There’s been something of a debate in IR journals over the past decade about what a reunified Germany was likely to do, since the basic components of its foreign policy as set after the Second World War rested on assumptions that were no longer valid. Specifically, postwar Germany was a) divided into two pieces which were b) integrated into separate alliances which were c) implacably opposed to one another in the titanic global settlement called the Cold War. The early 1990s witnessed, in quick succession, the unraveling of all of these assumptions. The scholarly community responded with a flurry of “everything will change”/”no it won’t” debates; the empirical record was, as usual, mixed and ambiguous.

Today, the news from Germany is that talks about a grand coalition between the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats are actually proceeding apace. Two months ago it looked like were were going to have a landslide for the Christian Democrats, Angela Merkel would take over as Chancellor, and then we’d really have some changes. But then both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats failed to gain majorities in the Bundestag, and we’ve basically been in limbo for the past three weeks as coalition talks were carried out in private. It looks like Merkel will in fact become Chancellor, but the Christian Democrats will have to abandon or at the very least scale back their plans for a radical overhaul of Germany’s labor laws in a more free market direction.

Change or continuity? Who was right?

Let’s first get the terms of the debate straight. After the Soviet Union collapsed, neorealists in IR argued that Germany would no longer have to depend on the United States to protect it from an invasion — which the United States did in part by stationing some troops in Germany, but mostly by threatening to retaliate with a nuclear strike if the Soviets did invade. This was called “mutually assured destruction,” and Thomas Schelling just won a share of the Nobel Prize in Economics for inventing the theory. Germany’s dependence on the United States for this security guarantee, the argument went, meant that Germany had an incentive to defer to the United States on any number of matters, and therefore not act in the fully autonomous way that a powerful sovereign state is capable of acting, given international anarchy and the rest of it. No need for a security guarantee would then lead to a more assertive Germany, one that would finally start throwing its weight around in international affairs.

On the other side we had a group of scholars I’ll loosely call the “political culture” group, since they variously self-identified as liberals, constructivists, comparativists, regional specialists, and so on. But what held their arguments together was the notion that something fundamentally changed in Germany after the Second World War, something that inclined the whole polity to more or less abandon power politics in favor of a focus on commerce and diplomacy. “Political culture” pretty well captures what they had in mind, I think, since the basic mechanism is that things like a militarily assertive Germany became politically unsustainable because of the preferences of the voters, which were in turn formed and sustained by a set of broadly-distributed cultural values. If we extend this logic through the collapse of the Soviet Union, we get a prediction of continuity, regardless of what is going on in the international environment.

So how do we read the present electoral situation? The ambiguity of a grand coalition seems like a perfect symbol of how inadequate both of the predictions were. Also, here we have a situation in which events in the world slip out of and away from abstract theoretical generalizations — and does so by restoring politics to a central position.

Predicting that Germany would become more assertive after the Cold War presumes that states make their foreign policies by examining global situations and seeing what best serves their interests. Given such an account of how states make decisions, factors like “the security situation” become inputs that are linked more or less inevitably to outcomes: if threatened, then take defensive measures; if you can take care of things yourself, do so and don’t tie yourself to allies. Note that no one actually gets to make any decisions at any point in this process — they just get to take note of the situation, make a calculation, and do the rational thing. But the other prediction, that Germany would continue on the same basic course of being a responsible member of an alliance rather than looking to assert itself, takes exactly the same form, even though the relevant factors are inside rather than outside of the state. We have an input (“political culture”) leading to an outcome, with no one having any real opportunity to change anything.

Now, all of this assumes that situations are almost completely unambiguous. But in practice, this is almost never the case in politics; there’s always room to maneuver, opportunity to reinterpret, and potential for rendering things in a number of different ways. Scholars might insist that states always or inevitably react in particular ways to given stimuli, but I’m not convinced that any statement of this form is actually an explanation of anything. Correlating inputs and outputs, even with a more or less detailed specification of the decision-making procedure involved, necessarily presumes that the actors making the decision don’t have much of an opportunity to actively figure out what the situation means. They either get it right or they get it wrong, but in any event they can’t change the situation that they confront.

But in contemporary Germany, what we have is something quite different. Instead of clarity, we have ambiguity; instead of certainty, we have an electorate divided by a variety of issues and unable to agree on a single direction for the country (sound familiar?). Politics intervenes between any input and any output, and in fact shapes the way that the situation confronting Germany appears to any future German government. Gerhard Schroeder learned during the last election that opposition to the US military action in Iraq was actually quite popular, but since then has undoubtedly learned that there are limits to how assertive a German government can be while retaining its domestic legitimacy. There are no stable and solid political cultures here in evidence; nor are there unambiguous international political situations. Instead, there are more or less successful attempts to enframe situations in various ways. In other words, political struggle, not inevitable conclusions.

Angela Merkel has said a number of unspecific things about repairing relations with the United States, which some have taken as an indication that she plans to have Germany play a bigger role in the project formerly known as “the war on terrorism.” But she’s likely to find herself limited, not by anything objective, but by the terms of the political settlement that appears likely to bring her and her party to power. Personally, I’d argue that this kind of political mechanism is always operating; even if there was widespread consensus about a situation, the causal power still inheres in the political configuration rather than in “the situation itself” (whatever that means). Germany’s future is messy and unpredictable, but isn’t everyone’s? And isn’t that a good thing, because it preserves our agency as active shapers of that future?
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