Two predecessors illuminate how Guido Westerwelle could leave his mark on German foreign policy.
It is not easy being a European foreign minister these days. A 27-member EU makes for a great deal of complexity; new global powers are flexing their muscles; and the novel and stronger institutional foreign-policy set-up in Brussels that will emerge from the Lisbon treaty will require ministers to show what the French call doigté and the Germans Fingerspitzengefühl - an ability to react flexibly. And with globalisation internationalising all ministers' portfolios, foreign ministers risk being sidelined even within their own government on crucial international issues, such as climate change or global governance.
So Guido Westerwelle, Germany's new foreign minister and leader of the Free Democrats (FDP), should not expect an easy ride. He also faces two additional challenges to establish his authority. A young politician from a smallish party that has long been out of government, he lacks ministerial experience and an international profile. And, as the doyenne of German feminism Alice Schwarzer has pointed out, the prospect of a gay foreign minister serving next to a woman chancellor, whilst welcome across much of Europe as a sign of social progress, is likely to trigger a frosty reaction in other parts of the world.
Westerwelle may come to symbolise the liberalisation of European society. It is an open question, though, how his political liberalism will affect Germany's foreign policy.
So far, Westerwelle has given few answers. "Continuity" has been his watchword, with policies built on the overwhelming German consensus that European integration and the transatlantic relationship are equally important. Where he has drawn lines between himself and the old government is in regard to smaller EU states (pay more attention to them) and global nuclear disarmament (engage more in the process).
The FDP's traditional concern for civic and human rights might mean that he will place greater emphasis on these issues than his ultra-pragmatic predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier did. But economic issues are his party's core concern and - as the nomination of Günter Oettinger to be Germany's European commissioner indicates - also the government's. That economic focus means that Westerwelle is unlikely to rock many boats in China and Russia.
So, will Westerwelle be anything more than a competent caretaker of ‘continuity' in German foreign policy? He could be, if he is minded to be.
The two foreign ministers who have played the biggest role in Germany's post-war history have been Westerwelle's mentor Hans Dietrich Genscher, a Free Democrat, and Joschka Fischer, a Green. Genscher, with Ostpolitik, and Fischer, with the Kosovo war, both helped usher in major changes in Germany's foreign policy. But they also chose to play a major role in initiating fundamental advances in European integration, towards the euro in Genscher's case and toward a constitution (now the Lisbon treaty) in Fischer's case.
Both achieved this by exploiting the independence available to leaders of small parties and by using the double authority that comes from being both a foreign minister and party leader. Germany's two main parties, the CDU and the SPD, are too big and cumbersome to be radical. Like them, provided he has the ambition and a sense of timing, Westerwelle could put forward daring new initiatives to make Europe work better and, if he chooses, to move EU integration forward.
Genscher and Fischer did so by engineering changes to treaties. Almost certainly, Westerwelle will not do that, since further treaty changes are unlikely for a decade. But there are enough areas of European integration, such as defence co-operation, where major progress could be made without formal transfers of sovereignty.
The main political challenge now for Westerwelle, a pragmatic and flexible man, is to build up his credibility as a manager and to ensure his credentials become as strong in foreign policy as they are in economics. But he is, like Fischer and Genscher, a towering force within his own party. He can follow their footsteps as an architect of a stronger Europe; whether he does will depend on his skill and ambition.
This piece was first published by European Voice on 2 November 2009.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.