Germany's New Leading Woman Foreign Minister Baerbock Takes Advantage of Her Second Chance
It’s Tuesday, Jan. 18. Sergey Viktorovich Lavrov, 71, Russia’s foreign minister for nearly 18 years, is sitting at a table inside the government guest house in Moscow. Sitting across from him is Annalena Charlotte Alma Baerbock, Germany’s foreign minister, who is 30 years younger than her Russian host and has been in office for just 42 days.
They have just finished a round of talks between their delegations and Lavrov has invited Baerbock to lunch. The appetizer is followed by what always follows in Moscow: vodka.
Baerbock doesn’t touch the glass.
Lavrov prods her, saying she has to drink the vodka that has been placed in front of her.
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 15/2022 (April 8th, 2022) of DER SPIEGEL.
But Baerbock counters that she had made a previous trip to Russia several years ago and had been told: If you don’t toughen up and learn to hold your liquor, you’ll never become a leading politician. But, she tells Lavrov, she managed to do so without alcohol. "If drinking vodka at noon is a test of toughness.... I gave birth to two children."
Baerbock describes the scene during an interview in her office. She has carved out an hour from her busy schedule, with one appointment after the next – these are serious times, after all. But she seems to enjoy being able to take a moment to process the tidal wave of events washing over her. She laughs and seems confident as she describes the meeting with Lavrov, almost unconcerned.
It was a moment in which Baerbock was able to turn the tables in this men's game. For Lavrov and the others, drinking vodka was seemingly a kind of entrance exam into the world of men – one in which she, the newcomer, had to prove herself as a woman. But she is setting a different standard, one that men can’t compete with: childbearing. It was a trick, and it immediately put her in the driver's seat, which is where she likes to be.
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Moscow in January.Foto: Russian Foreign Ministry / imago images/ITAR-TASS
Annalena Baerbock belongs to a generation of women whose path to success was paved by predecessors, who were told that they should play along in the games of others if they wanted to succeed. The others. For Angela Merkel, they were mostly men. So, she adopted a wardrobe of blazers and pants and chose to prioritize policy over personality. Baerbock appears eager to send a different message. She is hoping to establish a more feminist foreign policy, she often wears skirts and high heels and she talks frequently about children. She seems to be saying: I am here. And I've got this.
Baerbock is the first woman to head the German Foreign Ministry. While it still isn't a matter of course for her to be where she is, after 16 years with Merkel as chancellor, it no longer seems unusual to see a woman in high political office. Baerbock, though, apparently wants to demonstrate that self-confidence and femininity can combine in a political role.
And not even the Foreign Ministry has completely adapted. Within the protocol department, for example, the unit responsible for organizing trips abroad for the German president, chancellor and foreign minister still lists the masculine German title for foreign minister (and the female title for chancellor) in its organigram.
When Baerbock visited Sarajevo in early March, a walk through the Old Town was on the agenda. The program booklet assembled for the trip recommended "flat shoes" – a suggestion that the protocol certainly would not have noted in the case of her predecessor Heiko Maas. Baerbock ignores it and wears black boots with high heels. But not for long. She has to leave her boots outside during a visit to a mosque. She isn't however, interested in covering her hair and instead places the scarf that is handed to her around her shoulders.
Baerbock shows her femininity when and where she wants to. But she doesn’t want to be reduced to it. "No headscarves and no bouquets of flowers," she has instructed her protocol team. After all, she said, her predecessors didn't receive bouquets during their visits either. Still, she says, the bouquet rule couldn't really be enforced everywhere, not even with partners with the best of intentions.
Her self-confidence, her aspirations to power, led Baerbock one year ago, on April 19, 2021, to become the first member of the Green Party to run for chancellor. There were, of course, voices on social media suggesting that primarily men on the right-wing fringe were less than enthusiastic about the possibility of a woman from the Green Party moving into the Chancellery. Generally, though, she experienced goodwill and recognition and rode high in the polls.
Her campaign, though, ultimately could hardly have gone worse. She had to admit to belated reporting of additional income, which embarrassed both her and her party. Then, it turned out that her official resumé had been embellished. And her first book, which was launched at the beginning of her campaign, earned her allegations of plagiarism.
Before long, the entire country was occupied with the question as to whether her self-confidence and aspiration for power were greater than her actual abilities.
Baerbock did better toward the end of her campaign. But measured against the expectations that had been raised in the beginning, when the Greens were at 28 percent in some polls, the party performed rather disappointingly in the federal election, scoring only 14.8 percent of the votes. But then Baerbock got a second chance, as foreign minister.
