May 18, 2021

The Evolution of Angela Merkel’s Foreign Policy

During her 16 years in power, Germany’s chancellor has changed German foreign policy more than many realize.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang shows German Chancellor Angela Merkel the way during the welcome ceremony at the Great Hall Of The People in Beijing, China September 6, 2019.
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Angela Merkel’s 16 years as German chancellor are less associated with long-term foreign policy than with crises and decisive breaks, including the financial, refugee, and COVID-19 crises, as well as her decision to abandon nuclear energy. But that impression is deceptive. Since Merkel took office in 2005, there have been very substantial changes to Germany's role in the world. Where once it simply followed the US and Western foreign policy line, these days the Federal Republic has developed a more independent profile.

This has brought with it a number of contradictions, not least given Germany’s continued desire for close integration both within Europe and in its transatlantic relationships. The overarching theme of Merkel's chancellorship has been Germany’s switch from a passive to a more active role on the diplomatic stage. This has often been as much by necessity as by choice, prompted by dramatic changes in the global context within which both Germany and the European Union operate.

One indicator of the chancellor’s overall foreign policy record is her major international speeches and invited addresses over the years, for example to the Israeli Knesset and the United States Congress. These occasions epitomize the level of international recognition that Merkel has earned, which has sometimes sparked speculation about a future role as UN Secretary-General. Another way of assessing her record is to examine her position on the major foreign policy crises of her time in office.

The Axes of Merkel’s Foreign Policy

Merkel was familiar with questions of foreign policy when she took office in 2005. Early on, as deputy spokeswoman for the East German government, she gained substantial insights during the “2+4” negotiations on German unification, involving the two German states and the four Allied powers. She was present at the signing of the final treaty in Moscow on September 12, 1990. As environment minister in a reunified Germany, she gained experience in climate negotiations with the Americans and Chinese. As a minister in the cabinet of Helmut Kohl, she had a close-up perspective on how he did foreign policy, including relations with allies. Over the years, this experience has saved her from misguided European policies, like Gerhard Schröder’s attempt to establish closer relations with London at the expense of Berlin’s traditional link with Paris.  

Merkel has repeatedly made her basic foreign policy principles clear: an avowed transatlantic orientation, close integration within a deepened EU, and German responsibility for Israel, are unshakeable belief for her. In addition, she has been formed by a conviction that nearly all of the world’s basic problems can be solved through multilateral cooperation, with military action very rarely the answer.

From the start, Merkel has also believed in the ongoing process of globalization, not least because of Germany’s interests as a major exporting nation. She regards foreign policy as closely related to development aid and economic cooperation: diplomacy is also a requirement for tackling climate change and the causes of migration, and upholding the rule of law. For these reasons, meetings with women’s groups and civil society were as much a part of her official trips abroad as promotional events for German business. 

Merkel was always clear that Germany, however well-respected, was still ultimately a medium-sized regional power. This left the country no other option than to remain in the Western and above all the European convoy, even if it could only sometimes influence the convoy’s policy. Hence her own description of her foreign policy perspective: “Understanding the world…, knowing where political actors can intervene and who they can work with and must work with to get something done—that’s a task I’m continually working on,” she told Bunte magazine in an interview in 2006.

As chancellor, Merkel was always a great traveler. As such, she was always annoyed by accusations of “red carpet politics” from rival parties (as the Social Democrats once suggested) and by suggestions she was neglecting domestic affairs. She was rankled by headlines like the ironic “Merkel on Lightning Visit to Germany” in 2007. In fact, Merkel has always felt that as Germany faces increasing international challenges, its chancellor can never have too many foreign contacts. She speaks very regularly with colleagues in other countries, often without this becoming public knowledge. Especially during the European financial crisis, and the subsequent eurocrisis, she became very familiar with others countries’ high expectations of Germany, as the EU’s most powerful economy, and of her personally as chancellor.

After Schröder: Continuity and Course Correction

German foreign policy during Merkel’s first years in office was characterized by a search for a new policy balance. The incoming Christian Democrat (CDU) chancellor wanted to differentiate herself from Schröder, her Social Democratic predecessor. At the same time, she wanted to maintain the broad outlines of German foreign policy since the days of Helmut Kohl. The best example of this was relations with Russia. Very soon after her 2005 election victory, Merkel came out in favor of the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline linking Russia and Western Europe, originally approved under Schröder. But at the same time, Merkel put an end to Schröder’s “buddy” policy with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2007, she received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery, marking out a clear position on China. On the other hand, this did not stop her traveling to China on an almost annual basis, well aware of the country’s growing significance.  

A key date: March 17, 2011. This was the day that Peter Wittig, then German ambassador to the United Nations, raised his hand in the Security Council to indicate Germany’s abstention on military intervention in Libya. A decisive break in Merkel’s foreign policy. In 2003, when she was still leader of the opposition, Merkel had supported the US government on the Iraq war, criticizing Schröder’s opposition to that war. But eight years later Germany was not only breaking with the United States, but also with the United Kingdom and France, its European partners.This prompted an outcry within the foreign policy and transatlantic communities, with increasing warnings that Germany could now be going down its own “particular path” in the world, akin to its famous 19th-century Sonderweg. But forebodings about German isolationism proved to be incorrect.

For one thing, Merkel had already made it clear before the vote to British Prime Minister David Cameron and to US President Barack Obama that Germany was not in any way bidding farewell to the Western community. Moreover, Merkel believes that subsequent developments suggest her reservations on Libya were not so far off the mark. Western military intervention may have accelerated the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi, but it also plunged Libya into apparently permanent chaos. Since the intervention, the country has been viewed as a quintessential “failed state,” with human traffickers and Islamist terrorists taking advantage of the collapse of the Libyan state. What had once been a wealthy country is now a hotbed of arms smuggling, fueling instability in the Sahel, the region to its south. The lesson drawn by Merkel of 2011? In seeking stability in the EU’s immediate neighborhood, one cannot always rely on one’s closest allies’ ideas on security policy.  

