A Small Window of Opportunity

Most poli­ti­ci­ans likely to form the post-Mer­kel government haven’t grasped the magnitu­de of the tasks ahead when it comes to rethin­king Germany’s for­eign poli­cy. – By Dr. Ste­fa­nie Babst

“Germany’s posi­ti­on as a lea­der of the Euro­pean Uni­on posi­ti­ons it as a key glo­bal influ­en­cer, espe­cial­ly in its rela­ti­ons­hips with the United Sta­tes, Rus­sia, and Chi­na. As the Chris­ti­an Demo­cra­tic Uni­on (CDU) enters its post-Mer­kel era, it seems likely that for­eign poli­cy will play a big­ger role, with Ger­ma­ny aiming to take more lea­ders­hip and respon­si­bi­li­ty.” Or so says London’s Chat­ham House, which is far from being the only inter­na­tio­nal voice expec­ting Ger­ma­ny to step up to the pla­te. In recent years, the cho­rus of trans­at­lan­tic poli­cy­ma­kers and secu­ri­ty pun­dits cal­ling upon Ber­lin to demons­tra­te more lea­ders­hip in for­eign and defen­se affairs has grown into a steady back­ground noi­se. Mem­bers of the new US admi­nis­tra­ti­on are poi­sed to beco­me a force­ful part of this group; they will likely be disappointed.

For one, 2021 is an elec­tion year in Ger­ma­ny. In addi­ti­on to natio­nal elec­tions on Sep­tem­ber 26, six federal sta­tes will see citi­zens to go to the polls, which means the coun­try will be in non-stop elec­tion mode. Natio­nal secu­ri­ty and glo­bal chal­len­ges will not be at the cen­ter of poli­ti­cal deba­tes. On the con­tra­ry, the majo­ri­ty of Ger­man poli­ti­ci­ans on the cam­pai­gn trail can be expec­ted to avoid tri­cky ques­ti­ons of stra­te­gic rele­van­ce. The eco­no­mic and social fall­out of the COVID-19 pan­de­mic, migra­ti­on, and other domestic the­mes will be of keen inte­rest to voters—not whe­ther Ger­ma­ny intends to frame a new rela­ti­ons­hip with Rus­sia or get Chi­na on board for inter­na­tio­nal dis­ar­ma­ment efforts. What’s more, the­re is only a hand­ful of Ber­lin poli­cy­ma­kers com­pe­tent and inte­res­ted in geo­po­li­ti­cal issues.

What Would “Black-Green” Look Like?

Cur­rent polls indi­ca­te that a government of the cen­ter-right Chris­ti­an Demo­crats, the CDU/CSU, and the Greens, also known as a “black-green” coali­ti­on, is the likeliest out­co­me come the Sep­tem­ber elec­tion. The two par­ties’ posi­ti­ons on natio­nal secu­ri­ty, respec­tively, or the lack the­re­of, do not lea­ve much room for optimism. 

Inde­ed, the Chris­ti­an Demo­crats have always been staunch sup­por­ters of both clo­se trans­at­lan­tic rela­ti­ons and a more capa­ble EU; con­cre­te ide­as how to upgrade Germany’s role in NATO and the EU are still lacking, though. Fried­rich Merz, one of the con­t­en­ders for the CDU lea­ders­hip (the vote is due on Janu­a­ry 16), regu­lar­ly advo­ca­tes a more acti­ve Euro­pean for­eign and secu­ri­ty poli­cy but he does not spe­ci­fy whe­re and how. The same app­lies to Armin Laschet, Prime Minis­ter of North Rhi­ne-West­pha­lia, who descri­bes hims­elf as »a com­mit­ted Euro­pean and trans­at­lan­ti­cist,” but that is basi­cal­ly whe­re his for­eign poli­cy out­look seems to end. In the trans­at­lan­tic secu­ri­ty com­mu­ni­ty, both are dark hor­ses com­pa­red to Nor­bert Rött­gen, the third can­di­da­te run­ning for CDU lea­ders­hip, who as  chair­man of Ger­man parliament’s for­eign affairs com­mit­tee enjoys a repu­ta­ti­on as a high­ly com­pe­tent for­eign poli­cy specialist.

