Angela Merkel may be the German chancellor, but the country’s most popular politician these days — and the man Americans should pay more attention to than they do—is Defense Minister Karl-Theodor Freiherr zu Guttenberg.
Despite his anachronistic pride in his family’s roots in the Bavarian nobility (“Freiherr” means “Baron”), zu Guttenberg dazzles the German public with his youth (he’s just 37), his oratorical flair (admittedly a low bar in a country used to snooze-fest speakers), and his non-political provenance (unlike most German elected officials, he didn’t enter politics until his 30s; before, he ran the family business).
Zu Guttenberg, a member of the center-right Christian Socialist Party Union (a regional sister party to the national Christian Democrats), was economics minister in the first Merkel cabinet for less than a year, and his selection as defense minister was something of a surprise. But despite his inexperience, he has come out punching: In just three weeks since his appointment, zu Guttenberg has reiterated Germany’s commitment in Afghanistan by deploying another 120 troops; paid a surprise visit to the country (where, dressed in a turtleneck sweater under a bulky bulletproof vest, he posed for cameras behind a helicopter door-gunner, weapon in hand); announced his support for the embattled German general whose decision to bomb a pair of hijacked tankers near Kunduz resulted in scores of civilian deaths; and — most notably — became the first German politician to call the Afghan conflict a “war.”
Normally, a German defense minister does not speak unless spoken to; fears of militarism still run deep there, across the political spectrum. Two-thirds of the German public opposes the Afghanistan deployment. There was talk during and after the campaign that the nearly inevitable ruling coalition between the center-right, relatively hawkish Christian Democrats (CDU) and the free-market, relatively dovish Free Democrats (FDP) could result in a drawdown, if not outright withdrawal, of German troops from Afghanistan. And tensions do seem to be emerging along those very lines—even as zu Guttenberg calls on the German public to support the troops, FDP Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has been telling reporters “we can’t stay in Afghanistan for eternity and three days.”
Which is the first reason why Americans need to be paying attention to zu Guttenberg. He is extremely pro-American (during his pre-political career in business, and ever since, he has cultivated close ties to both parties in D.C.) and a true believer in NATO’s Afghanistan mission. He won’t be afraid of checking Westerwelle on defense issues, and should Merkel sour on the mission, he’ll be an important backstop preventing a sudden drawdown.
In fact, don’t be surprised if zu Guttenberg tries to make a run around Westerwelle on other topics as well, from relations with other NATO members to climate change. At 37, he’s an almost-guaranteed candidate for the chancellorship once Merkel exits the stage, and a great way to solidify his position within his party would be to isolate the man most Christian Democrats can barely manage to tolerate. And that’s the second reason to watch zu Guttenberg: He is not just a growing force within German politics today, but he very well may represent the future of U.S. German relations.
Update: A couple of errors in the original post have been fixed. Thanks to commenter Robert Gerald Livingston for pointing them out.