With the severity of developments since then, the term "second chance" sounds rather trite. The conditions that emerged soon after Baerbock took office are dramatic, dire even. No foreign minister before her has had to deal with such a geopolitical catastrophe as quickly as she did: the invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops. Now, the big question of the election campaign, whether Baerbock’s self-confidence and ability are in balance, is no longer an issue. There is simply no room for weakness. Together with her colleagues from the other EU countries and with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, she has to hold Europe and the West together to make peace. There is no other option.
So, how is she faring?
Baerbock in 2012 at a Green Party meeting in Brandenburg, where she was head of the state chapter.Foto: Patrick Pleul / dpa
When she helped negotiate the government coalition agreement late last fall with the center-left Social Democrats (SPD) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP), she had two options for dealing with the disaster that her campaign turned into. She could be more deliberate and thoughtful than before to counter the impression that she had wanted too much too soon. Or to try, with grand gestures, to make people forget what had taken place. She apparently opted for the second approach. She advocated a strictly values-based foreign policy; her favorite catchphrase, for which she liked to pick fights with the FDP, is "feminist foreign policy." It’s a concept that is aimed at overcoming violence and discrimination.
"Feminism" is a term that Merkel only warmed up to at the very end of her tenure. It’s a concept that some in the political establishment disdain as an ideology, and they fear that the Foreign Ministry, one of the most important government portfolios, could fall into the clutches of that ideology. Baerbock had expected grumbling in conservative circles, but it would have been advantageous for her to spell out more precisely what a feminist foreign policy actually means. It sounds like a foreign policy for women. But it’s really about values, about all people. It wouldn’t have been difficult to explain that – or perhaps even to find a term that makes clearer what it is really about. But she didn’t take the time.
At the request of the Green Party, the coalition agreement also stipulates Germany’s observer status at the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference and the goal of a restrictive arms export law. Baerbock also announced that she wanted to put climate protection at the center of her work at the Foreign Ministry. She soon appointed Jennifer Morgan, the head of the environmental organization Greenpeace, as the German government’s special representative for intentional climate policy. Morgan's background as an activist and lobbyist generated plenty of raised eyebrows.
But before Baerbock had the chance to properly explain that move, the situation in Eastern Europe began deteriorating. The day before she turned down the Russian foreign minister’s vodka, she met with her Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. On the approach to the Foreign Ministry there, her motorcade drove past countless photos of people who have perished since 2014 following the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in the Donbas. Next to them were posters of body bags and bombed-out cars.
The images didn’t change what she had set out to say: "A strong foreign policy is characterized by having a clear stance." For her, that stance on that day was to reject the Ukrainian demand for arms deliveries from Germany. She said Germany was not supplying weapons to Ukraine for "historical reasons." She didn’t spare any criticism of Putin, calling the Russian leadership a "regime" and expressing her "great concern," but when it came to the issue that was of utmost importance to her hosts, she showed zero movement.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba reacted coolly. "I want to thank Annalena for taking such a principled position," he said. But away from the microphones, Ukrainians were appalled by Germany’s stance. Did the German government not see what other governments saw? The United States government, for example? Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also expressed his horror over the German attitude in front of the microphones.
It's not that Baerbock seeks to hide her emotions. During her travels, she often talks about the suffering of women and children. But then she often lays out her political positions as though there was no room for debate.
Baerbock traveled to the Middle East in early February. And when she was there, news reached her that the Americans considered an attack by Russia to be very likely and that they were withdrawing most of their embassy staff from Kyiv. Some EU partners also began evacuating their diplomats.
While visiting a school south of Amman, Baerbock ducked into the teachers’ room to speak with a senior official at her ministry back in Berlin. She decided against evacuation for the time being. The minister mentioned to journalists traveling with her that she didn’t want to send a signal of panic, thus doing Putin the favor of destabilizing Ukraine. Only family members were to leave. Some in the Foreign Ministry viewed that decision critically against the background of the Afghanistan evacuation late last year that went badly wrong .
During that incident, Baerbock had been among the harshest critics of her predecessor, Heiko Maas of the SPD. Now, though, Baerbock was hesitating – and two weeks later, when the Russian troops did attack, she spent a restless night when the Kyiv embassy staff got stuck in a traffic jam during the evacuation.
Like German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, her focus was on diplomacy prior to the invasion. "Those who speak, don’t shoot," she said in a speech to German parliament in January, a widely criticized comment. How could she have been so certain? Putin, after all, is well known for talking and shooting at the same time. He even had a Georgian national shot in the heart of Berlin, at least according to the verdict of a Berlin court.
