Germany's decision this week to turn its back on nuclear power by 2022 and embrace a future fueled by renewable energy may have been historic, but it was hardly the product of a political visionary. German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived at this achievement almost despite herself, and only by means of a conspicuous and careening political U-turn. Although the new nuclear policy is a real cause for celebration for Germans, Merkel, try as she might, can't plausibly bask in the limelight: In the words of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel, "It's as if the pope were suddenly advocating the use of birth control pills."
In keeping with the rest of her tenure as chancellor of Germany, Merkel's scrapping of nuclear energy has been stumbling and reactive, not confident and bold. In Europe, Germany's goodbye to the atom -- as the world's fourth-largest industrial nation -- is being compared in its political magnitude to reunification at the end of the Cold War. But while Helmut Kohl's deliberate diplomacy in 1990 secured him a place in history -- and two more terms in office -- Merkel is suffering miserably at the polls and in the press.
Indeed, it's impossible for political opponents and the media to resist pointing out that her conservative coalition's new stance on nuclear energy amounts to a drastic volte-face on one of its signature electoral platforms: Merkel's latest plan directly contradicts a law passed just six months earlier, designed to extend the operating lives of Germany's nuclear energy facilities by up to 14 years.
No, it wasn't foresight or vision behind the new policies, but desperation. In the face of overwhelming public skepticism of nuclear power in the wake of Japan's Fukushima disaster, a Green Party topping Merkel's Christian Democrats in regional elections, and an anti-nuclear energy movement mobilizing hundreds of thousands in the streets, Merkel believed she had no other choice. The real kudos go to Germany's tenacious anti-nuclear opponents, who over four decades never wavered from their insistence that nuclear power had no future in Germany. Unsurprisingly, the environmentalists who are cautiously sizing up the newly accelerated phase-out aren't tempted to give Merkel a smidgen of credit for something she and her conservative party long resisted.
Merkel latest policy shift has thus put her government in a quandary, sacrificing the wishes of her coalition's conservative base -- and, critically, the powerful nuclear energy lobby in southern Germany -- without plausibly picking up any new voters from elsewhere on the political spectrum. Were national elections held today, her conservative-liberal alliance would be trounced, and rightfully so. A share of the blame certainly goes to the Christian Democrats' junior partner, the Free Democrats, whose missteps and unhappy figure in the foreign ministry, Guido Westerwelle, have contributed to the free fall of the coalition's popularity. But Merkel's flimsy leadership and singular lack of vision are the real grounds for the crisis. It has become impossible to decipher what Merkel really believes in, a puzzle reflected in her administration's meager record.
It seems an eternity ago that Merkel won Germans' hearts and votes. Kohl took her under his wing in the 1990s, but it was Merkel, and Merkel alone, who made the most of her opportunity in a Catholic, male-dominated, thoroughly West German party that direly needed modernizing. Merkel stood out in every way: an East German, female, Protestant, professional, twice-married, childless physicist. In contrast with Germany's traditional alpha-male politicos, her unglamorous style, straight talk, and down-to-earth manner were a welcome relief. Her unique biography and outsider status made her the perfect person to sweep aside cobwebbed thinking and challenge the interests that were blocking reform in her party and the republic at large.