Values and Antagonisms
The Greens are bold in their dealings with Moscow and Beijing and ambitious on climate issues. But in their search for foreign policy partners, they often get in their own way.
They call for an end to the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, want “dialogue and toughness” with Russia and China, and a climate alliance with the United States. Germany’s Green party is closer to US President Joe Biden’s line than any other German party on several issues. So, it’s no wonder that some Washington-based think tanks look favorably on the possibility of a federal government with Green representation or even leadership.
In Europe, however, while such a prospect has been met by some onlookers with curiosity and openness, many have reservations. Of the three German parties currently strongest in the polls, only the Greens are calling for drastic changes in foreign and security policy. The center-right Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) and the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a whole tend to advocate for continuity.
Some German foreign policy experts argue, with good reason, that a new federal government after 16 years of Chancellor Angela Merkel should provide fresh impetus in this field. And certainly, the contenders have ambitious goals, including their key demand in developing a German “foreign climate policy from a single mold.”
Tensions and Contradictions
However, tensions and contradictions run through the party program as well as in the statements of the candidate for chancellor, Annalena Baerbock, allowing for different interpretations of her plans. While the head of the Munich Security Conference, Wolfgang Ischinger, said in an interview with the Tagesspiegel in April that the party was not seeking to break with the previous traditions of German foreign policy, Thorsten Benner, co-founder of the think tank Global Public Policy Institute, came to a different conclusion. He said that while the Greens have come up with many new ideas, realizing their goals would create considerable tensions with Germany’s Western allies. He added that when it comes to the core issues of security policy, the party is “fundamentally on a completely different path to that of Germany’s most important partners.”
Political scientist Herfried Münkler was similarly harsh in his assessment a few months ago: A "whole series of concerns, limitations, and self-commitments" make it difficult for the Greens to respond to the EU's current power-policy challenges,” he warned.
In asking whether these contradictions can be resolved it might help to look at the party's value orientation and then ask how it will put in place the "other" foreign policy that it sees as posing a greater challenge.
From Radical Pacifism to Realpolitik
Today, the Greens present themselves with the self-confidence of appealing to society as a whole. And yet, alongside their roots in environmentalism and the radical left, they also have longstanding ties with the peace movement that emerged during a time in which
large sections of the party were committed to radical pacifism (which did not exclude collection campaigns by prominent Greens for weapons for the left-leaning Sandinista in El Salvador).
A coalition government was formed between the SPD and the Greens in 1998, but even after the formation of the Red-Green government, sections of the party continued to reject the realpolitik stance of its foreign minister, Joschka Fischer. And yet, even before that, in the mid-1990s, the attitude of sections of the party toward the use of military force had changed during the debate over the human rights crimes of the Yugoslav successor wars. The Greens then painfully supported the German military deployments in the Kosovo war (1999) and in Afghanistan (2001 and after).
Joschka Fischer was also surprised by his party's next steps: after the Red-Green government lead by Gerhard Schröder (SPD) was voted out of office in 2005, he had expected a relapse into foreign policy irresponsibility, as he recently told the daily newspaper taz (Die Tageszeitung): "After the end of government participation, I assumed that people would return to their radical pacifist stance. But that was not the case."
Indeed, the way the Greens have developed is astonishing in light of their history. As far as their ambitions are concerned, many Green politicians today could be described as learned disciples of the historian Heinrich August Winkler and his definition of the West in that they are committed to the rule of law, multilateralism, and a consistently value-oriented foreign policy. For these politicians, subordinating the universal validity of human rights to other interests, such as economic profit opportunities or supposed stability, is unconscionable.
The Greens do not avoid the systemic conflict with autocracies, thereby challenging states that disregard civil liberties at home and international rules vis-à-vis other states. As such, the slightly overblown thesis of former party leader Cem Özdemir has a kernel of truth: "Putin and Erdoğan would certainly not vote for the Greens."
