By Bertrand Benoit

The Chancellery's phone log tells the story. Since the crisis in Ukraine broke out, German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin over 30 times, more than any other Western leader.

Berlin has led Europe's diplomatic response to Russia's aggression in Ukraine. When Russia refused to budge, it forged a European consensus to back sanctions against Moscow. It seems a country long content to stay in the passenger seat--or on the sidewalk--while others took the lead in tackling international crises has grabbed the steering wheel. But has it?

As European foreign ministers prepared to meet on Friday to discuss the threat posed by Islamic State militants in northern Iraq, German politicians were agonizing over whether and how to support Kurdish fighters there, suggesting Berlin's diplomatic coming-of-age has stalled.

The past three years saw prominent calls for Germany to match its economic might with a decisive and responsible foreign policy. In 2011, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski said he feared "German power" less than "German inactivity." This year, German President Joachim Gauck said pacifism had often been "a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world."

Ms. Merkel never addressed the issue, but her Ukraine policy displayed a rare instance of Berlin confronting a fearful public and hostile business to defend European and Western interests.

This week, however, Germany reverted to type. As France announced weapon shipments to the Kurds, Berlin opted for humanitarian aid, leaving open the possibility of arms deliveries amid legal concerns andsecurity risks.

So was Germany's resolute action on Ukraine the exception rather than the shape of things to come?

"Given our economic interests, our proximity to Russia, etc., it was almost unavoidable that Berlin would become a key player in the Ukraine crisis," says Christoph Bertram, a veteran foreign-policy expert who now advises Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. "But I think it is too early to detect a shift in general attitudes here."

On the road to a more assertive German foreign policy, voters are a sizable obstacle. In a TNS Infratest poll conducted in April for the Körber Foundation, 60% said Berlin should not seek more responsibility in solving international crises. An Emnid poll on Thursday showed 71% against delivering weapons to Kurdish fighters in Iraq, with only 19% in favor.

With Nazi atrocities tattooed on their conscience, Germans have demanded clear moral justification for outside intervention, says Jan Techau, head of Carnegie Europe. "The problem is putting out crises often means entering a gray moral area. So the instinct is to stay out."

Take the Middle East: In an Infratest Dimap survey this month, 64% of Germans said Israel and Hamas were equally to blame for the violence in Gaza and 69% urged their government to "stay out" of the conflict.

Ms. Merkel, a leader who repeatedly updates her agenda to track public opinion on issues ranging from family policy to nuclear energy, will factor her voters' isolationist leanings into her calculations, says Mr. Techau.

Another argument against activism lies in Germany's economic model. With just 1.2% of the world's population, it was the second-largest exporter of goods last year after China and ahead of the U.S., according to Deloitte. It was first from 2003 to 2008.

While this means Germany cares about international stability, it also acts as a disincentive to taking sides in disputes, potentially alienating customers.

German business has been the most vocal opponent of sanctioning Russia. In private, managers warned they were mainly concerned that China, Germany's fifth-largest export market, would side with the Kremlin.

Berlin doesn't always opt for foreign-policy abstinence. In the Balkans, it was Ms. Merkel who helped defuse tension between Serbia and Kosovo in 2011. Since 1990, Germany has conducted 44 military deployments overseas.

Yet beyond Europe, it has often retreated into what Mr. Techau calls "self-serving passivity." In 2011, Germany abstained from United Nations votes on declaring a no-fly zone in Libya. It took months of lobbying by Paris before Berlin agreed to support the French mission in Mali this year.

Even on Ukraine, while Ms. Merkel and Mr. Steinmeier have invested much political capital in tackling the crisis, they initially faced strong misgivings at home. Many officials here remain suspicious of the Kiev government and skeptical that sanctions will bring Mr. Putin to his senses.

Most experts think Berlin will spread its wings slowly, taking the lead where its interests are directly at stake and joining collective efforts in tackling more distant or violent conflicts.

This halting process is causing impatience among advocates of a more self-confident Germany. This transpired from conferences held this summer by the Heinrich Böll Foundation, a Green party-affiliated think tank, and its conservative equivalent, the Konrad-Adenauer Foundation.

Rather than cheering Ms. Merkel's Ukraine policy, participants bemoaned their country's persistent diplomatic timidity. As Bodo Weber of the Democratization Policy Council put it at the Böll Foundation, Germany is not so much coming of age as "lost in transition."

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

August 14, 2014 21:37 ET (01:37 GMT)

Copyright(c) 2014 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.