A New German Foreign Policy

The Libyan debacle and its consequences prompted Merkel to conduct a more active foreign policy, for example with regard to Africa. She agreed to provide German military forces to help France stabilize Mali, its former colony. But it came at a price: in this way France, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, managed to make its policy on Africa also the general European policy. During the migration crisis, the German government stepped up its diplomatic and development activity in Niger and other African countries. 

Even more significantly, Germany took on a new and more active role in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, which broke out in the wake of Ukraine’s 2013 EU Association Agreement. Merkel regarded Moscow's military support for eastern Ukrainian separatists and its annexation of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea as taboo-breaking actions: the first time European borders had been changed by force since 1945. Along with French President François Hollande and both their foreign ministers, she worked hard to prevent an even more widespread war breaking out on the EU’s eastern borders. She turned directly to Obama, explicitly asking for his support in the negotiation effort. The 2014 Minsk Agreement, signed after 17 hours of negotiation, marked the first time a German government had taken independent responsibility for conflict resolution.

Since 2014, Merkel has taken an even more critical view of Vladimir Putin. Particularly to the amazement of American observers, she came out in support of EU sanctions against Russia, despite their impact on German business. “We say that the 21st century is progressive, because we don’t resolve European conflicts by military force any more. But you have to ask: what happens when that does happen? Do you just draw a line under it and move on? What leverage do we have? You can’t just go ahead with business as usual,” she said in a speech in March 2014, referring specifically to Russian annexation of Crimea.

Merkel’s readiness to impose sanctions was not entirely new. In 2010, she said, about Iran's nuclear program: “The question is always what inaction will cost us." This double approach—seeking agreement and international accords first, but ready to impose European sanctions if she has to—has marked her entire time in office. On this issue, she urged German companies to look beyond the short term: “Especially when I hear voices within the German business community doubting whether sanctions are the right thing to do, I can only repeat, yet again, that economic success also requires a reliable political framework," she told Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in an interview in 2015. However, if Merkel is convinced that a project— like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline—is vital to German interests, she will ensure it is not impacted by EU sanctions. 

In 2015, Merkel again showed her willingness to take action when faced with a major crisis in the EU’s immediate neighborhood. Watching events unfold from Berlin, she became frustrated at Germany’s EU partners and the European Commission, which continued to underestimate the scale of the refugee influx. Driven by domestic considerations, Merkel became an increasingly central figure in the refugee crisis, attempting to combine a humanitarian approach with blocking the flow of refugees toward Germany and northern Europe. For this reason, she was the driving force behind the EU-Turkey refugee agreement, which even now she continues to maintain and develop. The deal with Ankara, which offered Turkey financial support in return for its management of Syrian refugees, is a prime example of Merkel's approach to foreign policy. In a nutshell: she tries to find win-win solutions. However, unlike the Franco-German mediation in Ukraine, on migration, Merkel has continued to bank on a central role for the EU.

Multilateralism Versus Nationalism

The result of the 2016 US presidential election made it clear that a middle power like Germany, despite its economic strength, could only act within an international framework established by the great powers. Donald Trump's victory changed the overall international situation, as did Putin's increasingly authoritarian course in Russia and the tougher domestic and foreign policies of Chinese President Xi Jingping, who had come to office in 2013. Suddenly the New York Times was describing Merkel as “the leader of the free world”—the liberal, Western world.

During Trump’s term in office, Merkel did indeed make clear that she would not give up multilateral ideas without a fight. However, like other multilateralist leaders, she was put on the defensive. Germany, led by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, forged several dozen states into a “multilateralist alliance.” These were countries who neither wanted to accept the traditional UN Security Council dominance by the great powers who won the World War II, not to end up crushed in the superpower rivalry of the United States and China.  

Two examples from 2020 and 2021 reveal how Merkel stuck to her highly multilateral approach to conflict resolution. First, in January 2020, the German government organized the Conference on Libya in Berlin, bringing the various warring parties around the table, which by now included Russia and Turkey. Second, during the 2020 COVID-19 crisis Merkel insisted, among other things, that the EU should be responsible for ordering vaccines. Even if Germany could be faster by acting alone, the chancellor saw a danger of the EU fracturing on the issue. “Germany and the EU first”—the intensely emotional viewpoint that appeared suddenly in Germany, with similar sentiments elsewhere—was proof of the explosive force of the issue.

However, Libya has shown the limits of German foreign policy, indeed its Achilles’ heel, even after 16 years with Merkel in the top job. Her insistence on deploying “soft power” was not only a matter of conviction, it also resulted from the military weakness of Germany and the EU. Germany’s armed forces are lacking in crucial operational capacities. Its transformation from a conscript to a professional army, and its changed role from national defense to international intervention and back, have left the military looking like a permanent construction site. By contrast, Russia and Turkey have been expanding: toward the end of Merkel's time as chancellor, both countries were securing military bases also close to the EU’s southern borders.

However, German defense spending has risen continuously since 2014, in part on Merkel’s insistance. The deployment of a German frigate to south-east Asia, along with the new Indo-Pacific “guidelines,” underlines that Germany, along with its Western partners, is adapting to the transformed world situation, not least the rise of China as a more aggressive military power.

Andreas Rinke is Reuters’ chief correspondent in Berlin.

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