As Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) elected its new leader last week, what comment there was in the English-language press largely consisted of noting how little comment the press had otherwise made.
Now that Armin Laschet has been elected, and seems likely, after this year’s elections, to succeed Angela Merkel as chancellor, the press has to make up its mind. In general, as exemplified by this summary from the New Stateman’s foreign editor Jeremy Cliffe, Laschet is held to stand for moderation and the pursuit of consensus. Maybe this would involve coalition with the Green party. This coalition-building and careful management is something Merkel’s defenders associated with her and her virtues.
‘No experiments’, Cliffe notes, has its own political cache in Germany as a slogan associated with Konrad Adenauer, a founder of the CDU. And it seems, according to this strain of commentary, that Laschet is willing to eschew the more dramatic pitches of his defeated opponents and plump for caution.
In foreign policy terms, what this means is even less discussed. Cliffe writes: ‘His foreign policy instincts, which are dovish on Russia and China, alarm some’ – and nothing else. The same for the whole anglophone media before Laschet won his election.
As strange as that was, this was also less than thoroughly covered in Germany itself. In Der Spiegel, the newspaper’s foreign editor, Mathieu von Rohr, wrote that in a leadership contest mainly consisting of domestic politics, ‘Laschet’s foreign policy positions, however, were rarely discussed and questioned’.
This is a shame, von Rohr argues, because Laschet’s foreign policy is of import. He writes that it is, to an extent worth debating, different from that of Merkel. And how ‘dovish’ Laschet really is must also be worth discussing.
One major obstacle to any portrayal of the CDU leader as a peacenik comes from Syria’s war. Like a number on the isolationist right, Laschet travelled on from non-interventionism into support for those Middle Eastern tyrants who so willingly make war on their own people.
Laschet spent some of his time in the last decade replying in English to Barack Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry. Laschet accused the Americans of supporting the Islamic State (ISIS) and the Nusra Front (then an al-Qaeda franchise) against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This was never true and at that time existed mainly in the feverish swamps of propaganda produced by various compromised governments.
In another tweet, with Kerry tagged, Laschet responded to a Twitter user who had noted that the regime accounted for the majority of the war’s hundreds of thousands of casualties. Laschet countered with the untruth that these people were in fact killed by Syria’s rebels and Nusra, and the insinuation that the two of those things were the same.
Laschet also denied that the Assad regime had used chemical weapons, instead attributing their employment to ISIS – something that was doubly unlikely. Although ISIS has used crude mustard gas and would gas more people if it could, it possesses neither the capacity to produce nerve agents nor the helicopters from which to drop them onto civilian heads.
Nor was ISIS present in East Ghouta, where the attack in question took place – and thus it could not have participated in a helicopter-less false flag operation to plant the gas, which Laschet possibly had in mind.
Since some of these remarks were made, Laschet has attempted to shrug them off. He had ‘never defended Bashar al-Assad in his entire life’, he told the tabloid BILD – something that was only true if one took the most charitable and least subtle view of everything he has said on the subject.
All of this culminates in Laschet’s repeated declarations that ‘the only solution for Syria is with Russia’. He said this even though Russia has been party to much of the worst of that war and has, rather than bringing peace, in fact helped the regime drag the conflict out.
Laschet also doubted that Russia had used chemical weapons in Salisbury – a view very few of his CDU colleagues shared. The German government joined the governments of Britain, France and the United States in condemning the attack and blaming Russia for it.
Although Laschet’s refusal to condemn Russia for things everyone else believes it has done fills many Germans of an interest in foreign affairs with concern, it is not entirely divorced – in spirit if not in letter – from the position of the current chancellor.
Merkel is a less blunt operator than Laschet, and she is better able to duck and weave around matters of condemnation, whereas Laschet blunders about. But she has also pursued a policy of ‘understanding’ Russia – which in effect means tolerating its worst excesses while occasionally withholding that toleration for tactical reasons. Merkel has pressed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, a boon to Russia and Germany, in the teeth of American opposition.
And on China, a greater threat than Russia to democracy the world over, Merkel showed her teeth by personally intervening to secure a trade deal between China and the European Union, something celebrated, ironically enough, by Germany’s former defence minister, the president of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The deal includes caveats intended to diminish the possible effects Chinese concentration camps and impressed labour may have on intercontinental trade, but in practice hands China a strategic success and another pathway into Europe, and European wallets.
Merkel’s admiration for China, reported by many close to her who know her mind, has survived all talk of the prison camps and the dictatorship. In Laschet, China hopes to find another German leader prepared to do the same.
Laschet’s worldview is hardly unheard of, then, in the upper reaches of his party. Instead, it bears some similarity to Merkel’s. Germany is a disarmed country used to relying upon its economic might to win its battles. As China rises, and Russia rattles its sabre, the German attitude concerns getting as rich as possible in one’s own lifetime, and hoping that the grandchildren have as much ease learning Mandarin as Merkel’s generation did English.
But enforced isolation can do a body politic lasting harm, making a perverse virtue of seeing no one to protect and to help in all the world, and no threat from those who are prepared to be threatening. All the while seeking enrichment at the expense of all else. Laschet is a part of this culture, but he is yet more isolationist and more mercenary than the fifteen years of CDU policy which precedes him. Keine experimente he may promise, but perhaps also some small change for the worse.
This piece was originally published at The Critic.