The Greens, mean­while, have gra­du­al­ly moved toward a more prag­ma­tic for­eign poli­cy approach in recent years, lea­ving behind some of their tra­di­tio­nal paci­fist world­views. While their two co-lea­ders, Anna­le­na Baer­bock and Robert Habeck, like to pre­sent them­sel­ves as modern poli­ti­ci­ans with a glo­bal out­look, the party’s new plat­form offers few con­vin­cing pro­po­sals on how Ger­ma­ny would cope with the mul­ti­tu­de of glo­bal chal­len­ges: only two short para­graphs out of 435 in the 81-page docu­ment are dedi­ca­ted to trans­at­lan­tic rela­ti­ons (para­graph 378) and NATO (para­graph 399) which, in its­elf, is a message. 

Future trans­at­lan­tic rela­ti­ons should “be rede­fi­ned and beco­me Euro­pea­ni­zed,” the Greens say. While NATO, in their view, lacks a clear stra­te­gic per­spec­ti­ve, it remains along with the EU “an indis­pensable actor.” Apart from the­se rather skim­py state­ments, the Greens demand the with­dra­wal of nuclear wea­pons from Ger­ma­ny, pro­po­se to dis­cuss glo­bal human issu­es with Rus­sia and Chi­na, advo­ca­te that UN-led mili­ta­ry ope­ra­ti­ons should have prio­ri­ty over NATO- and EU-led mis­si­ons and ques­ti­on NATO’s 2 per­cent defen­se spen­ding tar­get sin­ce it would lead to an arms race.

Ancho­ring Germany’s for­eign and defen­se poli­cy firm­ly in both the EU and NATO has been a poli­cy objec­ti­ve of any Ger­man government. The next one will be no dif­fe­rent, of cour­se, even though the “black-green” poli­cy over­lap is cur­r­ent­ly sket­chy. But how con­crete­ly will Ber­lin seek to deve­lop a “new trans­at­lan­tic deal” with the new US admi­nis­tra­ti­on, that For­eign Minis­ter Hei­ko Maas (SPD) has pro­pa­ga­ted? (Maas’ cen­ter-left Social Demo­crats par­ty, or SPD, has moved mar­ked­ly to the left in recent mon­ths on for­eign and defen­se affairs). In which are­as does Ber­lin seek to share the trans­at­lan­tic bur­den, both diplo­ma­ti­cal­ly and mili­ta­ri­ly? Ger­man poli­ti­ci­ans have often voi­ced their gene­ral pre­pa­red­ness to “do more,” but what exact­ly is “more”?

Still Napping

Take Chi­na poli­cy, for examp­le. Beijing’s decisi­on to embark on the trans­for­ma­ti­on of the coun­try into a glo­bal eco­no­mic, tech­no­lo­gi­cal, and mili­ta­ry power did not tran­spi­re over­night. The same is true for Washington’s stra­te­gic focus on the Asia-Paci­fic regi­on. The Biden administration’s inten­ti­on to put con­tain­ment of an incre­a­singly asser­ti­ve Chi­na at the top of its natio­nal secu­ri­ty agen­da can­not sur­pri­se anyo­ne. Yet a sub­stan­ti­al poli­cy dis­cus­sion about how to respond to China’s rise through a coor­di­na­ted trans­at­lan­tic approach has only begun in Ber­lin very recent­ly. At this point in time, only the par­lia­men­ta­ry group of Germany’s libe­ral Free Demo­crats (FDP) has rai­sed the Chi­na issue by put­ting a seri­es of for­mal par­lia­men­ta­ry que­ries to Chan­cellor Ange­la Merkel’s government. A clear and com­pre­hen­si­ve Ger­man stra­te­gy toward Chi­na is a long way off.

The need to reinvi­go­ra­te NATO that suf­fe­red qui­te signi­fi­cant­ly from four years of dest­ruc­ti­ve Trumpism and natio­nal popu­lism in Euro­pe has also been appa­rent for some time. But when French Pre­si­dent Emma­nu­el Macron cal­led NATO “brain dead,” reac­tions in Ger­ma­ny were cau­tious at best. Ber­lin respon­ded with the tried and tes­ted method of estab­li­shing a working group, the NATO Reflec­tion Group, who­se 10 mem­bers worked hard for many mon­ths to pro­du­ce a sub­stan­ti­al report. 

