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Westerwenglisch

Guido Westerwelle, new German Minister of Foreign Affairs, is a paradoxical figure. In his current positions, which also include being party leader of the FDP and Vice-Chancellor, he's followed in the footsteps of FDP legend Hans-Dietrich Genscher. But foreign policy is not his strength, and the future of the FDP as well as Westerwelle may depend upon him keeping a clear profile on domestic politics.

Westerwelle had something of a false start into his new role when a BBC correspondent asked him a question in English:



Another YouTube video showing Westerwelle as he tries to speak English has since attracted over one million views, and the social media hilarity has increased with a Twitter channel called 'WesterWave' in which the new German 'outside minister' posts regular updates in a kind of English only people who speak German will understand.

The upshot of this is that it is now normal for young educated Germans to be able to speak English fluently and they expect this from their Minister of Foreign Affairs as well. Young educated Germans are a tiny electoral minority, though, and Westerwelle should just stick to German, and translators.

The other part of the conversation, in which Westerwelle blandly refuses to give any indication of his foreign policy, is perhaps as telling. Westerwelle's impact on foreign policy is likely to be largely symbolic. But sometimes symbolism matters. As it stands, he is the first openly homosexual foreign minister of a major country. While in Germany - and certainly among the younger generation - people are now used to thinking of homosexuality as normal, it may become something of a breakthrough when Westerwelle shakes hands with this or that foreign leader from another part of the world, or even to the east of the Oder.

Symbolism is also the mark of his first move as a Minister of Foreign Affairs, which has been to call for the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany. This was a popular move, but also a move that has little real impact - the American goverment has been discussing withdrawing the remainder of its nuclear bombs from Western Europe for some time, and there have been calls by a coalition partner in the Dutch goverment for the withdrawal of these bombs from an airbase in the Netherlands just last month.

Claus Christian Malzahn, resident neoconservative of the German magazine DER SPIEGEL, was much dismayed by this move of Westerwelle, and indicated that the hand of Genscher was behind it. The FDP, however, had already called for the withdrawal of American nuclear bombs while it was in the opposition, so this can hardly be seen as an unexpected gimmick. Malzahn's criticism of Westerwelle goes in the direction of his own preferences - Malzahn wants him to make tough decisions and then to follow them up with a hard line. Westerwelle would however be foolish to want to focus too much on his role in foreign policy.

His profile is that of a party leader with a clear position on domestic issues, and it is a profile he has built carefully over the past eight years. And Westerwelle retains this role. He also has the role of Vice-Chancellor, consequently, the second person in the coalition. Westerwelle will have to explain the decisions of the coalition to his constituency. He will have to look closely at what happened to the previous person to have carried the exact same responsibilities in a coalition with Angela Merkel, that being the hopelessly outmanoeuvred Frank-Walter Steinmeier.

It would be a grave tactical error for Westerwelle to want to either emulate Genscher as a long-serving Minister of Foreign Affairs or to distinguish himself explicitly from Genscher by focusing on an independent profile on foreign policy. His best bet is to make popular decisions on relatively immaterial matters and to ensure that he has sufficient cover from Merkel on everything else. What he has to focus on is continuing to lead his party in domestic politics.

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Pat Patterson on :

The problem is that once this idea is attached then his legitimacy will be eroded. Why should anyone listen to someone that has already been labeled a badly spoken right winger?

Nanne Zwagerman on :

I don't know that the online media hold such a large sway over public opinion that they can destroy reputations in instants.

Pat Patterson on :

it's more a matter of the specific becoming a general description on the man and his politics. Just ask Dan Quayle?

Zyme on :

I wouldn't say it was a false start - what is the big deal in telling foreign correspondents to speak proper german. Our international partners will have to get used to the fact that whenever a German post of importance for our foreign policy goes to a considerably younger politician, then the tone will become harsher and more focused on national interest. These people's political careers sky-rocketed after reunification and they act like represents of Europe's biggest country can be expected to act. An interesting Freudian slip could be witnessed by Westerwelle today. When being interviewed while attending a high level EU meeting with Merkel and questioned about the success of his participation, he replied that "It is great here and I am sure that we will achieve the best possible results for our country". After he looked beyond the interviewer you could literally see his mind realizing that this cannot be the official stance and quickly he added "and for Europe too of course" and smiled :)

Pamela on :

Oh gee. An exercise in political humiliation of a politican the media has decided it might not like. Big news there. I get the BBC World News America on cable here in the U.S. It is routine that they broadcast pieces from places like Romania that they provide voice-over translations for. That the BBC would send someone who either cannot or will not accomodate the native language of a gov't official - insisting on English - tells me I smell a rat. I admire the man for standing up and saying essentially, 'this is Germany, we speak German, get over it'. One of the following is true: 1. The BBC sent some guy who doesn't speak German. Shame on the BBC. 2. The BBC decided to set this man up. Want to make fun of this man for speaking awkward English? Ok. Walk up to Hillary Clinton and ask her a question in German. Or better yet, President Obama, who thinks Austrians speak 'Austrian'. Zyme: ----------- he replied that "It is great here and I am sure that we will achieve the best possible results for our country". After he looked beyond the interviewer you could literally see his mind realizing that this cannot be the official stance and quickly he added "and for Europe too of course" and smiled :) ---------------- I could hug you. Oh wait. {Zyme}

Pamela on :