Immediately after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Baerbock seemed disgusted more than anything. With Lavrov. With Putin. There was every reason for her to be outraged, to be sure, but a little bit of critical self-reflection wouldn’t have hurt, either. What about her own naivete? She repeatedly expressed outrage over the fact that Lavrov had lied to her and that Putin had lied to the chancellor. Such statements were astonishing, to say the least. Did the German foreign minister really expect to be told the truth by the commanders of Russia’s propaganda apparatus?
On the day of the invasion, she was still, in an appearance on German television, expressing restraint on the issue of arms deliveries to Ukraine. It was a position she had established in spring of 2021, when she was still the Green Party's candidate for chancellor. In the midst of the election campaign and during a visit to Ukraine, then Green Party co-leader Robert Habeck said that Germany should supply defensive weapons to the country. But out of consideration for her candidacy for chancellor and her opposing views, Habeck then withdrew that position – a mistake, as the economy minister recently admitted to Ukrainian Ambassador Andriy Melnyk during a visit to his office.
Baerbock, for her part, hasn’t yet invited the Ukrainian ambassador to the Foreign Ministry for a one-on-one meeting. Meetings with Melnyk aren't necessarily a pleasant undertaking for members of the German government, especially for those who thought that dialogue with Putin was the correct path. Melnyk hasn't been shy recently about uttering full-throated criticisms of Germany. But dialogue with him is unavoidable. After all, it is his people who are being massacred .
Two days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Baerbock finally changed her stance on arms deliveries. Those were the days of what Scholz termed the "watershed," Germany's shift away from pacifism. In mid-March, she invited security experts, diplomats and members of the federal parliament to the wood-paneled World Hall of the Foreign Ministry. "We are witnessing a brutal war of aggression 10 hours by car from here, in the middle of Europe," she said. "Real, close, terrible. Putin’s war in violation of international law confronts us with a new security reality."
Baerbock speaking to Ukrainian refugees after their arrival at the Frankfurt Airport: "We are witnessing a brutal war of aggression 10 hours by car from here, in the middle of Europe. Real, close, terrible."Foto: Boris Roessler / REUTERS
Christoph Heusgen, who advised Merkel on foreign policy for 12 years, rather acerbically commented that for once, Baerbock hadn't made a mention of feminist foreign policy. "Madam Minister, I was totally surprised that I didn’t hear the feminist foreign policy," he said.
Baerbock listened to Heusgen’s criticism from her seat in the front row, her mouth and nose covered by a black FFP2 mask, such that it was impossible to see how his words affected her. She left the discussion a short time later to attend to a vote in parliament on the coronavirus pandemic.
Baerbock hadn’t simply forgotten the issue. Indeed, she also spoke about human rights in her speech, and thus about one of the primary focuses of feminist foreign policy. But Heusgen had still hit his target. Her avoidance of the term made it seem as though she no longer had faith in the concept. And yet, in times of violence there are arguments for a form of feminist foreign policy, albeit a slightly different one. Matching it up with a 100-billion-euro funding package for the German military, to be sure, would certainly have required rather advanced mental gymnastics. That, though, is what was needed: A show of strength without abandoning values.
In her travels, Baerbock has told journalists on more than one occasion that she keeps thinking back to 1998, when the Greens became part of a German federal government for the first time. Only to then support the NATO operation against Serbian dictator Slobodan Milošević a short time later.
The two moments are comparable, even if the Greens of 2022 are better prepared than they were in 1998. Back then, the party was still campaigning on dissolving NATO and dismantling the German military. Shortly thereafter, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party agreed to the German military's participation in the Kosovo war, a move that pushed the Greens, large parts of which were radically pacifist at the time, to the brink of collapse.
This time around, there is no threat of an uprising from the Green base. The youth wing of the party and some isolated older members of the Greens might grumble – overall, though, the once rebellious party has remained calm - and this despite the fact that the speech Baerbock gave in mid-March on Germany's national security strategy could just as easily have been given by a hawkish conservative foreign minister. She spoke of defending the alliance, nuclear deterrence and defensive capability – "for many here in this room, and I certainly wouldn’t exclude myself from that, a word you just don’t utter."
The year that now lies behind Annalena Baerbock has been so eventful that it could easily have filled a decade. A year of abrupt twists and turns. She started out as hope, stumbled, recovered, made herself a peace politician, and now, here she is, talking about "defensive capability." She managed to get through it all, and has earned a significant amount of respect for doing so. Her popularity in the polls is on the rise. But she gets mixed marks for her first 100 days in office. A combination of staying power and policy reversals.
Because of those reversals, it’s difficult to say whether she truly stands behind what she is now saying. Last Monday, she spoke out against an immediate energy embargo against Russia on prime-time television. Now, the question is whether she will ultimately have to reverse course there too, just as she did on her rejection of arms deliveries. With every atrocity committed by the Russian army in Ukraine, the pressure on the German government to immediately suspend imports of Russian oil and gas increases.