In an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in April, Baerbock said that a different approach to authoritarian regimes is "a key issue for me in a future federal government—for our security and our values," adding “We are currently in a contest of systems: authoritarian forces versus liberal democracies." In this conflict, the party wants to use the European Union's economic power as leverage.
Where China is concerned, the party leader judged sternly in the same interview. "The New Silk Road project, with its global direct investment in infrastructure or energy networks, is not just about niceties. It's hardcore power politics. We must not fool ourselves as Europeans about that," she said.
The Greens are among the harshest critics when it comes to the possibility of Chinese influence on critical German infrastructure, such as the expansion of the 5G network. They criticize human rights abuses in Hong Kong and call for an EU market ban on Chinese products made by Uighur forced laborers in Xinjiang province. The verdict on Russia and its blatant violations of international law in the conflict with Ukraine since 2014 is no less clear. "Russia has increasingly turned into an authoritarian state and is more and more aggressively undermining democracy and stability in the EU and in the common neighborhood," the election platform states. The Greens reject an easing of EU sanctions without Russian reciprocation and announce they would "tighten them if necessary."
In their eyes, the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project is "not only harmful in terms of climate and energy policy, but also geostrategically—especially for the situation in Ukraine—and must therefore be stopped." Baerbock has clarified that the party is sticking to this goal despite the recent US-German compromise on the gas pipeline.
Restrained Commitment to NATO
While the Greens analyze the challenge posed to Western democracies by authoritarian states more sharply and passionately than their competitors in the Bundestag elections, they continue to keep their distance from the West's most important security policy instruments. Thus, the party's commitment to NATO in its election program is much more restrained than what Baerbock has expressed in public appearances.
"NATO suffers from diverging security policy interests within the alliance to the point of interstate conflicts. It lacks a clear strategic perspective in this deep crisis," the party says. While NATO remains "an indispensable actor alongside the EU, which can guarantee Europe's common security and which, as an alliance of states, counteracts a renationalization of security policy," it must be fundamentally reformed. The party rejects the pact's 2-percent target for military spending: "We advocate a new definition of the target that is not abstract, national and static, but takes common tasks as its starting point, and we will seek discussion on this with NATO partners."
The party that commits so strongly to multilateralism may be failing to recognize the significance to the alliance of its shared commitment to collective defense. The security interests of the EU members in Eastern Europe vis-à-vis Russia, which the Greens certainly appreciate, for example, remain astonishingly underexposed.
It also begs the question whether a Chancellor or Foreign Minister Baerbock, on her first visit to Washington, would actually strengthen her declared partner of choice, Joe Biden, domestically if she continues to declare NATO's 2-percent target "absurd."
Baerbock said in an interview with the FAZ: Germany and Europe would have to "take charge of their own security to a greater extent." But that this must be done "strategically at the cutting edge," she said. She considers, for example, "a European cyber defense center to be an important contribution to burden-sharing that we Europeans can make." At the same time, Baerbock and other Green representatives repeatedly assure the public that the party is prepared to equip the Bundeswehr in the best possible way and to spend more money on it than is currently spent if the necessity of certain acquisitions is justified.
"No" to Nuclear Weapons
The Greens also want to loosen another cornerstone of Germany’s security architecture: the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Germany and Germany's nuclear sharing. "We want a Germany free of nuclear weapons and Germany's accession to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons," their election program states.
In public debates, Baerbock toned down the stance sketched out in the election program and rejected a national solution: "It is not a German question, it is a European and an alliance question," she said. She largely avoided tough announcements, even declaring, "Reality is what it is."
In terms of alliance and European policy, the Greens' sharp criticism of German arms exports is also likely to become tricky if they take over or participate in the government. They want to regulate them even more strictly than they do today. It is unlikely that partners such as France or Spain will submit to the Greens' criteria for joint European armaments projects—the Germans would then have to either pull out or reject a deepening of cooperation in this area, which is seen in France in particular as a building block for further European integration.
