Following the last three general elections in Germany, had you tried to predict the primary foreign policy challenges Berlin would be facing, you likely would have been wrong. Who could have seen a pandemic coming in 2017, the election of Donald trump in 2013, or the euro crisis in 2009?
The present is blind to the future, and politics, particularly foreign policy, is the never-ending attempt to deal with the unpredictable.
The outgoing chancellor, who took on more and more foreign policy during her time in office, was good at maintaining difficult relations and managing crises – a fact that even her critics acknowledge. On the flip side, even her defenders would not claim that she has laid any historical milestones in the way that some of her predecessors did. Angela Merkel’s chancellorship leaves a need for a strategic orientation, both among German and foreign observers.
Even in the bipolar world of the Cold War, it was difficult to establish a long-term foreign policy for Germany. In the multipolar world of the 21st century, it is even more challenging. But it is possible to shape history. Some developments are discernible, some are expectable and some are even predictable.
"Germany, We Need To Talk"
The return of the rivalries between great powers, for example, is discernible. Whereas the past 30 years were dominated by regional conflicts, tensions between the United States and China and between Europe and Russia now drive global politics. Moreover, authoritarian tendencies are growing stronger, from Brazil to India, but also in Europe itself.
The intensification of competition over technology and digitalization is expectable – and with it, likely the continuing rise of China, which could overtake the U.S. economically before the end of this decade.
And climate change, which has gripped the world and is getting worse, can be predicted down to tenths of a degree, with foreseeable social, economic and political consequences.
These are but a few of the developments for which the new federal government will have to prepare, regardless of who leads it. But measured against the magnitude of these challenges, there was painfully little debate about foreign policy during the election campaign. There was practically none. And that’s not a good sign.
"Germany, we need to talk,” read the headline of an essay penned by Thomas Bagger, head of the foreign policy department at the Office of the German President, in the journal Internationale Politik Quarterly last summer. Two subheaders in the article – "A Distorted View of the World” and "Morality Alone Isn’t Politics” – describe the problem. A third proposes a solution: "Defending the European Project.”
Bagger argues that foreign policy discourse in Germany "often oscillates between navel-gazing and do-gooderism.” But effective foreign policy usually happens somewhere between these two extremes, says Bagger. The Germans’ image of the world has to become more differentiated and realistic. The most difficult task for the government will be preparing for "the reality of a harsher world.”
A Divided World
One premise and one quiet expectation of German foreign policy have both become less certain during Angela Merkel's chancellorship: the assumption that the US can be relied on under all circumstances – and the hope that a more economically open China will gradually open up politically as well.
Four years under Donald Trump and the increasingly authoritarian rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping have changed the world in ways no one expected. What's more: The two superpowers are now engaged in a competition that is reminiscent of the Cold War.
The U.S. and Chinese flags during a naval maneuver in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in June 2016Foto: Hugh Gentry / REUTERS
Yet that comparison is only partly accurate. So far, China and the U.S. have faced off against each other less as military powers than as economic and technological powers. They aren’t fighting any armed proxy wars. But they are vying for spheres of influence – the U.S. within its framework of alliances and China with its Silk Road initiative, a strategic expansion of trade routes stretching from Asia to Africa and Europe.
No European country is as affected by this rivalry as U.S. ally Germany, whose biggest trading partner is China. Both sides are pushing Berlin to take a position, as evidenced by the dispute over network equipment supplier Huawei. Washington wants Germany to end its cooperation with the Chinese supplier. But Beijing has threatened economic consequences if that happens.
Ultimately, though, the conflict between the U.S. and China goes beyond issues that could be answered by a single law. It is increasingly driving trade, customs and climate policy, human rights and disarmament issues, staffing and budget decisions at international organizations, standards in digital and development policy – basically all fields of international cooperation.
Germany’s roots in the trans-Atlantic alliance is indisputable, an authoritarian China cannot be a political alternative. But Berlin’s and Washington’s interests in China are not congruent – at least not since the hard about-face taken by former U.S. President Donald Trump that his successor Joe Biden appears to be sticking to.
