Germany is still struggling to find its role in the world. But what does the world want from Germany? From Washington to Warsaw, Beijing to Brussels, many are wondering where Berlin’s foreign policy is headed.
On Nov. 7, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer gave a keynote speech in Munich. After nearly four months in office, she wanted to present her ideas for German foreign and security policy.
The leader of Germany’s conservative party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) didn’t select Munich arbitrarily. This was the city where, five years ago, another keynote address caused a stir well beyond Germany. In that speech, President Joachim Gauck outlined a more active German foreign policy and called for the country to intervene “earlier, more decisively and more substantially.” He said, “Germany must also be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades.”
Now, Kramp-Karrenbauer is again discussing a more active role in the world for her country. She argues that Berlin often waits too long for other countries to solve problems that also affect Germany.
When it comes to foreign policy, the German government has shown itself to be paralyzed. Germany has largely stayed out of the conflicts in the Middle East, even though its interests are directly affected by what happens in the region. Long before Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani was killed in a U.S. drone strike last week, possibly scuttling any hope of keeping the nuclear agreement with Iran alive, Berlin did far too little to save the deal despite the threat posed by the growing nuclearization of Europe’s backyard. Nor does Germany have a long-term strategy vis-à-vis Russia or Turkey.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel reacted to French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for Europe with silence. Although the United States’ commitment to European security is becoming increasingly fragile, Merkel has yet to draw any foreign policy conclusions.
The World Needs a Less Apathetic Germany
This is despite there being obvious reasons for Germany to act. There are the epochal changes represented by globalization and digitalization, the resurgence of nationalism and protectionism as well as the crisis facing democracy, the European Union and the West. Not to mention the climate. But so far, at least, Berlin has reacted to the hellish pace of change with German apathy.
As the Merkel era draws to a close, German politicians are busy navel-gazing. How do other countries perceive this stasis? As major powers, how do the United States, China and Russia view Germany? What about its important EU partners, France and Poland?
Many are at a loss as to why Berlin wants so little. But some also wonder about the sweeping assertions made by the Germans, who have little to back them up. Take for instance the “Alliance of Multilateralists” that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called for a year and a half ago. It was supposed to strengthen cooperation with countries like Japan, Australia and Canada, but it achieved little and duped countries like China who weren’t invited to take part.
Another example is the “new Ostpolitik” proclaimed by the German Foreign Ministry in 2018, a reference to the Cold War policy of detente with Eastern Europe. Since then, there have been no policy changes toward Russia. And no developments about Kramp-Karrenbauer’s ambitious proposals for a European aircraft carrier. Or a mission to the Western Pacific.
The U.S. is most at a loss when it comes to Germany. But that’s because the Americans are just as preoccupied with themselves as the Germans are.
The U.S.: Without Us
When politicians in Washington think of Germany, they are often annoyed that such a rich country isn’t willing to spend 2 percent of its economic output on defense. U.S. President Donald Trump isn’t the only one upset by this stinginess. Many Democrats in Congress also think Germany is shirking its responsibilities at the expense of the U.S. — all the while having the gall to support the autocratic Kremlin with natural gas deals. When Congress passed sanctions against companies involved in the construction of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in mid-December, there was bipartisan consensus between Republicans and Democrats. It was an unusual show of unity even as impeachment proceedings are taking place against Trump.
“In Berlin, many people are still unaware of how fundamentally the coordinates of American foreign policy are shifting,” says Constanze Stelzenmüller, who works at the Brookings Institution think tank in Washington. “The Europeans need to get used to the idea that they’re responsible for their neighborhood.” She argues that this includes the Middle East.
Many Americans have grown weary of constant war. Trump and the two far-left presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders do agree on one thing: They all want to lead the U.S. into a new era of isolationism.
This would have enormous consequences for Germany. Should the Islamic State regain strength, or if Iraq descended into civil war, the Europeans would be forced to cope with the consequences without the U.S. at their side. Trump and many Democrats want to leave Germany and the Europeans to their own fate in the coming years.
China: From Role Model to Rival
For Chinese politicians and diplomats, Germany is the answer to Henry Kissinger’s famous question: “Who do I call if I want to speak to Europe?”
Beijing considers Berlin, not Brussels, the key to Europe, the third power against which China measures itself alongside the U.S. and Russia. Until now, China’s leadership has primarily viewed Germany as an economic superpower. As export-oriented economies, Beijing and Berlin share fundamental interests: stability in crisis regions, the security of trade routes and growing globalization.