Former Green Environment Minister Jürgen Trittin, who sits on the Foreign Affairs Committee, says of these issues: "The Cold War toolbox of deterrence, nuclear weapons, and rearmament is failing in the face of asymmetric and hybrid threats." The left wing of the party, where Trittin has influence, and large parts of the base expect this rejection of nuclear weapons and the 2-percent target to be reflected in a coalition agreement.
On one issue, at least, the party's realpolitikers were able to prevail: The Greens remain critical of armed drones, but no longer categorically reject their acquisition in the election program, instead making the decision dependent on the respective "deployment scenarios of the Bundeswehr."
Putting Climate Center Stage
The Greens see their real task in foreign policy as fighting global warming. They want to make climate protection more central to diplomacy. The goal is an "ambitious, coherent foreign climate policy strategy in the sense of promoting a global socio-ecological transformation," creating a world that is just, peaceful and climate-friendly through this master plan.
The EU should therefore enter into a "transatlantic climate partnership" with the US. The Greens are counting on President Biden, who is willing to cooperate on climate protection. The free trade agreement (TTIP) between the US and the EU, which was shelved during the administration of Barack Obama, was vigorously opposed by the party just a few years ago, however.
In addition, with reference to the Paris climate accord, the Greens want to establish so-called "Paris partnerships" with countries of the Global South. This instrument is intended to support countries in their socio-ecological transformation toward the 1.5-degree path and to establish a "cooperation at an equal level" from which Germany will also benefit in climate protection.
To achieve more ambitious climate goals, these measures appear to make perfect sense. They would also strengthen the European Commission's "Green Deal." Provided the transatlantic economic area jointly agrees on CO2 reductions or CO2 taxes, for example, it could have a considerable leverage effect. Global companies that do not want to jeopardize their market access to the EU and the US would be forced to adapt to the new standards. However, such cooperation with Washington is likely to require compromises, which the Green base views skeptically.
A significant part of the party continues to advocate a course in which Germany's most important partners see "a new, this time more or less pacifist German strategy" (Heinrich August Winkler). The Green claim of multilateralism and a strict orientation toward Europe and values is thus at odds with the strongly pronounced distrust of many in the party toward hard power. However, these are crucial for Germany's and Europe's ability to act as well as for alliances and are considered absolutely necessary in partner countries.
The systemic confrontation with authoritarian states like Russia and China promised by the Green Party can hardly work without partners. Instead of cultivating their "preoccupations, limitations, and self-commitments" (Herfried Münkler), the Greens would have to strive above all for connectivity with democratic allies in and outside NATO.
In their early days, the Greens propagated the slogan: "Building peace without weapons.” Today, one might polemically ask whether their concept of "creating systemic conflict without weapons" would really be more practical in government.
The leadership style of the two political realists Baerbock and Robert Habeck at the head of the party is inclusive: They do not seek to be the decision-makers in controversies, but prefer to involve the various factions. That is why, contrary to Baerbock's announcement ("We face foreign policy dilemmas with intensity"), they have shown little ambition in actually resolving such contradictions before the election. The controversy over Habeck's demand for arms deliveries to Ukraine clearly showed how starkly different ideas clash within the party.
Will the Greens as part of the German government support a decision on a successor model for the Bundeswehr's Tornado fighter aircraft, which are designed to carry US nuclear bombs to their targets in an emergency? Do they stand by joint European armaments projects? How well would the Bundeswehr be equipped under a Green chancellor or Green ministers? Who should bear the economic costs of a tougher foreign policy course toward China? And what will happen to the Bundeswehr's foreign missions, on which Green members of the Bundestag have taken completely inconsistent positions in votes in recent years?
There are many indications that the Green Party's potential partner(s) will not demand any clarification of the open questions until coalition negotiations. If a new federal cabinet is also shaped by the Greens, the practice of governing will then force many more compromises.
Here, too, the party base, which repeatedly puts the brakes on the transformation of traditional Green ideas toward strengthening the EU's ability to act in global politics, is likely to remain a decisive factor.
Hans Monath is covering German foreign policy for the daily Tagesspiegel.