Berlin Cable

Sep 29, 2022

Annalena Baerbock’s Fighting Spirit

As foreign minister, the leading Green has given German foreign policy a fresh voice. She has been pushing Chancellor Olaf Scholz to do more to support Ukraine with weapons and even seems not to have given up on the country’s top job.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock speaks during the budget debate in the lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany September 7, 2022.
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When the atrocities committed by the Russian army in Bucha first made the news after the Russian forces’ ignoble retreat from the Kyiv region, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was the first member of the German government to react. “Putin’s unscrupulous violence is killing innocent families and knows no bounds,” she wrote on Twitter April 3. “Those responsible for these war crimes have to be brought to justice. We will sharpen our sanctions and help Ukraine even more in defending itself.”

Two hours later, Chancellor Olaf Scholz came out with a shocked statement, too. “I demand that international organizations get access to the areas to document the atrocities independently. The crimes committed by the Russian military need to be investigated thoroughly and those responsible need to be prosecuted.” There was no mention of providing more help for Ukraine.

It was Germany’s first female foreign minister and her Green party, together with the pro-business Free Democrats (FDP)—who form the “traffic light coalition” with Scholz’ Social Democrats (SPD)—who succeeded in then pushing a still reluctant chancellor to substantially improve the military aid Germany has since given to Ukraine.

Artillery pieces like the Panzerhaubitze 2000 or the anti-aircraft tank Gepard as well as the HIMARS multi-rocket launchers (which Berlin provided in close cooperation with Washington and London) have made a difference in the Ukrainian forces’ recent successes in pushing the Russian invaders back in the Kharkiv region and around Kherson in the south.

After Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to mobilize reservists while threatening once more the use of nuclear weapons (“This is not a bluff”), there is now the question whether Germany will allow the delivery of Leopard tanks and armored fighting vehicles to enable the Ukrainians to carry out a quicker liberation of the Russian-occupied territories. Scholz, as he made clear in an unhappy interview with The New York Times for the umpteenth time earlier this week, will not take the lead on this and would only act in lockstep with Germany’s key allies, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.

Baerbock, meanwhile, has done a lot to rally other countries around the world to join Germany and its allies in condemning Putin’s assault on the international order. On the weapons questions, she has left it at hints recently. But one can safely assume that she will keep pushing, even if her differences with the chancellor have been kept quiet.

A Key Axis

Her relationship with Scholz, her rival as “candidate for chancellor” during last year’s election campaign in which she first took the lead and then crashed to third place behind the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU), is one of the key axes that is stabilizing Germany’s difficult coalition. From the start and in contrast to the Merkel years, there was an understanding in the chancellery that Baerbock needed to succeed in her post to make the government work.

And so it has come to pass. Baerbock and her ministry are in the lead when it comes to formulating a first-ever National Security Strategy for Germany. On Russia policy and the need to prepare for a European order in which Russia continues to be a danger for the foreseeable future, Baerbock has often been far clearer than the chancellor. Also, by insisting on pursuing a feminist foreign policy, she has set her ministry on a new path, despite the grumbling of some older (male) diplomats. Most, however, seem to like their boss, who takes the time to send voice messages when she wants to thank members of her diplomatic corps.

“I would have wished her a different foreign policy agenda than the one she has had to deal with which is dominated by Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine,” says Michael Roth, the SPD chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee. “Russia’s war has caused a number of tenets of German foreign policy to implode. This is no easy process to navigate, also for our society. The Greens are justified to claim that they were opposed to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline from the beginning, and also demanded to look more closely at what has been happening inside Vladimir Putin’s Russia. So Annalena Baerbock is well prepared to shoulder this great responsibility, but for parts of her party, it’s not easy to stomach Germany’s new role.”

Not Shying Away from Conflict

When she took over back in December 2021, there were certainly doubts. For example, would she be able to stand up to the likes of Sergey Lavrov, Putin’s foreign minister since 2004 who had humiliated seasoned EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell only one year earlier? But not only did Baerbock do well during her first Moscow visit in mid-January, when Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine was already likely; it has turned out that it is in fact Lavrov who tends to run away, most recently from a UN Security Council meeting. He also avoided a bilateral meeting with Baerbock in New York.

