Germany’s New Government Weighs a More Forward-Leaning Foreign Policy

World Politics Review, 20.12.2021
Aaron Allen, académico del Center for European Policy Analysis

On Dec. 8, former Chancellor Angela Merkel officially passed the baton to her successor, Olaf Scholz, after 16 years as Germany’s leader. Scholz now heads the three-party coalition between his center-left Social Democrats, or SDP, the pro-environment Greens, and the pro-market Free Democrats, or FDP. Known as the Ampelkoalition—or “traffic light coalition,” in reference to each party’s official colors, which correspond to the color sequence of a traffic light—this heterodox configuration’s “Dare More Progress” coalition agreement offers a roadmap to confront the challenges facing the German people. Domestic issues such as digitalization, the phasing out of coal and increasing the minimum wage were front and center in the pact.

It is, however, the coalition accord’s vision of Germany’s role in the world that, while seeking continuity with the Merkel era, could provide the opportunity for a potential reorientation. The central question arising from the pact is, Will Europe’s most populous and prosperous country finally assume a greater leadership role in the world ?

While it is too early to know the answer in full, there are early indicators of Germany’s post-Merkel international direction.

The Ampelkoalition inherits a German foreign policy that has historically been centered around preserving stability. The three pillars of this approach have been Germany’s security alliance with the United States through its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; its peaceful relations and open markets with its neighbors through European integration; and its support for the rules-based international order. Merkel’s foreign policy legacy adhered to these tenets as she navigated great power relations with Russia, China and the U.S., and utilized Germany’s strong economy to shape the politics of the European Union. Her incrementalism reflected both her temperament and the political realities of her tenure. However, a forward-leaning German approach to international relations may become more appropriate as challenges to all three pillars of Germany’s foreign policy approach continue to necessitate decisive responses.

Nevertheless, during the 2021 election, there were few signs that international relations would be a major priority for the new coalition government. There was a notable lack of interest in national security issues on the campaign trail and during the candidate debates, which instead focused mostly on traditional domestic concerns. That reflects the lack of appetite for a larger national conversation about the often-heralded need for greater German leadership in European and international affairs.

On the other hand, in their respective party platforms, the Greens and FDP have openly called for a more values-based foreign policy that takes tougher stances against human rights violators. Scholz, whose SPD had been the junior partner in three of Merkel’s four coalition governments, ran on experience, competence and continuity. He is from the moderate wing of SPD and, having served in Merkel’s last government as vice chancellor and finance minister, will likely continue her focus on stability and gradualism.

With all three pillars of Berlin’s foreign policy consensus now under stress, the new government will not lack opportunities to make consequential choices on Germany’s role in the world.

The early Cabinet appointments also help to clarify the Ampelkoalition’s foreign policy, as personnel decisions often reflect the policy compromises between the various parties and their internal factions. This is most prominently on display in the naming of Annalenna Baerbock, the Green’s 2021 chancellor candidate, as foreign minister. A party leader from the pragmatic realm wing of the Greens, she is likely to prioritize combatting climate change, defending human rights, pursuing disarmament and committing to multilateralism as foreign minister. Other foreign policy-related roles include the SPD’s newly designated defense minister, Christine Lambrecht, and minister for economic cooperation and development, Svenja Schulze. Both Lambrecht and Schulze have led other federal ministries in the previous coalition government but have little experience in international affairs. Their selections point toward a preference for experience in running large bureaucracies over subject matter expertise.

Now that all the pieces of the new coalition government have come together, will the Ampelkoalition’s national security machinery forge a new path for Germany on the world stage ?

The first test will be its approach to the challenges and opportunities in its own neighborhood. The “Dare More Progress” agreement is unapologetically pro-European. It explicitly seeks a “a sovereign EU as a stronger actor in a world shaped by uncertainty and competing political systems.” It calls for reforms that include allowing the European Parliament to propose legislation, rather than just ratify it; further safeguards in the EU debt rules to keep member states from taking on unsustainable levels of debt; and the “evolution of the EU towards a European federal state.” If it follows through on pursuing these declared goals, the Ampelkoalition should be a natural partner to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose “Initiatives for Europe” articulates similar or compatible ambitions. The coalition agreement also seeks to establish deeper ties with Paris through a Franco-German Parliamentary Assembly.

Although the new German government plans to reinvigorate its ties to its European allies, it has also expressed a willingness to confront member states that have violated the union’s rule-of-law norms and obligations. If the coalition agreement is any indication, Germany may soon begin to support efforts to hold up disbursement of the bloc’s collective coronavirus relief funds until “preconditions such as an independent judiciary are secured” among member states. The agreement also calls on the European Commission to “use the existing rule-of-law instruments more consistently and in a timely manner.” Both stipulations are direct shots at the Law and Justice party in Poland and Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Hungary.

Nevertheless, since assuming office, the Ampelkoalition has been working quickly to build relationships across the continent. Both Scholz and Baerbock have recently visited Paris, Warsaw, Brussels and G-7 gatherings. In the coming months and years, German political observers will be watching to see who the Greens nominate to be Germany’s EU commissioner, as stipulated by the coalition agreement, in the event that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen does not seek or does not get a second term; and if Christian Lindner, the FDP leader now serving as the new finance minister, will push for austerity when it comes to the EU’s budgetary expenditures and its rules limiting member states’ budget deficits.

Outside of its immediate neighborhood, the new German government might soon be forced to recalibrate its relationships with Russia, China and the United States. The current Belarus-Poland border crisis and Russia’s military buildup on its border with Ukraine have been initial hot-spots for the incoming national security officials, and they could provide indications of their instincts and inclinations. Scholz has called for “constructive dialogue” with Russia, for instance, but also warned of a “high price” for an incursion into Ukraine. Baerbock has upped the ante with her declaration that, in the event of further escalation by Russia, the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline delivering Russian natural gas directly to Germany “could not come into service.” In practice, however, the Ampelkoalition will likely continue Merkel’s balancing act of openness to dialogue with Russia while pushing back against its destabilizing behavior in the region.

On China, the new coalition government will have to determine if an emphasis on values should supplant Merkel’s focus on strong economic relations. One of Merkel’s key foreign policy legacies is the further entrenchment of Chinese investment in Germany and the EU. The Ampelkoalition’s future decisions on issues such as the inclusion of Huwaei 5G technologies in Germany’s telecommunications infrastructure will signal how much it prioritizes human rights.

Finally, Germany must decide how it will approach its relationship with the United States in order to build a sustained partnership to confront Russia and China. U.S. President Joe Biden’s election was met with much fanfare in Germany, but distrust lingers after former President Donald Trump’s tenure, particularly on Washington’s long-term commitment to Europe. The Ampelkoalition will continue to support trans-Atlantic relations as a pillar of German and European foreign and security policy, but may hedge if it feels the U.S. is becoming an unreliable partner.

One thing the coalition will not lack is opportunities to make consequential choices in the near future on Germany’s role in the world. All three pillars of Germany’s foreign policy consensus are now under stress. How Berlin responds will have an impact not only Germany, but on Europe and the world.

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