The Wider View

Jan 06, 2022

Modernizing German Foreign Policy

With a new government in office, modernization and progress are buzzwords in Berlin. But will the rhetoric translate into a new and more courageous approach to foreign policy?

New German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock travels with the Thalys high-speed train from Paris to Brussels following her meeting with French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Paris, France, December 9, 2021.
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With so many crises landing at its door and requiring immediate responses in its first weeks of life, the new coalition government in Berlin could be forgiven for not indulging in some more considered soul-searching. But eventually it will be required to.

Former Chancellor Angela Merkel calibrated her relationships with Washington, Moscow, and Beijing with pragmatic dexterity. Yet throughout her tenure, and prior to it, Germany has avoided hard choices. Foreign policy has been guided by the national characteristic of risk aversion. Will the new Chancellor Olaf Scholz of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) dubbed “the new Merkel variant” by one newspaper, follow suit, and try to hide? And if he does, will his coalition partners, particularly the Greens, cry foul? Or will he surprise?

This is his problem: Germans crave reassurance; they also demand change. Even if the new government introduces a fraction of what is promised on the domestic and social front, the country is set to undergo significant change. Modernization is the buzzword.

Will any of this translate into a modernization of Germany’s approach to the world?

An Accumulation of Challenges

Everywhere they look, Germans feel anxious. They, like everyone, are struggling to deal with coronavirus pandemic. They, like everyone, see the climate emergency before their eyes. The accumulation of challenges goes to the heart of what it means to be German. Since 1945, they have had a linear expectation of a better future, reinforced after reunification. Communist Eastern Europe would transform into open-market, liberal democracies. China would follow thanks to “Wandel durch Handel” (change through trade).

Now, instead, they see a world in which democracy is mocked by populists and strongmen. They see a confident China buying up strategic economist interests, deploying ultra-nationalist rhetoric, persecuting Uighurs in Xinjiang and snuffing out democracy in Hong Kong. They see Russian President Vladimir Putin overseeing cyber disruption on a grand scale and poisoning or imprisoning those who oppose him. Amid the many tensions on the borders of the former Soviet Union, they see the very real prospect of an invasion of Ukraine.

The coalition agreement, negotiated with a professionalism that gives rise to a certain optimism, hints at a tougher approach to Russia and China. Important if brief references are made to the interests of Ukraine and Taiwan. Annalena Baerbock, the new foreign minister, has pledged a return to an “active European foreign policy, based on diplomacy and dialogue and driven by values and human rights.”

What are these values? “No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final.” So said US President Joe Biden as he opened his Summit for Democracy in December. With 80 leaders watching from screens on the White House wall—some running liberal democracies, others trying to, some only there for encouragement—the US president launched what he hopes will be a fightback against the rising tide of authoritarianism around the world.

Billions of dollars will be provided for projects to protect independent media and human rights groups and to help whistle blowers identify corruption. Leaders were invited to present their “action plans” when they next gather, digitally or in person, in a year’s time.

A Cause for Hope

It is easy for Europeans (indeed for anyone) to scoff. First comes the hypocrisy. The United States is hardly a standard bearer for good governance, free and fair elections, social cohesion, and stability.

Then comes realpolitik. Why ingratiate yourself with the present administration when chances are it will be a blip between two eras of Trumpism?

Without mentioning his predecessor by name (he didn’t have to), Biden admitted: “American democracy is an ongoing struggle to live up to our highest ideals and to heal our divisions; to recommit ourselves to the founding idea of our nation captured in our Declaration of Independence.”

It is this very acceptance of vulnerability and double standards that gives cause for hope and reason to suspend skepticism, at least for a while.

As it focuses on the systemic rivalry with China, the US is looking not just for loyalty from Germany; it is also looking to it and other major European countries to take more responsibility, and to pay more, for their own defense. Don’t rely on us in perpetuity has been the consistent message from Obama to Trump to Biden.

Back in the 2017 election campaign in Germany, even the ever-cautious Merkel sought to prepare voters for a world without the American umbrella. French President Emmanuel Macron—assuming he sees off the far-right challenge in next year’s presidential elections—will make the case more strongly than before for “strategic autonomy,” giving Europe a more distinctive voice in global affairs. Merkel was wary. He is likely to gain a more sympathetic ear from Scholz. And yet nobody has so far defined what it entails.

Ultimately, Germany will have to make a “call” on how hard it is prepared to defend liberal democracy. It cannot do it on its own, but the world cannot do it without Europe’s most powerful country. It should work within the framework of institutions such as the EU, NATO, and the UN, but it cannot hide behind them.

The new generation of German politicians can see that across the world change is already in view, in priorities and structures. The advent of the Quad in the Asia-Pacific region (grouping the US with Japan, India, and Australia) is the clearest example yet of a post-post-1945 settlement, of coalitions of the willing being assembled alongside existing institutions.

Risks and Opportunities

Two immediate decisions beckon: The first is whether or not to follow the lead of the Anglosphere and join a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, a decision that is symbolic but also significant.

Second, is Nord Stream 2, the shoddy deal that gives realpolitik a bad name. Even though I am an ardent Germanophile, this is the one issue that makes my blood boil. My indignation is stoked further by the consistent failure of German journalism and public life to probe more deeply into the role played by the former chancellor—and now Kremlin cheerleader—Gerhard Schröder.

Will Scholz uphold the SPD tradition of indulging Putin? And if he tries, will the Greens resist? In one of her first TV interviews since taking office, Baerbock gave little indication that the pipeline would be switched on any time soon. All energy projects, including Nord Stream 2, must be in accordance with EU energy legislation, she noted. “And that means that, as things stand at the moment, this pipeline can’t be approved because it does not fulfil the requirements of European energy law.” The situation on the Ukrainian border was “also a factor,” she said. “The last government discussed with the Americans that if there are further escalations this pipeline can’t come on line.”

Scholz and Baerbock will have an early opportunity to set out their stall when Germany assumes the presidency of the G7 in January. Scholz won the election—a remarkable achievement given the state his party was in at the start of the campaign—by saying little of note and watching as his opponents faltered.

But that does not translate into a modus operandi for government. So far, both the new chancellor and foreign minister have travelled energetically and have listened intently to their foreign interlocutors.

They have the opportunity to show a more courageous side of Germany. That requires leading, and not following, public opinion, thinking hard about the durability of liberal democracy, and taking risks to help defend it.

John Kampfner is a columnist for The Times of London and author of the bestselling book Why the Germans Do It Better.

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