Germany must also integrate its interests with China and the United States into a European foreign policy - which is also trying to come to terms with the new superpower rivalry: from China-critical Lithuania to China-friendly Hungary, from the Baltic NATO states to NATO-skeptical France. Berlin is facing a three-dimensional chess game in what is likely to be the defining conflict of the coming years.
Silence from Washington
Dealing with friends can sometimes be more exhausting than dealing with enemies. Washington is currently a very distant partner for Berlin. Hopes that the relationship would improve after Donald Trump was voted out of office have only been partially fulfilled.
Joe Biden stresses that he wants to work with Germany and Europe in a spirit of trust, but the relationship that will be the starting point for a new German government has already been overshadowed by two serious crises. First, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which was not coordinated with its NATO allies. And second, the snub of a key ally: Without informing Paris, Washington and London struck a multibillion dollar submarine deal with Australia, cancelling a contract that Canberra had previously awarded to France.
President Joe Biden after announcing the hasty withdrawal of U.S. forces from AfghanistanFoto: Yuri Gripas / POOL / EPA
In terms of foreign policy, Washington is fixated on the conflict with China – it’s one of the few points on which the polarized political camps in the U.S. agree. At best, Europe plays a secondary role in this issue. The expectation in Washington is that Germany will follow along with its policies on China. Joint projects that would be important for a new German government, like combating climate change, haven’t gotten anywhere beyond declarations of intent. And even though he was sharply critical of Trump for pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal, Biden has shown little inclination to revive it.
In Washington, the crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and its economic consequences are the top priority. For months, it was the travel ban that put a strain on relations with Europe – another Trump-era legacy that the Biden administration maintained. For over a year and a half, exchanges between Germans and Americans were reduced to a minimum, with even employees of large German corporations having trouble entering the U.S. Washington has since announced that it will allow vaccinated travelers from Europe back into the country starting in November.
Still, there have been at least two changes in the German-American relationship. In contrast to his predecessor, Biden has refrained from preventing the completion and operation of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline through further sanctions after a meeting with the outgoing German chancellor. Trump’s threat of punitive tariffs on German auto imports is also no longer on the table. Both moves are viewed in Washington as signs of goodwill.
The big question from the German perspective, though, is how long such promises can be trusted. Trump’s election victory in 2016 taught politicians in Germany that the situation in Washington can change completely overnight – with old agreements suddenly worth nothing. "There has been a lot of uncertainty,” German diplomats say off the record.
That’s why, following the 2022 midterm elections in the U.S., the new German government’s focus will turn to the question as to whether Donald Trump will make a comeback in the 2024 presidential election. That would spell the end of renewed trans-Atlantic relations before they ever really got off the ground.
Brussels: Waiting for the Next Crisis
Washington's unilateral actions in Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific are also intensifying a debate in Brussels about political and strategic autonomy – Europe’s "global political capability,” as former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put it in 2018 – that has dragged on for years.
Juncker’s successor, Ursula von der Leyen, lamented in her recent State of the Union address: "You can have the most advanced forces in the world, but if you are never prepared to use them, of what use are they?”
With those words, she poured salt on an open wound that has, at least in part, also been caused by Germany, since parliament has to approve any military deployment abroad. As such, the position taken by the new German government is therefore considered by Brussels to be a decisive factor in determining how quickly the EU makes progress on the road to a defense union.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during a meeting of the European Council in BrusselsFoto: FRANCOIS WALSCHAERTS / AFP
For Manfred Weber, the head of the European People’s Party, the grouping of the center-right parties in the European Parliament, the "key question” is: "Will we wait for the next crisis or do we have the courage to take action before then?” If some EU states want to lead the way in foreign policy, he says, they should stop letting others slow them down. "We can’t wait for the slowest guy on the team anymore.”
