On October 26 of 2021, an uncommon image was seen by Germans on all news channels. For the first time in 31 years, the Bundestag was in session, and instead of being seated in the CDU-faction, in the chancellor’s chair, or calmly explaining complex policies at the speaking pulpit, Angela Merkel was sitting in the visitors’ tribune. After announcing in 2018 that she would not run for a fifth term, the time has come for the first parliament of the post-Merkel era to be summoned.
This year, the world had followed more closely than usual the generally not-so-exciting German elections. Especially amongst liberal observers, Merkel remained a constant beacon of hope for a democratic, sober, and pragmatic way of doing politics during the many crises of this early 21st century; and there were indeed many: from the financial crisis in 2008, the Euro crisis and the annexation of Crimea, to the issue of migration, Brexit and the global COVID-19 pandemic. Her centered and rational approach to solving problems granted her a status of international appreciation that is rarely seen. With her gone, people all over the planet wanted to know who would face the arduous task of filling in those shoes.
Meanwhile, as all eyes were on Germany, Germans were focussing on themselves too. The pragmatism with which Merkel solved the crises that came upon her without causing too much alarm made foreign policy an undisputed terrain in German politics. The exception that proves the rule here was the refugee crisis, which mainly set the agenda of the 2017 elections and whose aftermath did, in fact, significantly contribute to Merkel’s decision back in 2018 to step down. With that in the past, however, controversial foreign policy positions were left for radical parties that did not play any relevant roles in the campaigns. While the leftist party Die Linke proposed to leave NATO and the far-right AfD urged Germany to leave the EU, these proposals remained widely sidelined in the debates, and foreign policy remained uncontroversial in a centrist realm of consensus. Even the debacle in Afghanistan having taken place at the beginning of the campaigns was not enough to destabilize the governing parties. The opposition was not exceptionally able to explain how it would have done it better, and the people and the media seemed indifferent.
Nevertheless, this current blasé attitude – to put it in French terms (even if Germans might prefer to use their “Biedermeier”) – of German politics towards the international realm will not necessarily remain in place for much longer. As Merkel leaves the spotlight, a coalition never before attempted at the national level between the social-democrats, the greens, and the liberals is trying to assert itself, with the current finance minister and vice-chancellor Olaf Scholz as the designated heir to Merkel’s position. By looking at how this coalition is beginning to take form – with politicians negotiating a minutely crafted “coalition contract of” (one of many peculiarities of German politics) – we can already see first signs of a new German foreign policy emerging, with many new incentives to be more proactive, combative and present at the international sphere.
A first area in which a more enterprising Germany might rise is the environment. As is a tradition in the country’s coalition-building process, the second-largest party of the alliance has always secured control over the foreign ministry. For this reason, the defeated Green candidate for the chancellery, Annalena Baerbock, is likely to become the second environmentalist and first-ever woman to lead the ministry. As Baerbock has repeatedly mentioned during her campaign, it is irrelevant if Germany attains carbon neutrality if the rest of the world does not go along. In charge of Germany’s diplomacy, she would, with certitude, bring this topic to the forefront, shaping other aspects of Germany’s presence around the axis of acquiring commitments to reduce carbon emissions worldwide. This would be, however, not only because of her ideological stances but also because of domestic political incentives. With the liberals as part of the coalition, the greens and social-democrats will not be able to spend as much money as they would want on ambitious climate and social plans. With that so, more proactive and striking positionings in the foreign policy might be necessary to appease the green electorate, composed significantly of younger, more spirited activists.
Even with budget constraints, the coalition will probably still invest considerable amounts in renewable energy and environmental research while increasing its carbon prices. With this advantage of being able to lead by example, which was not truly there in the past, calling out other nations will become more feasible. More than that, it gives Germany the incentives to appeal to innovative ways to foster climate action beyond the ones already prevailing and, to be frank, failing.
The framework of the COPs and the larger realm of the United Nations are undoubtedly important for global climate diplomacy, especially with Antonio Guterres who has, as Secretary-General, expressed significant concern over the matter. Joe Biden’s Leaders Summit on climate change and his attempts to pass more comprehensive climate bills domestically are also remarkable feats, as the leadership of the US as the second-largest emitter of CO2 worldwide is indispensable. The urgency of the crisis, however, asks for more, and this might be just the opportunity that the greens need to increase their voice.
Luckily for them, the leader of their probable future coalition, the social-democratic candidate in the last elections, Olaf Scholz, has already suggested a promising format in which climate diplomacy could be more effective, namely a climate club. In this new association of states, in a format resembling the OECD, states willing to participate would engage in fostering and financing collective scientific projects, assuring that greening economies would not face disadvantages (by promoting the widespread implementation of carbon pricing, for example) and controlling each other in measures to reach carbon neutrality the latest by 2050. Especially this last point would be crucial to solving the problem of collective action that is climate diplomacy. Knowing that other countries are in fact transitioning and being called out for not doing so reduces the incentives of free-riding.
It would indeed take much time and effort to bring in more reluctant countries such as Russia, China, and India to such an initiative, and constant calling out and denouncing would certainly strain relationships. The increasing gravity of the problem might be of some help, but this consequential side of a more combative stance by Germany should not be left uncommented. This is also where the liberal party, the FDP, might make itself noticed in Germany’s new foreign policy.
