Most Americans, if they think about Germany at all this time of year, focus on Munich's Oktoberfest, with its oompah bands, barmaids toting hefty beer mugs, and traditional costumes. But these caricatures ignore important changes resulting from Sunday's national elections, which ended the so-called Grand Coalition between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, a large party on the right, and the Social Democrats, a large party on the left.
In a year when capitalists and bankers are widely reviled, German voters did something strange; they dumped the pro-worker, pro-low-unemployment Social Democrats and chose the centrist, pro-business Free Democrats as Ms. Merkel's coalition partner. The Social Democrats were trounced from the center and the left because of the economy, and the Free Democrats filled the gap. Even though Ms. Merkel remains at the helm, many policy differences will likely result from this coalition - changes that matter to the U.S.
First, the coalition partner traditionally gets the No. 2 position: foreign minister and vice chancellor. Coalition partners can pull the chancellor further in a direction than she may want to otherwise go. Ms. Merkel won't always have a smooth ride with the outspoken Guido Westerwelle, now the Free Democrats' choice as foreign minister, especially given the more conservative and equally vocal Bavarians under her party's umbrella who are already sniping at him. He will push Ms. Merkel on some issues that she may wish to let simmer, such as economic policy and Afghanistan.
Germany is Europe's biggest economy and the fifth largest in the world. It has heavy investments in the U.S. and is one of the world's top exporters. If global economic recovery is to succeed, Germany must play a starring role.
Ms. Merkel's previous coalition partners stymied many reforms in the tax code and employment that could help spur the economy, and the Free Democrats' pro-business constituency supports these changes. Free Democrats also propose slowing climate change measures to spur economic investment.
On Afghanistan, Mr. Westerwelle has bemoaned Germany's slowness in fulfilling all of its obligations. Even as Germans are increasingly weary of their 4,200-strong troop commitment, Mr. Westerwelle has promoted more contributions to Afghan police forces, unlike Social Democrat constituents who often prefer leaving. He wants this operation ended soon and doesn't see Western-style democracy taking root, but Mr. Westerwelle argues that Germany should help establish a peaceful Afghanistan that won't pose a security threat - even if that means staying longer.
Germany is also the most powerful country on the continent and our main ally in dealing with Russia. It is Russia's major partner in a proposed natural gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea bypassing countries such as Ukraine that have periodic flare-ups with Russia, a project led by former Social Democrat Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. A crucial trade partner for Russia and a major gas importer, Germany wields much influence in Moscow. Ms. Merkel has Russia's ear, even as she does not bend to Russia's will, and her continuance in office means we have a strong friend to help persuade Russia to fully join our plans regarding Iran.
Finally, Germany joined the core group negotiating to prevent Iran's attempts to gain nuclear weapons. Although increased economic sanctions on Iran would hurt the German economy, the third-largest source of Iranian imports, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Westerwelle have clearly stated that they will strongly support sanctions to punish Iran if it fails to make satisfactory progress in negotiations. The Iranian president's anti-Israeli rhetoric and Holocaust denial are overwhelmingly scorned in Germany, and this case demonstrates that profits do not trump all in Germany, making a sanction regime more likely to succeed.
Whether Ms. Merkel's post-victory proclamation that Germans "achieved something great" holds depends on how well this coalition functions. America should pay close attention, because we need our German friends, economically and politically, to achieve our goals.
Alison Millett McCartney is associate professor of political science at Towson University. Her e-mail is email@example.com.