Many non-European observers have long been puzzled by the EU’s adherence to a principle of unanimity that stipulates that any joint foreign policy decision can only be made if all the member states agree to it. Economically, the EU is a world power that has resources with which it can create pressure for both China and the U.S. – not to mention difficult neighboring countries like Russia or Turkey. In Germany, several parties favor abolishing the unanimity principle in foreign policy matters and replacing it with a simple majority – which, incidentally, would mean that not only small countries, but also large EU countries could be outvoted.
Brexit has weakened Europe, but within the EU, the balance of power has shifted in favor of Germany and France. If Berlin and Paris don’t use that weight to reform the EU, Europe’s global political ambitions will remain powerless.
This doesn’t only apply to joint military operations – it is also true of forward-looking projects such as Europe’s Indo-Pacific Gateway trade initiative, Brussels’ answer to China’s New Silk Road. These programs may sound vague, but they are of great strategic importance. It is a major interest for Europe and Germany that Africa is developed, that the Middle East doesn’t crash economically and that the EU has strong partners in Southeast Asia. In contrast to their relationships with Russia, for example, Brussels and Berlin have a great deal of leeway there.
Paris: The Battle for "Strategic Autonomy"
At the beginning of September, a high-level circle of foreign policy experts met at the Institute du monde arabe in Paris to discuss the future of Franco-German relations. The "Club des Vingt” counts former ambassadors and foreign ministers among its members. Its meetings are confidential, but on that day, journalists were invited to the room overlooking Notre Dame. The main order of the day was what a common European policy could look like in a post-Angela Merkel world.
From the French perspective, the election in Germany comes at a crucial time. After the experience and supply shortages during the pandemic, the EU must consider how it defines itself as a community. The end of the European mission in Afghanistan following the sudden withdrawal of the U.S. military also raises strategic questions. And what’s the vision for EU military missions abroad in the future? How dependent do Paris and Berlin want to be on the U.S.?
Excellent relations: Chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats during a visit with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris this monthFoto: Thomas Imo / photothek / IMAGO
In Paris, politicians have been preoccupied for weeks with the question of who will succeed Merkel. There are already excellent contacts with Olaf Scholz, the chancellor candidate for the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). Officials at the French Finance Ministry are aware of Scholz’s contribution to the success of the 750-billion-euro European reconstruction fund to help EU countries get back on their feet after the pandemic. Armin Laschet is no stranger, either. Since 2019, he has served as the German government’s official liaison with France for cultural and educational affairs. He has visited the French president’s office frequently and made it clear that he - in contrast to Merkel - would have been responsive to Macron’s European policy proposals.
As one adviser to the French president sums it up, there is a lot of agreement with the SPD on economic issues and with the center-right CDU on defense and security policy. The fact that both Laschet and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer recently raised questions about continuing the joint mission in Mali is painful for Paris.
The agenda for future Franco-German cooperation includes better coordinated defense, climate and digital policies as well as the reform of the European Stability Pact, a key issue for the Southern European states.
If Macron is re-elected in the second round of voting in the presidential election in April, which seems likely at the moment, he could finally forge ahead with what he has been fighting for since 2017: an active foreign policy for a confident Europe that can stand up to the U.S. and China. At least there was one bit of good news recently at a meeting of the staff preparing for France’s six-month rotating presidency of the EU: The concept of Europe’s "strategic autonomy,” it was said, is no longer a taboo for the Germans.
Moscow: Saving What Hasn't Yet Been Destroyed
Russia has never been an easy partner for German governments, but whoever succeeds Merkel will be inheriting a difficult legacy. German-Russian relations have hit a low point, and it isn’t clear how they can be improved in the medium term.
In any case, one thing is unlikely to change: Russia’s repression of its people. Alexei Navalny, the poisoned opposition politician, is in detention, the media has been painted into a corner, and activists are frequently driven into exile. No German government will be able to ignore that.