However, economic developments, in particular, show just how much the balance between Beijing and Berlin has shifted recently. In 2007, China displaced Germany as the world’s third-largest economy. Meanwhile, China’s gross domestic product (GDP) is now three times as big as Germany’s. China’s absolute growth and Germany’s relative loss of global significance make German-Chinese relations “complicated,” says Cui Hongjian, China’s leading expert on Europe. Cui works for two think tanks aligned with the government in Beijing.
Just as Germany has been reconsidering its attitude toward China for a few years now, China also seems to be revising its image of Germany. “So far, Germany and China have viewed each other as partners and complemented one another,” Cui says, “but this complementarity is increasingly turning into competition.”
And that’s not only true economically, but also politically and geo-strategically. The Chinese have taken careful note of the EU declaring them a “systemic rival.” They were also surprised by Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal to extend Germany’s security-policy influence into the Western Pacific. “This proposal surprised me,” says Cui. “Germany apparently wants to prove that it can play a greater role not only in economic but also in political matters.”
However, Beijing still isn’t sure exactly what Berlin is after. What are the goals of the “Alliance of Multilateralists” that Foreign Minister Maas wants to forge? And why does he want to include Japan, Australia and even India, but not China? “When our foreign minister, Wang Yi, mentioned this to Maas, he was rebuffed. Maas said China was too big to be a part of the alliance,” Cui says. This is a “very, very simple understanding of multilateralism” — and not a very thought-out strategy for a new world order. Such a moralizing and, at times, even threatening, undertone is new to China’s relationship with Germany. Chinese officials, for their part, are fond of letting it be known just how dependent the German economy, especially the key automotive sector, is on China. Such rebukes were also recently made public in the debate about the IT giant Huawei and its possible involvement in the expansion of Germany’s 5G network.
Cui warns that it will be difficult for China to continue to cooperate with Germany economically while there is such political disagreement. “It’s not wise for Germany to impose conditions on Beijing for international cooperation,” he says.
Poland: Aversion No More
Polish President Andrzej Duda is downright enthusiastic. The relationship between Poles and Germans is a “model of reconciliation,” Duda said in an interview. Meanwhile, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki called Angela Merkel’s speech in Auschwitz in early December “important” and “symbolic.”
These are uncharacteristically friendly tones coming from the national conservative government in Warsaw, which has otherwise been known for its aversion to Germany. Indeed, something has changed: In the run-up to parliamentary elections last fall, the governing Law and Justice Party (PiS) hardly played the anti-Germany card at all. In July, PiS members of the European Parliament even voted to make the German Ursula von der Leyen president of the European Commission, the EU’s executive.
In recent years, Poland has risen from being a poor, post-communist country to a prosperous economic power. Germany is by far the country’s most important trading partner, and with this economic interdependence, the image of its neighbor has also changed. According to surveys, only around 30 percent of Poles have a negative view of Germans.
“Germany is still feared as a hegemon in the EU,” says Waldemar Czachur, an expert on German-Polish relations at the University of Warsaw. For the national conservatives, the Germans used to be a nation of revisionists who sought dominance in the EU in order to subjugate Eastern Europe. Today, they fear German liberalism. Germany is regarded as the hegemon of an EU that has forgotten its identity — one that shows contempt for family, faith and nation, yet propagates gay marriage, feminism and climate protection while also wanting to accept masses of migrants.
But the impending Brexit, and the U.S.’ pivot away from Europe, have weakened Poland’s anti-German sentiment. Warsaw has now understood that it can no longer rely on Trump’s America as it once did.
Poland is now being pushed back toward Europe. This gives the EU — and Germany — new meaning.
Russia: German Melancholy
There is a superstition in Russia: If you mention a person’s name, they get the hiccups. “I think to myself, Steinmeier must now have the hiccups a thousand times a week because his name keeps coming up,” says Elena Chernenko, the deputy head of the foreign desk at the daily newspaper Kommersant in Moscow. At the moment, Russian media often mentions the “Steinmeier formula” from 2015, a proposal by Germany’s then-foreign minister for the implementation of the Minsk Agreement, which aimed to pacify the civil war in Ukraine.
But Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s presence stands in strange contrast to the silence that otherwise surrounds German foreign policy. “I don’t see any policies at all — and certainly no ‘new Ostpolitik,'” Chernenko says, referring to the relationship between the former West Germany and Eastern Europe.
To this day, it remains a mystery in Russia what German Foreign Minister Maas meant by his announcement. “Neither a new nor European nor Ostpolitik,” mocked one European diplomat in Moscow. “It seems like they don’t exist,” says foreign policy expert Fyodor Lukyanov. “There’s only the desire to remember that such a thing should exist.”
