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After the fall of the wall: Germans long to downsize their role

Germany's postwar internationalism seems to be giving way to parochialism.

By Robert Marquand / staff writer / October 17, 2009

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle, leader of her new coalition partner, met at the sleekly appointed Chancellery in Berlin the day after her reelection.

Wolfgang Rattay/AP



Germany, for better or worse, has never been an ordinary European nation. After World War II, West Berlin relished a forward-looking view, establishing itself as a driver of European integration, global consensus, international responsibility, human rights, and peace.

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Now, 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and a successful (but psychologically and financially exhausting) reunification, there's growing sentiment in Germany to scale back its roles in Europe and the world.

Public ardor is shifting toward a sentiment for "normalization," analysts say: Germany has paid its substantial debt to history; it perceives no traditional threats, and wants quiet. Berlin will help Europe, but no longer wants to be its cash machine. It will more sharply define its interests, and is looking east to Russia.

"After the war, it was easy for Germany to be 'for Europe.' We were not a sovereign country. Now we are," says Eberhard Sandschneider of the German Council on Foreign Relations. He spoke ahead of Chan­cellor Angela Merkel's reelection Sept. 27, in a campaign that was free of foreign-relations debates. "Germany has become normal again. We are a country with high global interests, but not a global player. We are not a superpower, and don't have superpower responsibilities."

Fatigue among German elites

Jan Techau, also of the German Council, echoes that perspective: "The role of Germany in Europe used to be to give money," he says. "That has changed. There's a certain fatigue among German elites on Europe. There's no big enthusiasm for Europe here anymore."

This growing sentiment in Berlin is playing out against the backdrop of a new center-right coalition that is being formed between Mrs. Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union party (CDU) and the Free Democratic Party (FDP). The FDP has strong transatlantic ­ideals, including support for US efforts in Afghanistan, as stated by FDP leader, Guido Westerwelle, who is likely to be the next foreign minister.

It is unclear what appetite Merkel and Mr. Westerwelle have for challenging Germany's inward bent at a time of global uncertainty. German military officials on Oct. 1 denied reports that Berlin would up its Afghan troop deployment from 4,500 to 7,000. While Germans don't believe their security begins at the Hindu Kush, Berlin views a failure of NATO as sharply against its interests.

Former senior State Department official John Kornblum, who lives in Berlin, argues that the West – the United States and Europe – "is searching desperately for some kind of unifying framework." US leadership, he argues, requires a "strong and decisive Europe," with Germany taking a lead. "But the Europeans have checked out of history," he says. "They want to make Europe stable and livable, tend their gardens. Without a strong Europe, America lacks strategic depth … at a time when there's no clear compass or direction."

Berlin still at the diplomatic table