When Baerbock feels cornered, she can often overshoot the mark with arguments that don't always stand up to scrutiny. On the evening of March 10, for example, the minister was in Pristina with Kosovo Prime Minister Albin Kurti, and a journalist asked her about something that former German President Joachim Gauck recently said: "We can also freeze for freedom." It was a question for which she hadn't prepared. If all energy imports were to be stopped overnight, says Baerbock, "it would mean that we would have no electricity and no heat within a few weeks. What could be a greater gift to the Russian president? How many days would we be able to sustain a situation in which people couldn't drive to work, our daycare facilities had no electricity and we couldn't really keep hospitals running?"
As economy minister, her party colleague Robert Habeck, of course, is in charge of energy issues. And he, too, holds a critical view of immediately suspending energy imports from Russia. But even the Economy Ministry hasn't issued such a drastic scenario as the one outlined by Baerbock. Indeed, Habeck's concerns are more related to industrial policy and the concern that entire companies would have to cease operations.
Political plans, of course, change in response to significant events. That goes without saying. But it's Baerbock’s formulations that often don’t sit right.
Baerbock in April 2021 with Robert Habeck at the launch of her campaign for the Chancellery.Foto: Kay Nietfeld / picture alliance / dpa
Many who know her well are quick to speak of her self-confidence, not infrequently coupling it with the adjective "extreme." And that’s also how she acts: Unlike soft-spoken Chancellor Olaf Scholz, she speaks rather loudly. She has an energetic gait, her gestures at the lectern are expansive.
It may be that it's just her being her: self-assured at every moment, no matter what position she is currently espousing. It could also be, though, that as a woman in a man's world, she thinks she has to appear confident no matter what.
Her party colleague Katrin Göring-Eckardt, who served as vice president of parliament from 2005 to 2013 and is back in that position again, talks about how difficult it is for women to hold their own in the Bundestag – "almost more so today than back then. The tone has become a lot rawer since the AfD has been in the Bundestag," she says, referring to the far-right Alternative for Germany party. "But it may also be because such important portfolios as foreign, interior and defense are now filled by women. They are now truly perceived as competition," she adds.
Would it then be too much to ask of Baerbock that she, in addition to her femininity, exhibit a bit more contemplation because it could be seen as a sign of weakness? In these times, seeing contemplation as a weakness is a mistake.
Baerbock has many fans within her party, particularly inside the party faction in parliament. They view Baerbock’s self-confidence as an important driver, a real strength when she doesn’t allow herself to be intimidated by Lavrov or pressured by China. Her supporters, though, seem to overlook the dangers that could lurk in Baerbock's "extreme" self-confidence, or they haven't expressed those dangers clearly enough. In politics, though, one law applies that Baerbock occasionally cites herself: "When the going gets tough, you have to answer for decisions on your own." Any mistakes made belong to the boss, and not to her staff. So the staff must be proactive, and the boss must listen.
An appraisal of the election campaign run by Baerbock is still pending. Winfried Kretschmann, the only Green Party governor of a state in Germany, insisted on such an appraisal at a party conference held in late January. Four weeks later, though, the war broke out, and now the party has other worries. Moreover, it wouldn’t be possible to conduct an evaluation of the election campaign without weakening Baerbock, and the party doesn’t want to take that risk at the moment.
It’s a Tuesday morning in mid-March and Baerbock receives her visitors in her office on the third floor of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. There are two holes in the wall where her predecessor, Heiko Maas, had hung his paintings. In front of her desk is a green plant that she received from her party when she passed off the co-leadership position earlier this year.
Baerbock drinks a caffè latte and an orange juice. When asked about the praise and her high public approval ratings, she shrugs. When she speaks about the low point of the election campaign, when her face was on the cover of Germany’s tabloid Bild newspaper for days on end, you could tell how much it hurt her. And how it now feeds her skepticism about whether and how long her current popularity will last. She herself doesn’t believe the poll numbers will always stay this positive, but she doesn’t care anymore. "I do my job to the best of my knowledge and conscience," says Baerbock.
To Robert Habeck’s ears, that sentence might have a threatening undertone. As vice chancellor, Habeck is currently the senior-most Green in the government cabinet. He and Baerbock agreed that he would receive the vice chancellor position if the election results were disappointing. His roles as guardian of the economy and the mastermind behind Germany’s transition to clean energies means his job is at least as big as hers, and his thoughtful style of communication has been well-received among the German populace. In that sense, he seems to be perfect for the current times, perhaps even more so than Baerbock. But not many Greens she will cede the position of chancellor candidate to him in three years time without a fight. Habeck likely doesn't think so either. It would, after all, be rather unlike her.