You could easily mistake Guido Westerwelle for the living embodiment of Germany's national stereotype. Square-jawed, bronzed and urbane, the 47-year-old leader of the liberal Free Democratic Party doesn't exactly radiate humor. Asked what motivates him, he answers solemnly, "I burn internally." "He lives for politics," confirms close friend Hartmut Knüppel, who has known Westerwelle since they met through a youth wing of the FDP almost three decades ago.
With polls predicting that German parliamentary elections on Sept. 27 could propel the Free Democrats into government as a coalition partner with Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, Westerwelle now looks within reach of a job at least as serious as his demeanor. Such an outcome would represent a substantial shift in German politics. Governing with the Social Democrats since 2005, Chancellor Merkel, though firmly on the center-right in most questions, has often tacked to the left to preserve her coalition. She has said that she would prefer to govern with the FDP, but that would recast the Social Democrats as formidable opponents, determined to torpedo the tax-cutting agenda the FDP would demand. Westerwelle fears she plans to retain her current partners instead. "That makes me angry, not for me, but for Germany," he told the German daily, Bild.
Westerwelle espouses the economic liberalism that has always defined the FDP, and under his eight-year command he has positioned his party as the champion of the Mittelstand, Germany's formidable family-owned companies. "When a big company gets into difficulty, the German eagle comes to the rescue. When a Mittelstand company gets into trouble, the vultures circle," Westerwelle said in May. His recipe for growth: encourage private investment and cut taxes. "You can sign 100 stimulus programs but if investing doesn't gain momentum, the economy won't get better," he says.
So intense is Westerwelle's focus on business that Berlin insiders have tipped him to take the Finance or Economics Ministry after the elections, should he end up in government. The traditional slot for the head of the junior coalition partner, though, is the Foreign Ministry, and Westerwelle has been busily boning up on international affairs. "German foreign policy has to be value-based but also directed by our interests," he says. "Naturally, you always have to take economic interests into account we want to sell German and European products in other countries. But you always have to maintain your values."
That suggests a continuation of current policies such as the cooler relationship with Moscow established since the era of cozy amity between Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin. Westerwelle argues that Germany needs to retain its nuclear power capabilities until it has built up alternative domestic energy supplies so it can break its reliance on Russian gas. "If we don't want to be blackmailed then we have to diversify."
The FDP leader welcomed President Obama's election. "Hopefully it signals the return to a model of cooperation that we consider very important," says Westerwelle. But Washington shouldn't expect too much love. Westerwelle is determined to avoid mission creep in Afghanistan. All but a handful of the 4,500 German troops are deployed in the north of the country, away from the fiercest fighting in the south. "We shouldn't risk our successful operations in the north by taking on duties in other areas," he says.
Diplomats preparing to lobby Westerwelle effectively will look for the keys to his character. They're not easy to locate. His stolid public persona turns out to be just as misleading as the notion that all Germans lack a funny bone. The private Guido is complex. An art collector, he is "witty, self-deprecating, a completely normal person," says Knüppel, these days head of the association of German derivative securities issuers. "He hasn't lost his moorings by being in the public eye."
Still, Westerwelle's desire to be in that public eye is palpable. Smaller opposition parties have to work hard for media attention. Westerwelle sealed his reputation as a publicity seeker in the early part of this decade with a flurry of attention-grabbing exploits he hoped would attract younger voters to the FDP. He was, he proclaimed, a Spasspolitiker (a fun politician). His stilted conversation with reality TV show contestants in Germany's Big Brother house was typical of the sort of fun this entailed.
"Even when Guido appears relaxed, you can see he's just play-acting relaxed," says a senior Social Democrat. An awkward performer in an age of remorseless media, Westerwelle's fierce ambition for himself and his party is permanently in conflict with his natural reticence. He quietly confirmed his homosexuality five years ago by turning up at Merkel's 50th birthday with his partner. He is not drawn to identity politics, he later told an interviewer, citing a cartoon strip that depicts a gay couple in a café as best capturing his attitude. "First of all, we're gay, and secondly we want two ice cream sundaes," the pair tells the waitress. "The first doesn't interest me," the waitress replies. "As for the second with or without cream?"
Westerwelle promises a world where there would be cream for all as long as people work hard and honestly. "I am driven by the vision of a free and fair society that I'm convinced would make everyone better off," he says. Germans may find it difficult to warm to Westerwelle the messenger, but they're increasingly warming to his message.