If the greens’ path to relevance is climate diplomacy, the liberals might be defining their path in opposition to autocratic systems, betting on the cold-war-inspired German idea of “Systemkonkurrenz,” or competition of systems. Similar to the strategy of the greens, the liberals might want to seek in international affairs a place to profile themselves and assert a more contributing presence in the national rounds of debate. This will be relevant as the largest contributions of the party to the coalition will not be large projects that can be passed and debated during the legislature. Other than the green’s climate projects or the SPD’s pension reforms, the FDP’s conditions to enter the coalition were solely avoiding any additional tax burdens on taxpayers and respecting the country’s debt-ceiling. These would be clear victories for the liberals, but ones that might be soon forgotten once the news cycle moves on. The way out then is found once more by looking beyond domestic borders.
The possible unpleasantness that a more active form of climate diplomacy might generate towards Russia and China would then not be a problem for the FDP but a perfect opportunity to double down. Siding stringently with Taiwan’s and Hongkong’s rights to self-determination and defending individual freedoms and democracy in both China and Russia have been classic positions of the FDP that have remained long in the background of German politics but might finally find their way to the forefront. One can wonder if FDP’s leader, Christian Linder, was not already foreseeing such a scenario while he constantly and emphatically declared his support for Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader that was poisoned allegedly by the government and was urgently brought to a hospital in Berlin for treatment.
It is clear that these confrontations with Russia and China could only be led up to the point where there were no economic consequences. The imbrications between the economies and value chains are such that a new cold-war-resembling scenario would be unbearable. Since that matters for all sides, however, it increases the limits that political confrontations can go to without triggering economic retaliations.
Moreover, we could also add on the front of more liberal proactivity another possible area of action for the greens to profile themselves, namely Human Rights and conflict resolution. Given the pacifistic tradition of the party, it is unlikely that a green foreign minister would lead the country into international military interventions, even if backed by a UN Security Council resolution. However, a more driven will to mediate conflict might become apparent. This initiative could already be seen in the attempts by the sitting Minister Heiko Maas from the social democrats to mediate the peace-making and nation-building processes in Libya. It remains to be seen if the elections scheduled for December 24 will actually steer the country towards a more stable and democratic path, but success would greatly encourage Germany’s future readiness to help.
A more united European Union
A final sphere where more German presence might be felt is in the European Union. Less as a sphere by itself, but as a means to the end of global relevance, fostering the unitedness of the EU might be a necessary tool for Germany to be able to assert itself internationally. It has almost become a cliché to mention how all European nations cannot compare their status and influence alone to that of a united Europe acting conjointly. To face the “great powers” of the US, China, and Russia, France, Italy, Germany, and all other 23 member-states need to learn how to act internationally in a more coordinated fashion. Not only would the possible further disagreements with Russia and China require this, but the last years have also shown that neither the US nor the United Kingdom can be counted on at all times.
Olaf Scholz and Emanuel Macron have already demonstrated the ability to push Europe towards greater levels of cooperation when sketching Europe’s COVID-19 recovery plan. It was Scholz who convinced Merkel to accept the issuance of Euro-Bonds, a sign of possible increasing commitments to greater European integration. Appeasing the populist forces in the east will be no easy task, but the will to strengthen the Union might lead to more efforts to calm down the agitations and bring everyone to act in unison, at least externally. Having other priorities regarding the role of the EU internationally and having stronger motivations to seek them can lead Germany and France to be more open to dialogue inside the union and be more willing to reach financial and political deals to decrease tensions between the member-states.
Such a proactive Germany might sound incredibly odd to those accustomed to Merkel’s reactive style. Perhaps due to the several crises that occurred during her 16 years in office, Merkel was mostly acting in response to external shocks (albeit in a mostly precise and sufficient manner), but by no propositions of her own. It is also fair to say that while Merkel is gone, Scholz does not represent a sharp change of direction, much to the contrary. Acting as her vice-chancellor since 2017, Scholz projected himself as the natural successor of Merkel, even more than her party’s candidate, Armin Laschet, who became the nominee after surfing on a wave of distancing from Merkel. When that wave reached the shore way back at the beginning of 2020 – when the pandemic hit – it was too late for him to paddle back. With Laschet stranded, Scholz was chosen by the German electorate not as the bearer of change but as the protector of their much cherished stability.
That was, however, the past election, and if I may combine two political aphorisms, every election is unique and after the election is before the election. What happened in this election will not matter in four years. Merkel’s way of doing politics certainly worked for her – and this time for Scholz – but the challenges ahead are different and demand a different posture. Moreover, with the election in the past, politicians naturally start thinking about the next one, and doing so can, as was argued here, mean a paradigm change in German foreign policy. That is what guided this analysis: a belief in the strategic opportunity for all three future coalition partners to profile themselves via international affairs and thereby perform even better in the 2025 election. Whether they will seize these opportunities or not and whether they will have the time to do so without being confronted by other potential crises is impossible to foretell, but the incentives are there.