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The past as excuse

Germany should punch its weight and pursue a more active foreign policy

Indifferent mercantilism. This, according to the bitterest critics, is the paradigm that has dominated German foreign policy throughout the past legislature. The China of Europe, said the angriest, concerned only with selling weapons, purchasing cheap, plentiful energy, asking few questions about democracy and human rights, and turning its back on any responsibility connected with world peace and security.

We often criticize Merkel's European policy as short-sighted. Remember when the Spanish foreign minister, García-Margallo, said that Merkel "always arrived 15 minutes late" at the various euro crises? Well, that was perhaps putting it politely when considering the foreign policy of Merkel and her foreign minister in the previous government, the liberal Guido Westerwelle. It isn't that the train arrived late, it's that it never left the station. Why this difference between one policy and another? While in European questions, Merkel has always had beside her a minister for economy and finance, Wolfgang Schäuble, who is much more Europeanist and far-sighted than she is, in foreign affairs and defense, Merkel's ministers have tended to reinforce her disinterest and disregard instead of questioning it.

The low point in the disrepute of German foreign policy was Berlin's abstention from the Security Council vote on Libya in March of 2011, aligning itself with Russia and China and leaving the US, France and Britain, its natural allies, in the lurch. Was it for this that Germany wanted a permanent seat on the Security Council? the critics asked, ridiculing the German campaign to have that institution reflect the power relations of the 21st century instead of the order of 1945. Is it that Germany was not prepared to get its hands dirty? Or did it perceive itself as an emerging power and felt it had more in common with the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) than with the old West and NATO, in whose military structure it is fully integrated? Back in the past, fuzzy as a mirage, lay the foreign policy of Joschka Fischer, the politician who got the Green Party, genetically pacifist, to approve Germany's participation in the war in Kosovo to the tune, precisely, of a reading of the past that, instead of paralysis, pointed to commitment.

But things are changing. With the Social Democrats in the government, the Foreign Ministry is once again in the hands of Frank-Walter Steinmeier, an SPD heavyweight who already held this portfolio in the first coalition government (2005-09). At Defense, Merkel has placed her probable successor, Ursula von der Leyen. Both politicians are ambitious and stand for a Germany, which, in line with the recent remarks of its president, Joachim Gauck, accepts that it bears a special responsibility when it comes to contributing to peace and security - instead of, as Gauck put it, using the guilt of the past as a justification for mental sloth.

In domestic policy, Germany is turning toward the center, and in foreign policy, it is turning outward. The golden calf of the trade surplus will remain there in the foreground; but the mercantilism will be committed, instead of indifferent.

Follow me @jitorreblanca and in the blog Café Steiner on elpais.com

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