Baerbock’s fighting spirit is a novelty at the German Foreign Office. “She has introduced a fresh tone to German foreign affairs,” says Reinhard Bütikofer, an influential Green MEP and an expert on European and foreign affairs. “To the surprise of many, she has managed to demonstrate that a values-based foreign policy and realpolitik go together—and that the latter is not possible anymore without adherence to the values we hold dear.”

She is certainly not shying await from conflict. She clashed publicly with her Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Cavusoglu, in July over Turkish territorial claims against Greece and human rights. That gave rise to criticism that “Germany’s chief diplomat” should take greater care of her public statements—a criticism that resurfaced when she made clear at a conference that she would continue to support Ukraine “irrespective of what my voters think” (her voters are hugely in favor). “Talking frankly to a difficult partner like Turkey, which previous German governments have treated very indulgently—I don’t see what the problem is,” says Bütikofer. “If the minister would only go for this robust approach at each and every press conference, then we might have to worry, maybe, a little, but that´s a very faint risk.”

Roth, who most recently was minister of state for Europe at the German Foreign Office, agrees: “Having worked in the ministry myself for eight years, my impression is that this ‘diplomatic language’ is no longer understood. This is not only true for our own public, but also for autocratic regimes that have taken to using very aggressive language themselves. So, speaking more frankly counters this, and it also helps making foreign policy easier to understand.”

At the same time, Baerbock has shown that she is able to meet with people all over the world, especially in Africa, “auf Augenhöhe,” as the popular German term has it, which is to say: on equal terms, without coming across as patronizing. In her recent address to the UN Security Council she stressed that every country needed to “live up to the spirit of the United Nations in contrast to the Russian president. Because we are the United Nations, from north to south, from east to west. No matter how small. No matter how big.”

On this she is close to Scholz, who used his visit to the United Nations to demonstrate the sense of modesty with which the German government wants to interact with the rest of the world. Given global trends, with the growth in Asia and Africa’s populations, Germany’s role will continually diminish, the argument goes. Only a united European Union will have the chance to play a role on the world stage come 2050.

Trouble on the Horizon

Two issues, however, may make Baerbock’s successful turn rockier in the coming months and years. One is China policy. This is the one foreign policy topic where the chancellery has signaled from the start that it would rather do things on its own—even though it is again Baerbock’s ministry that is in the lead when coming up with a new “China strategy.”

On the hotly debated question of whether to allow the Chinese state-owned shipping company COSCO taking a 35 percent minority stake in a port terminal in Hamburg (the city state that Scholz used to run as mayor), the chancellor seems ready to nod the deal through. Also, preparations for Scholz’ trip to Beijing to visit President Xi Jinping, planned for early November, have been kept under wraps, raising fears that Scholz may end up driving a course not so different from his predecessor, Angela Merkel, and vastly underestimating the challenge, not to say danger, that China presents.

The other is an intra-Green issue, which has already started to weaken the government. Baerbock’s fighting spirit is also being felt within her party, where many have gained the impression that she is competing with Robert Habeck, her former Green Party co-leader (with both becoming ministers, the Greens, averse to their top politicians holding multiple posts, have voted in a new leadership), also in terms of who will be the party’s candidate for chancellor in the 2025 elections.

Economy and Climate Minister Habeck, who also got the vice chancellor position after Baerbock failed as “candidate for chancellor” last year, has been at the forefront of fighting Russia’s attempts to coerce and blackmail Germany economically by throttling its energy supplies. After soaring in popularity and even being called “Germany’s true chancellor” in the press, Habeck is currently on a downward spiral in terms of public appreciation, being blamed for government zig-zagging on how to soften the energy crisis for households and companies. The internal competition, meanwhile, makes it difficult for the Greens not to split into camps.

Come the next election in 2025, the foreign ministry post may well turn out to be the gift that keeps on giving to Baerbock. Germans traditionally love their foreign ministers—be it the FDP’s long-serving Hans-Dietrich Genscher during the 1980s and 1990s or even Baerbock’s nondescript predecessor, Heiko Maas (SPD). They all tended to come top, or near the top, of rankings of Germany’s most popular politicians, even if the reasons for this have always been somewhat obscure. Given this fact and her record so far, it seems that Baerbock’s first nine months in government are really only the start.

Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

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