Over the last two years, we have witnessed a number of pivotal elections: In Iraq and Afghanistan, elections are closing the book on tyranny. In Palestine and Lebanon, elections have opened the way to progress. Elections forced Spain to change course, while they ensured that the United Kingdom and United States would stay the course.
Germany’s elections on September 18 promise to be just as pivotal. From the creeping threat of terrorism to the costly welfare state, Germany faces a daunting set of challenges–and German voters face an increasingly worrisome world. In short, once the votes are counted, the next Chancellor is going to have a lot of work to do.
As the elections approach, we should keep in mind an important distinction between German elections and U.S. elections: In America, nearly every politician runs on themes such as “freedom” and “change.” In Germany, on the other hand, politicians often speak in terms of “security” and “stability.”
This should come as no surprise. Few nations had a more turbulent and insecure 20th century than Germany. After all, Germany served as the center stage for two world wars and the fault line for the Cold War.
When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Germans breathed a collective sigh of relief. Having rebuilt and restored the German economy and social structure from the ashes of 1945, and prevailed along with the Atlantic alliance in eliminating the Soviet threat, they could finally enjoy the fruits of a long struggle for economic independence, social security, and a peaceful place in the new Europe.
Yet even as Germans began to benefit from their social democracy–with its employment guarantees, high wages, six weeks of paid vacation, and free education and health care–other parts of the world were modernizing and attempting to achieve their own “economic miracles.” India, South Korea, and the Asian tigers started to embrace globalization, attract investment, and compete with stable stalwarts like Germany. Along the way, as Germany reunified, German economic growth came to a sudden halt, and the social system’s promises began to outpace its capacity.
By the second half of the 1990s, German foreign policy began to drift as well. Instead of holding fast to its traditional transatlantic moorings, Germany would attempt to achieve a “better balance” by embracing a Eurocentric view, one heavily influenced by the French bid to create a counterweight to Washington. The rush to empower and expand the EU was an expression of this. Along the way, Germany would also look eastward, toward Russia, causing further concern within the Atlantic community.
For a time, this Eurocentric Germany appeared to be workable in a post-Cold War world. But appearances can be deceiving. As Germany’s transatlantic focus began to blur, the transatlantic community began to show signs of splintering. We saw the results of this estrangement in the diplomatic problems, internal EU fissures, and transatlantic military disagreements that followed September 11. Along with the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the bombings in London and Madrid, and Washington’s willingness to look elsewhere for partners, these developments have reawakened the uncertainty and concern for security that once shaped German policy and politics.
German voters and politicians are worried about declining birth rates, unmanageable immigration, an untenable welfare state, and competition from inside and outside the EU. Serving as a backdrop to these worries is a palpable sense that continuing with the status quo is simply not a viable option. Change, which is never painless and which is especially unpopular among the German electorate, is now seen by many as a necessary evil to right the ship of state.
What remains to be seen is whether this election will produce the kind of mandate that a government would need to make the changes that would fully address Germany’s challenges. As the New York Times detailed in August, extremist parties could pick off enough votes to force Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (despite their sizable lead in the polls) to form a grand coalition with Gerhard Schroeder’s Social Democrats. This unwieldy hybrid government would lack a mandate and would likely consign Germany to four more years of stagnation and drift.
There are some parallels here to the U.S. elections a quarter-century ago. In 1980 America, as in the Germany of today, the economy was staggering under the weight of outdated policies and systemic problems. America then, like Germany today, had begun to drift away from its traditional role in the world. Then, as now, threats to security were multiplying: yesterday, it was Soviet missiles in central Europe and Soviet-backed forces in Afghanistan, Africa, and Central America; today, it’s faceless terrorists on airplanes and subways, radical regimes trying to acquire WMDs, and failed states that are breeding grounds for terror.
But America was not hopeless or helpless in 1980; nor is Germany in 2005. What makes the difference between despair and dynamic change? In America, it was a movie-actor-turned-politician who offered a bold plan premised on an optimistic view of his country: tax cuts and private initiatives to stimulate growth; major reductions in government spending and regulation; a stronger defense and resolute foreign policy; and most of all, a renewal of the American spirit.
Because he laid out a bold vision, Ronald Reagan would win not just a victory, but a mandate to lead. What followed was a brief period of difficult change that led to prosperity at home and a stunning transformation abroad.
The parallel is imperfect, of course, but the same formula can work for Germany: Only a bold vision will deliver a mandate for change, and only a mandate can empower and propel the next government to do what has to be done to restore Germany to its place among the world’s leading nations. One way or another, we will have a good insight into Germany’s future by Sunday night.
– Dan Coats has served as both a U.S. congressman and U.S. Senator from Indiana. From 2001 until recently this year, he was the American ambassador to Germany.