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November 06, 2009


I discussed this with some of my German colleagues, and for them, the point was not that Dr Westerwelle told the journalist to ask his question in English, but that he seemed to have taken things too seriously. They say that a foreign minister who would have to deal with other countries should be able handle the case of the journalist with better skills. He for instance could have made a joke out of it, they said.

The other point is that they feel Dr Westerwelle is actually unable to speak passable English. Like you pointed out, Germans take pride in their English-speaking abilities, and they wonder whether he would be able to represent them, in that regard, in international fora.


Your German colleagues raise interesting points, but ultimately I don't find them convincing. I do happen to understand German fairly well, and having listened to what Westerwelle said, I found nothing in the least objectionable in either the content or the delivery; it seems pretty clear to me that he went out of his way to be polite to the journalist, which was why he closed his statements with the joking reference to speaking English over tea later. It is unthinkable that, say, a German journalist would dare ask Hillary Clinton to give a German-language answer to a German-language question, let alone at a conference being delivered on American soil, and going by Clinton's angry response to a much less presumptuous question,

she wouldn't be half as diplomatic as Westerwelle was if she were put on the spot like he was.

As for Westerwelle's English-language skills, even if it were the case that he couldn't speak a word of English, I don't see how that would necessarily mean he was less qualified for the foreign minister post than any of the other contenders; there is a lot more to the job than being able to crack jokes with other countries' leaders in English, and for all one knows Westerwelle may have all the cunning and diplomatic savvy of an Otto von Bismarck, while there could be some brilliantly polyglot candidate out there who couldn't negotiate his or her way out of a wet paper bag ...

To be honest, it seems to me that what drives a lot of the German-language criticism of Westerwelle isn't really the man's English-language ability or supposed lack thereof, but his "free-markets, lower-taxes and cut-spending" politics, which many left-leaning Germans loathe; none of these same people uttered a word of criticism of Gerhard Schroeder despite his own self-admitted English-language incapacity. Unfortunately for Germany's left, their parties have just been routed at the polls, so like the Republican diehards in America, left-leaning Germans are now seizing upon the most ridiculous and far-fetched things to attack their political opponents.

Hmmm... those are important points you've raised there. I confess, my colleagues are left-leaning, so I suppose you are right that the main point might be their aversion towards his politics.

I have been following him - I speak some German myself - and I do not have, and have not found, any grounds to have anything against him. In any case, it is still early to tell whether he is a von Bismarck or not.

You are also right about the arrogance that comes from English language speakers, an arrogance that makes them expect that others would speak to them in English.

Hmmm... I am trying to think about what would happen if this kind of thing were to happen in France. I am not sure that Sarkozy would not have retorted with some force.

As for the regime, their policy and all, it is all too early to tell. Mal sehen.

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