Particularly given that German organizations operating in Russia are also under pressure: three NGOs, including the German-Russian Exchange (DRA), which has been active for decades, have been declared "undesirable organizations.” The Petersburg Dialogue, an annual German-Russian civil society forum that was launched by former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Russian President Vladimir Putin, is effectively dead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a naval parade in St. Petersburg in JulyFoto: Alexei Danichev / ITAR-TASS / IMAGO
The dialogue is going better on one other front: The talks for the settlement of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the Minsk Process, will continue. Not because there is much to gain from them, but because there is no other forum. The Normandy Format, a contact group founded in 2014, in which Kiev, Moscow, Berlin and Paris debate the Ukraine conflict, is failing because Russia doesn’t view itself as a party to the conflict. At the same time, Moscow is altering the reality in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas region by issuing Russian passports there.
As long as there is no long-term solution, the only option for Berlin is to try and find ways to improve the living conditions of the people residing in the divided Donbas. In other words: Push ahead with infrastructure projects and for an end to the economic isolation of the separatist areas. This would require Kiev’s acceptance of working with structures it does not recognize. And that’s all unrealistic without generous German and EU aid.
There is little maneuvering room for progress in German-Russian relations. As things stand at the moment, merely preserving what hasn’t yet been damaged could be seen as an achievement. This includes the German-Russian reconciliation after 1945, which has been anything but self-evident – and is as important for Europe as the German-French or the German-Polish reconciliation.
For the new German government, that means striking the right tone and taking sensitivities seriously without allowing itself to be manipulated by the Kremlin. It wasn’t only Putin, but also Russian society that was horrified when, in 2019, the European Parliament essentially equated Nazis and Stalinism in a resolution.
China: Berlin as Beijing's Partner of Choice
Meanwhile, if there is one country that has been very happy with Germany’s foreign policy, it’s China. Berlin has been Beijing’s partner of choice: it’s economically strong and export-oriented, it’s a large market and it is willing to invest in China despite unequal conditions. Most importantly, though, it is more or less free of geopolitical ambitions.
From the Chinese point of view, that’s exactly how things should stay. Chinese historian and Europe expert Xiang Lanxin says he has the "highest respect” for the outgoing chancellor. He says that whoever succeeds her would be well advised to follow Merkel’s example and "build a bridge between the East and the West.”
Xiang also has nothing but praise for European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. He says a "strategically autonomous” Europe would be entirely in Beijing’s interest, and on that basis, "the space would be wide open” for flourishing cooperation. What Xiang has in mind is a Gaullist Europe, but otherwise inspired by Germany.
Chinese President Xi Jinping during a visit to a naval base on the South China Sea island of HainanFoto: Li Gang / Xinhua / IMAGO
All that, though, is rather dubious praise, and the new German government should think twice before acting on Xiang’s proposal. Because there are at least two things that are likely to change between Germany and China in the coming years: Berlin’s economic view of China and the increasing importance of climate policy.
So far, the economy has taken the precedence in Germany’s relations with Beijing. The chancellor has traveled 12 times to China with large business delegations and promoted the interests of German companies – from automobile and chemicals companies to the financial services provider Wirecard, which went bankrupt in a scandal involving billions of euros that went missing from its books.
During her trips to China, Merkel always met with dissidents and has probably achieved more for them over the years than any other Western leader. Germany helped artist Ai WeiWei leave the country, and did the same for the widow of the late Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, who died in prison.
But Berlin’s one-sided, pro-economy China policy no longer fits with an era in which China has risen from a being an emerging economy to a world power that is booming politically, technologically and militarily. This is also reflected in the election platforms of Germany’s major parties. Regardless which parties form the new coalition, the next German government will have to broaden its China policy.
This doesn’t mean that Germany should give up its special competency when it comes to China or that it should switch to the camp of the country’s opponents. But the balance will have to shift – not least because China’s importance for climate policy is growing enormously alongside its economic role.
With 14 of the world’s 52 gigatons, China is by far the largest emitter of greenhouse gases. Its emissions exceed those of all G-7 countries. At the same time, however, China is also outperforming all other countries in the expansion of renewable energies. In 2020, Beijing installed new wind and solar power plants with a capacity of 136 gigawatts, more than the rest of the world combined. Climate change can’t be stopped without China’s participation.
It is not only in Germany’s and Europe’s interest for the new German government to simultaneously change and deepen its China policy. It is a question of global politics.