"The upshot of this is that it is now normal for young educated Germans to be able to speak English fluently and they expect this from their Minister of Foreign Affairs as well." I don't even know where to start on this one. When my dad came home from the war, he shipped back on the Mauritania (he was a bomber pilot stationed in England). He came home in July 1944. There were German POWs on the boat. They weren't supposed to fraternize but they did. Everyone knew the deal - Allies had won. Dad talked to at least 6 German airmen. Shared smokes, etc. They all spoke English. That speaking English is somehow a new cultural requirement of 'young educated Germans' is nonsense. Dad had to know a bit of French (where his missions took him) and a bit of German (because they occupied the place). As for this man's homosexuality and the possible impact: ---------- While in Germany - and certainly among the younger generation - people are now used to thinking of homosexuality as normal, it may become something of a breakthrough when Westerwelle shakes hands with this or that foreign leader from another part of the world, or even to the east of the Oder. ---------- East of the Oder? Of for gods sake. Send him to Egypt. Or Turkey. Germany has a lot of Turkish immigrants whose native land is in the process of aligning itself with radical Islam. They LOVE homosexuals - for the sole reason it adds to the body count. East of the Oder. What a cowardly euphamism. ------------ His best bet is to make popular decisions on relatively immaterial matters and to ensure that he has sufficient cover from Merkel on everything else. What he has to focus on is continuing to lead his party in domestic politics. --------------- You got where you are by being a eunich. Stay where you are by being a eunich - as long as you brush up on your English. What a crock.

Nanne Zwagerman on :

'or even' is a qualifier, as you will note, to indicate that in addition to large parts of the world, homophobia is still quite common in parts of Europe (e.g. Poland, Russia). Why you think this means that I hold Egypt or Turkey to be more liberal is unclear to me. It is new for Germans to see speaking English as a cultural requirement of sorts. Most of the older generation don't speak English very well, and are not very bothered by this. As for my analysis of Westerwelle's roles, we'll see. If he focuses all of his attention on foreign policy and his party doesn't get decimated at the next elections, I'll have been wrong. Being in a coalition with Merkel is no easy deal, inside tactics are her specialty.

John in Michigan, US on :

I don't have a major problem with the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany. The threat of large scale nuclear war is eternal, but for now it is so greatly reduced that I don't see the need for every major European country to have them. Furthermore, the "peace" protesters from the 1980's were wrong: no-one ever forced Germany to take these weapons. It was the result of mutual self-interest (and probably some interesting side-deals in the negotiations...) If the sovereign government of Germany no longer desires these American weapons, they should be removed. Still, it does make me think...if the unthinkable happened...would France (for example) really be willing to threaten nuclear war in order to deter a nuclear attack on Germany?

Nanne Zwagerman on :

France is quite willing to share control over its nuclear weapons with Germany, but the Germans want no part of it. See this [url=http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,506124,00.html]SPIEGEL piece[/url]. France also presumes that its nuclear umbrella shields Europe, and technically speaking, as parts of the NATO alliance the nuclear weapons of France and the UK provide an additional umbrella to the American deterrent. In a case where international tensions ratchet up again, Germany can reverse course quickly enough and could even choose whether it wants French or American bombs on its planes (additionally, Germany could also develop its own bombs in less than a year if it wanted to).

John in Michigan, US on :

Well spotted, Nanne. Also, that is the best-written Spiegel article I've read in quite a while. In my (weak) defense I will note that Spiegel described the idea of sharing the French nukes as a "shocker". --- So...we have two of the most conservative leaders Europe has seen in a generation, working together (although roughly, at times) to determine the future of Europe. Both became leaders of their countries during the allegedly horrible, anti-Bush years. Hmmmm. --- As to Westerwelle...I agree that the symbolism of the first openly gay German foreign minister is important, and I applaud it...given that foreign policy often requires being polite to mortal enemies or even mass murderers (real or imagined), it will be a useful exercise to see which countries will freak out over shaking hands with a gay man. The down-side is that in the parts of the world where things are most delicate right now, is also the part of the world where this could be a big problem...the Middle East. Westerwelle's sexuality presents the same dilemma for them as does Obama's apostasy (according to strict Sharia, Obama qualifies as a lapsed Muslim). Is it common in Germany to have the same person as Minister of Foreign Affairs and also Vice-Chancellor? If this is a new thing...combined with Westerwelle's lack of foreign policy experience....it suggests to me that, post-Lisbon, the role of Minister of Foreign Affairs will be to sell EU decisions to domestic (German) audiences, rather than to sell German policies to foreign audiences. Hmmmm.

Nanne Zwagerman on :

Thanks. It's habitual for Germany's Vice Chancellor to also be Foreign Minister. This has been the standard practice since 1966, with only a few years interruption. My reading of Westerwelle's role is that he's not going to focus on it full time as it's against his own interests. However, I do not think we'll see a significant shift of foreign policy setting to the EU in the near future. Rather, the major questions of foreign policy will, as you may expect, be set largely in concert with France, between Merkel and Sarkozy. They can forum-shop at various institutions in the EU or go to the G20 if Westerwelle doesn't want to play along.

Zyme on :

Nanne said it all. Also think of the proximity of France - even if relations were not this good they would have a vital interest in deterring other countries from attacking its neighbor. Regarding Germany's ability to create its own nuclear bombs, this is mainly based on the operation of a nuclear research reactor (in Garching) which uses highly enriched uranium despite being critizised as a violation of the nuclear non proliferation treaty. Estimates are that several nuclear bombs a year can be produced via minor treatment of the operational "waste".

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