be a permanent Security Council member, and undermined the crucial relationship with the United States, and all for nothing since German intransigence will have no impact on the American decision. But while completely true, all this commentary misses the point: that is precisely what the Germans liked about Schroeder's stance. Germans were voting to tell the world: we are tired of hearing of your problems. We have problems of our own. Please go away. It was a vote precisely against responsibility and good global or European citizenship, which the Germans are probably up to here with. I'm not saying this to excuse the German electorate; I think it's pathetic. And, given the importance of the German domestic front in the war on terror, it's a serious problem going forward. But I think that's why it played so well (and it did play well; Stoiber was supposed to win this one in a walk): not because the Germans are so anti-American but because they want to go back to bed and leave the responsibilities of global governance to others.
Second, it's clear that the biggest victors in the election were not the SPD but the Greens, and the biggest losers not the CDU/CSU but the Free Democrats and the PDS. That, in itself, is somewhat promising and somewhat disappointing. The Free Democrats have a history of being the sort of party we'd all hope would do better: they're pro-market and pro-American, historically. But they have been flirting with anti-Semitism, or at least anti-Israel politics, in order to court the Muslim vote (such as it is; most German-resident Muslims are non-citizens), and this appears to have backfired. The sorts of people who would vote for an anti-Israel party are not the sorts of people who are likely to vote for the rest of the Free Democrat agenda, so the message made little sense and turned voters off. On the other hand, it's likely that the lack of enthusiasm for the FDs also reflects a lack of enthusiasm for economic liberalism, which is unfortunate since one of the things Germany needs if it is to get out of its rut is more competition, particularly in the labor market. The rise of the Greens is also equivocal. On the one hand, these guys are loony-left. On the other hand, they are the least loony of the loony-left parties in Europe. The Greens have participated in the German government successfully. They are not really more extreme than Labor backbenchers, or certainly than the Liberal Democrats. And they are not, generally, in the same league as the French lunatic fringe parties. Joschka Fischer, the Green foreign minister, supported German involvement in the Kossovo war and supported the war in Afghanistan. He has been strongly against war in Iraq; okay. But he remains the most interesting left-wing leader in Europe (I do not count Tony Blair as left-wing, precisely), and he has been instrumental in bringing to the Greens some measure of responsibility. It's a problem, certainly, that a purportedly anti-NATO and radical-environmentalist party would do so well in Germany. But the actual behavior of the Greens in power has been somewhat different from what you'd think, and it may be better to have the Greens forced to take the responsibility of power than to have them grow in strength without that responsibility. Had the CDU-CSU won the election, and the Greens done well at the expense of the SPD, that might have been more problematic long-term. As for the fall of the PDS, it is of course an unmitigated positive: without seats, the party could dwindle further, which would only be to the good, given the Communist origins of the party.
Third, and finally, the contrast with the recent elections in France is instructive. The French in the first round of Presidential voting opted for a collection of kooks and crazies, and wound up giving the citizenry a choice between a crooked Gaullist and a hard-right Algerian war nostalgist. And then, the citizenry seemed to sober up, suddenly. They voted Chirac in, of course, but by much wider margins than expected. And then they gave him a Parliament, ending the "cohabitation" that had caused French politics to freeze up. And they voted for a center-right that had begun to tackle the problems of competitiveness and immigration that were previously being swept under the rug. It's just a bare beginning, but it's something. And the realism continues: the French have become increasingly supportive of America's war aims, not because they are eager to see the extension of American influence, but because they realistically understand that a good relationship with America is more important than a good relationship with South Africa, and they want to protect that influence. The French, in other words, splashed cold water on their own faces and started to wake up. By contrast, the Germans rolled over and put the pillow over their heads to try to fall back asleep. It's too soon to know if either of these presage a trend. But if they do, the trend is: within Europe, France rising, Germany sinking.