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PARIS — Driven by electoral pressures and Germany’s postwar aversion to war and nuclear power, Chancellor Angela Merkel has deeply strained relations with allies in the European Union and the NATO alliance, raising new questions about Germany’s ability to play a global role in foreign policy, even as its economic power and influence grow.
By abstaining in the Security Council on the resolution authorizing military action to protect Libyan civilians — and by refusing on Wednesday to participate in the enforcement of an arms embargo on Libya that the United Nations authorized — Germany pointedly refused to go along with the political aims and leadership of its two most important European allies, Britain and France, as well as the United States. The decision made the idea of a united European foreign policy seem further away than ever, even if France had broken solidarity first by suddenly recognizing the Libyan opposition as the legitimate government of the country.
And by choosing to shut down seven older nuclear plants in Germany after the nuclear crisis in Japan, Mrs. Merkel reversed her own policy and further ruffled relations with France, which derives 75 percent of its electric power from nuclear plants.
The new strains come weeks after Germany issued demands for economic austerity in the countries that use the euro as the price for new loan guarantees to troubled countries like Greece and Ireland. Portugal is thought by many to be next in line for a bailout. Germany, the richest and largest member of the European Union, has been tough and not always diplomatic in refusing to come to the aid of more profligate countries unless they undergo painful budget cuts and economic restructuring.
Taken together, the actions in Berlin demonstrate anew Germany’s increasing willingness in a post-cold-war world to act like other countries, subordinating relations with allies for the sake of national interests — and even for domestic political reasons.
Mrs. Merkel’s decision to abstain from the Security Council vote was fiercely criticized by many in her own party, while Joschka Fischer, a member of the opposition Greens and a former foreign minister, wrote that ”Germany has lost its credibility in the United Nations and the Middle East” and that “German hopes for a permanent seat on the Security Council have been permanently dashed.”
Klaus Naumann, the former head of the German military, said that “even the idea of a European Union seat” on the Security Council had been damaged, adding, “Germany has turned the idea of a unified European Union foreign policy into a farce.”
In a meeting of Mrs. Merkel’s own parliamentary caucus, Ruprecht Polenz, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, called Germany’s abstention “a catastrophic signal,” according to Der Spiegel. Christian Ruck of the Christian Social Union, the Bavarian sister party, complained that “the European Union is falling apart.”
It is not easy to draw a clear line through all these events, said Stefan Kornelius, foreign editor of the daily Süddeutsche Zeitung. Germany is still “the savior of the euro,” he said, “and it’s unthinkable that one day Germany should be the savior of Europe and the backbone of the economic union and the next the funeral director of alliance politics.”
The Libyan vote was “highly disturbing,” coming out of pacifism, exceptionalism, immaturity and fear of domestic backlash, he said. “And it came at an unfortunate time for Merkel, when the country was driven by angst due to the nuclear accident in Japan. So this combination of nuclear angst and deeply rooted pacifism just ahead of very important state elections — this was the perfect storm.”
The German government, caught up in the political fallout from the Japanese nuclear calamity, decided to abstain at the United Nations because that was a “more honest” expression of Germany’s aversion to military action of its own in Libya, said a government official who spoke on condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol.
The official stressed, however, that the government’s attention had been focused primarily on Japan. When history is written, he said, “people will remember 9/11, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Kennedy assassinations and Fukushima.”
François Heisbourg, special adviser for the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris, said it was uncomfortable for Germany to find itself in the company of Russia, China, India and Brazil while its main European allies and the United States voted for the resolution