Berlin might be packed full of bohemian alcoholics, but outside the hippest city in Europe, Western Europe’s leading power is a very different place. Most Germans come from small towns. Places where centuries-old traditions cling on.
And three in four of them work for small to medium-sized companies. Firms that one family has owned for several generations, manufacturers that seem stuffy, but which have developed lucrative niches abroad.
These firms — and their employees — have underpinned German success for decades. The German knack for making deals, and finicky technology like cars and machines, dug the country out of the rubble left by World War II. And German business’ talent for bean-counting doesn’t hurt either. In the words of German director Rainer Fassbinder’s most famous heroine Maria von Braun: "Imagination would only be a liability… someone must ensure we don’t lose our credit rating."
Similarly, Angela Merkel has gained power in Europe not because of her imagination, but because of her accounting skill. As one acute Merkel watcher, sociologist Ulrich Beck, wrote back in October: "All of [Europe’s] debtor nations rely on Germany to underwrite the credit they need," due to the global financial crisis.
Guaranteeing others’ treasury bonds has given Merkel the power to decide the destiny of the continent. And — as Beck argues in an essay for Der Spiegel — knowing when to refuse to sign off for Southern Europe has been Merkel’s best tactic: "There’s only one thing that’s worse than being steamrolled by German money. And that’s not being steamrolled by German money."
But German credit is not Merkel’s only steamroller. And cars and cogs are not Germany’s only world-beating exports. The country’s weapons are also winning an increasing number of fans overseas. Top of the list here is Germany’s "internationally leading" battle tank, Leopard 2.
Advertisements for the model spruik the tanks "superior firepower" and the success of this cutting-edge German export. "The armed forces of 16 countries rely on Leopard 2," the tank’s promotional website boasts.
German Leopards are adaptable to all sorts of terrain, from the Arctic to the Andes, the product’s English website continues. That’s a very good thing, as it happens. Because all sorts of countries have been snapping up the panzers in recent years.
Now, all those countries’ defence plans are reliant on the goodwill of Angela Merkel. Because, as German monthly Cicero explains, the constitution here contains a clause that obliges Berlin to approve arms exports.
Merkel and her ministers avouch that their policy on arms exports is "restrictive" and "responsible", says Cicero.
Indeed, Germany never sells arms without talking into account the implications for "security interests", a government spokesman told German news agency DPA earlier this month .
"It [the policy]is about strengthening credible partners" abroad, Steffen Seibert said.
By this, Seibert means "credible partners" like Saudi Arabia.
"Reports say Saudi Arabia wants to buy at least 270 Leopard 2 battle tanks from Germany," continues the DPA dispatch.
Indeed, other news agencies have reported that Saudi Arabia has already bought dozens of the panzers. Back in July, security sources told Reuters that Berlin sold 44 tanks to Saudi Arabia. The upper house of the German parliament approved the sale in a secret debate, weekly Der Spiegel reported.
Merkel supporters in the German press have justified that sale on geopolitical grounds. The aim of the sale is to shore up the Saudi monarchy so it can "equip itself against an Iran that’s on the front foot", wrote a columnist at Die Welt. The newspaper is regarded as a strong advocate of Merkel’s policies.
But Riyadh isn’t the only partner that Merkel had in mind. Another of Germany’s new allies is closer to home: "The Indonesian government is expecting [delivery]of a total of 100 Leopard 2 battle tanks before year’s end, plus 50 smaller Marder defence tanks," says that DPA dispatch.
Military analysts have told German media that they believe the tanks are unlikely to be used in the conflict that Indonesia is fighting in West Papua.
"The tanks couldn’t be used to fight rebels in the jungle. Very simply, they would get stuck in the rainforest," military analyst Bernhard Loo told German radio station Deutschland Funk earlier this month.
Instead, Loo said, Jakarta bought the tanks due to an arms build-up in South East Asia: "The simple fact is that Malaysia has bought around one hundred tanks. And Indonesia doesn’t want to stand back [and let that happen]."
Both tank sales are guided by Merkel’s geopolitical thinking. In a little-noted speech in October, Merkel signalled that she wanted to arm emerging regional powers. The aim here would be for them to police their own regions:
"I’m convinced that it’s in our interests for us [NATO and the EU] to empower partners so they can effectively preserve or restore security in their own regions. This can both involve training them and supporting armament [there]."
Those remarks have been dubbed "the Merkel Doctrine" in the German media. They signal a leader who is determined to convert Berlin into a military player; one who uses technological acumen to advance political ends. Just as German financial power has helped achieve political ends in Europe.
But the doctrine doesn’t just involve arms sales. Berlin is also ready to send troops abroad to enforce the Merkel doctrine.
German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle has signalled Germany is ready to train the Malian army so — along with an African-led international force — it can recapture the north of the country, reports African news magazine Jeune Afrique. Jihadi groups — including Al Qaeda — are currently occupying swathes of the West African country.
And German troops will be dispatched to the Turkish/Syrian border along with patriot missiles, writes Barcelona daily La Vanguardia. Merkel’s government has taken the decision as part of a Western push to "establish conditions for a no-fly zone" in the Syrian conflict says the Spanish edition of the paper.
After World War II, West Germany reestablished itself as a pacifist power, adept at business. Its symbols were Deutsche Bank and the Volkswagen Beetle. If Angela Merkel gets her way, then the Bundeswehr and Leopard 2 could very soon symbolise reunified Germany.
ABOUT BEST OF THE REST: It’s a big world out there and plenty of commentators and journalists are writing about it – but not always in English. And not surprisingly, ideas about big events of the day shift when you move away from the Anglosphere. Best of the Rest is a fortnightly NM feature by Berlin-based journalist Charles McPhedran. Charles reads the news in French, German, Spanish and Portuguese and reports on what the rest of the world is saying about the big stories.
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