Germany’s Foreign Policy Is to Remain the Same

November 23, 2021

Experts fear that Germany will continue to play a reactive rather than an active role in the international arena.
OCTOBER 21: German Prime Minister Angela Merkel attends EU Leaders' Summit in Brussels, Belgium on October 21, 2021. Photo by Dursun Aydemir. Anadolu Agency.

German foreign policy during the Merkel era was characterized by pragmatism and balance. Merkel’s focus in foreign policy was clearly on the stability of the EU and maintaining relations with important third countries. The future German government, probably consisting of a traffic light coalition, may experience several conflicts in foreign policy decision-making. Accordingly, these conflicts may lead to Germany increasingly losing influence in international politics.

Merkel’s foreign policy

When Merkel took over the chancellorship in 2005, the first item on the agenda was to repair the damaged transatlantic relationship with the U.S. The Schröder-Fischer government had opposed the Iraq war in 2003, which caused the U.S. to put its relations with Germany on hold. Merkel’s election led to Germany acting again in a pro-transatlantic manner and adopting a more distanced stance towards Russia. However, the EU no longer acted as independently as it had during Schröder’s time, but had increasingly come under the influence of the United States.

The ongoing euro crisis since 2009, the Ukraine crisis in 2014, the ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015, and Brexit in 2016 were to endanger Europe’s stability and put Germany to the test. The fact that Trump was elected in 2016 was to make the situation much more difficult for Germany and Europe. Merkel was left on her own to find new approaches for her foreign policy strategy. She had increasingly distanced herself from her initial strategy of looking to Western partners for foreign policy, and instead shifted to a foreign policy strategy characterized by pragmatism and balance, with German state interests at the forefront.

However, the pragmatic approach was also necessary for Germany to remain relevant in international politics. The EU was threatening to break apart more and more, especially due to the influx of refugees. By opening EU borders, Merkel accepted to endanger the stability of her own national borders. By virtue of its Eurosceptic stance, the far-right party AFD (Alternative for Germany) had already gained fundamental support from a certain section of the population anyway. The ‘refugee crisis’ and the approach of the ostensibly conservative CDU (Christian Democratic Union) further strengthened the right-wing extremists.

The fact that there has been so little focus on foreign policy so far could have to do with the fact that no real foreign policy strategy has yet been formulated by the future German government.

Experts have little hope

CDU chancellor candidate Armin Laschet has already criticized the fact that in the coalition negotiations there was little talk of foreign and security policy issues. This is very worrying, he said, as Germany plays an important role in international politics and should also assume this role in order not to lose its influence as an important player. The fact that there has been so little focus on foreign policy so far could have to do with the fact that no real foreign policy strategy has yet been formulated by the future German government. Most experts are critical of the absence of hardly any overlapping points in  foreign policy strategy.

Political scientist Johannes Varwick has commented that apart from general commitments to NATO and the EU, which he describes as “usual foreign policy platitudes,” no concrete points have been formulated. Expert Gustav C. Gressel of the European Council on Foreign Relations also denounces the little attention that has been paid to foreign policy issues and emphasizes that the points of overlap between the coalition parties are very few.

German President Frank Walter Steinmeier (L) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) watch the first constituting session of Bundestag after the elections in Berlin, Germany on October 26, 2021. Photo by Abdulhamid Hoşbaş. Anadolu Agency.

Furthermore, Gressel criticizes the fact that with an engaging position, it would not be possible to find answers to the problems arising in international politics. In the coalition negotiations, there is currently only talk about the status quo of the international system, but no effort is being paid to find solutions to its problems. Varwick lists the already well-known problem of “fundamental differences” on important foreign policy issues.

Claudia Major of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) believes that the future German federal government would focus on continuity and that the coalition would stick to the traditional line, namely the EU, the commitment to NATO, and the stability of Franco-German relations. In contrast to Varwick and Gessel, who criticize the coalition government for not introducing any new approaches, Major says that it is too early to judge and that more concrete plans will be worked out later.

The unclear foreign policy strategy of the traffic light coalition

The foreign policy of the traffic light coalition consisting of the SPD (Social Democratic Party), the Greens, and the FDP (Free Democratic Party) will, however, differ from Merkel’s foreign policy in many respects. Merkel’s “balance policy” will probably not be implemented as consistently. At the same time, it should also be emphasized that Olaf Scholz will certainly continue to pursue Merkel’s policies.

The fundamental difference with the Merkel era is that the German federal foreign office will most likely be run by the Greens. The Greens are known for their transatlantic foreign policy, so, on the one hand, the focus will be on the stability of relations with the U.S., and, on the other hand, a tougher stance on Russia and China are expected.

It should also be underlined that in German foreign policy the dominant role is usually played by the chancellor. Therefore, it can be expected that Olaf Scholz and the SPD will try and probably succeed to a large extent in realizing their foreign policy ideas. This, in turn, will inevitably lead to tensions within the coalition, as the Greens and the FDP will not always want to subordinate themselves to the SPD.

If the SPD has a different idea than its coalition partners on fundamental issues such as the Russia and China policy, which is also quite possible, and if it always gets its way on these important points, the other parties in government will clash with the SPD as a result of not being able to implement their promises and act according to their political stances.

That is why experts justifiably fear that Germany will continue to play a reactive rather than an active role in the international arena. A German foreign policy strategy based on consensus cannot exist at all if there are hardly any overlaps. The result will be that the German government will act far too cautiously in international politics and, as before, will find answers to emerging crises too late. In a nutshell, one should not put too much hope in the future federal government being an influential player in international politics.

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Yunus Mazı obtained his master’s degree in European and international affairs at the Turkish-German University. He is currently a researcher in the field of lobbyism, diaspora, and transnationalism.