If a European leader these days can be called assertive, it's Angela Merkel. The trouble is, assertiveness is not a foreign policy. Germany is still not thinking strategically-but that is what it needs to do.
Receiving Barack Obama in Berlin on June 19, the German chancellor's bold approach was on full display. She lectured the U.S. president in front of the press that Internet surveillance must be based on "balance and proportionality." A day later, Berlin blocked the restart of Turkey's EU membership negotiations. The next day Merkel threatened to end her visit to St. Petersburg with an éclat. Russian President Vladimir Putin had refused to let Merkel speak at the planned joint opening of an exposition partly consisting of art that had been seized from Germany by the Soviets after World War II. In the well-publicized showdown, it was Putin who finally backed down.
On the same day, German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle met with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to press him to let his jailed opponent Yulia Tymoshenko go to Germany for medical treatment. Merkel has recently stated that as long as the Tymoshenko case is not settled, the Association Agreement with the EU cannot be signed. Full stop.
And on Europe's most pressing foreign policy issue, Syria, Merkel has elegantly managed to let Paris and London look isolated-even if their move to end the EU's weapons embargo was supported by the United States. That's a clear shift since the intervention in Libya. Then, it was Berlin looking isolated and unreliable.
Germany has become the EU's indispensable power. It has also learned to master the tactical game.
An ever-more-assertive Angela Merkel is ready to pick a fight with nearly everyone in Europe and on the world stage. The only exception is Beijing. In the recent row between the EU and China over solar panels, Merkel publicly sided with Beijing against Brussels. Whereas Berlin is no longer receptive to economic and political pressure from Moscow, Germany appears to be highly sensitive to China's potential retaliation against Germany's leading exporters.
But even if Merkel were as tough with the Chinese as she is with everybody else, that would not make her a strategic leader. Assertiveness is not a foreign policy. Her assertiveness is certainly a step ahead, especially in German relations with Russia, as it opens the space for foreign policy. Still, that space needs to be filled with something substantial and strategic.
Instead, Merkel appears to be overwhelmingly driven by domestic considerations. Standing up against Obama on Internet surveillance was simply meant to calm German public anger. On Turkey, Merkel is trying to please her core constituency, which opposes Ankara's EU membership. The row with Turkey provided the opportunity to delay accession talks-until after the German federal election on September 22. Cooling down relations with the Kremlin is a response to Germans' growing disenchantment with Putin. Raising the threshold for an EU Association Agreement with Ukraine is in line with German fears of unrestricted immigration and cheap labor competition from the East. And Merkel's efforts to keep Germany and the EU as far away as possible from the Syrian quagmire reflects a broad German consensus that Syria is "not our business," and her opposition to the delivery of weapons to Syrian rebels helps to counter domestic criticism that she is too liberal on weapons exports.
Of course, foreign policy always starts at home, and there's nothing wrong with that. But it shouldn't end there. The task of a government is to translate domestic views and sentiments into a broader definition of national interests and foreign policy goals, and to develop the tools to advance the resulting agenda.