In Russia, people are baffled by how much Berlin is holding back even when its interests are directly affected, such as with the end of the INF treaty or the Iran deal. “Germany is taking this all in a downright melancholy way,” Chernenko says.
At the same time, many in Moscow have noted with satisfaction that Germany is holding firm on the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, which has by now acquired a symbolic value that far exceeds its economic significance. In Moscow, “Nord Stream was considered a litmus test for the German position,” says Lukyanov. If Germany had distanced itself from the project under pressure from its allies, the foreign policy expert continues, “we would not have known how to continue to deal with a Europe that cannot defend its own interests.”
In the long run, Germany is of paramount importance to Russia’s relationship with Europe. In the short term, however, Moscow is currently reorientating itself toward France, says Lukyanov. “Paris is showing initiative — Macron wants something and he also has suggestions. And that’s something Putin likes responding to. You can feel it.”
France: Hoping for the Greens
When the French look to Germany, they see many certainties fading. They have to get used to the fact that the Germans, who had been so predictable in the past, have suddenly become unpredictable.
At the helm of the CDU is Kramp-Karrenbauer, handpicked by Merkel as her successor of choice, but whom few would dare to wager a bet as to whether she has a real chance of ever becoming chancellor. Meanwhile, Merkel’s junior coalition partner, the SPD, is now led by two politicians who are virtual unknowns to the French.
For Paris, it isn’t always easy understanding what’s happening in Berlin. And this merely increases the lack of certainty the French have toward their German partner.
From the very beginning, joint appearances with Germany on the European stage have been a key priority for Emmanuel Macron. The French president wants to reform the EU, advance integration with Germany, expand common defense and improve relations with Russia. He views the European Union as a geostrategic project.
But Germany’s weakness and indecisiveness have also made it harder for Macron to shine — and that has been one of his great disappointments. “The French have long hoped that the Germans would share a sense of urgency with them on many geopolitical issues,” says Claire Demesmay, a France expert with the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), “but that hasn’t been the case.”
That’s one of the reasons for the interesting encounters that could be seen unfolding in the French capital last autumn. German Green Party head Robert Habeck visited Paris in early October, and the curiosity and openness with which he was met by French leaders says a lot about the French longing for political change in Berlin.
Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire spent over an hour meeting with Habeck. Even conservatives in the French government share many of the Green Party leader’s positions. From Paris’ point of view, the successful Greens are one of the few tangible recent developments in German politics.
“The French are impatient, and by that I don’t just mean the government,” says Jean Pisani-Ferry, an economist and former adviser to Macron. “They’re waiting for a German response to the changing international order; also to the increasingly likely prospect of Trump’s re-election; to the challenges a European climate policy poses to us.” But this Germany, he says, has seemed strangely indecisive — as if it first had to redefine itself.
The world is waiting for Germany. The country’s partners and other actors on the geopolitical stage alike are waiting for the long twilight of the Merkel era to end and for Germany to find itself again.
During the second half of 2020, Germany is set to take over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU Council. Then the bloc will work to integrate post-Brexit Britain into European foreign and security policy and into the single market.
Germany will also need to coordinate closely with France in the trade dispute with Washington so that Trump has no chance of playing Berlin and Paris off against each other and driving a wedge through the EU.
In terms of its relations with the U.S., German can no longer harbor the illusion that things will somehow go back to the way they used to be with the old trans-Atlantic partnership. That’s another reason Berlin needs to take Macron’s dramatic wake-up call on the state of NATO seriously.
But in Berlin, there’s still a large gap between lethargy and the will to have a say on the international stage. Some of the grandiose and half-baked plans underscore the fact that Germany is still in its foreign policy adolescence. The Germans have been very slow in getting used to the idea that their country needs to think more about its role in the international community.
Surveys show that the German people still have difficulty with the idea that this might also entail military operations. But Germany now has a defense minister who doesn’t shy away from that discussion, unpopular though it may be. The fact that she sometimes pushes the envelop is refreshing in an otherwise fainthearted debate. Her recent proposal for an international military mission in northern Syria that would include participation by the German armed forces, the Bundeswehr, came late, but it at least pointed in the right direction.
In the New Year, a triumvirate of women, Merkel, Kramp-Karrenbauer and von der Leyen, has the potential to create some real movement in Europe. In Brussels, a German is now president of the European Commission. She has excellent relations with the French president and close ties to Merkel. The chancellor, in turn, could act more freely and courageously as she nears the end of her term as chancellor, free from the constraints of party politics.
With a little more optimism, it’s even possible to imagine movement on the German foreign policy front.