Upon its pre­sen­ta­ti­on in ear­ly Decem­ber 2020, Maas and his French coun­ter­part, Jean-Yves Le Dri­an, issued a short joint state­ment, prai­sing the effort politely—and that was the end of that. So far, the Expert Group’s “NATO 2030: United for a New Era” report has not spur­red any sub­stan­ti­al­ly reac­tions from the Ger­man poli­ti­cal class. This is all the more deplor­able sin­ce the 67-page report not only ent­ails a sober descrip­ti­on of the har­sh geo­po­li­ti­cal envi­ron­ment that the Wes­tern alli­an­ce faces, but also offers a lar­ge num­ber of con­cre­te and ope­ra­tio­nal poli­cy proposals. 

No Fertile Ground

Loo­king ahead, any post-Mer­kel coali­ti­on government will likely remain focu­sed on a dif­fi­cult domestic play­ground whe­re the deve­lo­p­ment of bold, stra­te­gic poli­cy initia­ti­ves will find litt­le fer­ti­le ground. The pre­vai­ling dis­con­nec­tion bet­ween for­eign poli­cy rhe­to­ric and con­cre­te, sus­tainab­le poli­cy initia­ti­ves is only likely to chan­ge once Ber­lin poli­cy­ma­kers stop “play­ing it safe” (“den Ball flach hal­ten”) and under­stand that the inco­m­ing US pre­si­dent and his team will ask Ber­lin for con­cre­te poli­cy input, fur­ther defen­se con­tri­bu­ti­ons, and ulti­mate­ly more leadership. 

Seen from Washing­ton, Ger­ma­ny and Euro­pe will defi­ni­te­ly not be the cen­ter of stra­te­gic gra­vi­ty. Nota­b­ly, the new US admi­nis­tra­ti­on will look toward Ger­ma­ny to gar­ner sup­port among the Euro­peans for kee­ping their own con­ti­nent and its neigh­bor­hood safe; invest more in modern defen­se capa­bi­li­ties; exert more sta­bi­li­zing influ­ence in regi­ons like the Midd­le East, North Afri­ca, and the Wes­tern Bal­kans whe­re the US will seek to redu­ce its diplo­ma­tic and mili­ta­ry enga­ge­ment in the future; join the US in facing Rus­sia through a poli­cy of rene­wed mili­ta­ry deter­rence; and build an effec­ti­ve trans­at­lan­tic approach toward China. 

This is a pret­ty long to-do list for Ber­lin and its Euro­pean part­ners. Befo­re Germany’s elec­tion cam­pai­gn heats up, the­re is now a small win­dow of oppor­tu­ni­ty for the Ger­man poli­ti­cal class to start pre­pa­ring. Let’s hope it does.

Ein Beitrag von:

Dr. Stefanie Babst

Senior Associate Fellow, European Leadership Network, London; Principal, Brooch Associates, London; Präsidiumsmitglied, Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, Berlin

Studierte in Kiel von 1983-89 an der Christian-Albrechts Universität und nachfolgend der Pennsylvania State University/USA Politische Wissenschaft, Slawistik und Internationales Recht. 1993 promovierte sie mit Hilfe eines Stipendiums der Harvard University, der Friedrich Naumann Stiftung und der Fulbright Kommission an der Christian-Albrechts-Universität in Kiel. Als erste weibliche Dozentin an der Führungsakademie der Bundeswehr in Hamburg, übernahm sie den Lehrstuhl für Russland- und Osteuropastudien. Nach verschiedenen Gastdozenturen in den USA, der Russischen Föderation, der Ukraine und Tschechischen Republik wechselte Stefanie Babst 1998 in den Internationalen Stab der NATO, wo sie zunächst als German Information Officer und Referatsleiterin arbeitet, bevor sie im Mai 2006 von NATO-Generalsekretär Jaap de Hoop Scheffer zur Stellvertretenden Beigeordneten Generalsekretärin für Public Diplomacy der NATO ernannt wurde. Damit wurde sie zur höchstrangigsten deutschen Frau im Internationalen Stab der NATO und prägte die Öffentlichkeits- und Medienpolitik der Allianz sehr nachhaltig. Unter NATO-Generalsekretär Anders Fogh Rasmussen baute Stefanie Babst, einen Krisenvorausschau- und strategischen Planungsstab für die NATO auf, den sie bis Januar 2020 auch leitete. Seit März 2020 arbeitet sie als strategische Beraterin und Publizistin und unterstützt mehrere multilaterale Projekte. Darüber hinaus ist sie Mitgründerin von Brooch Associates, einer von fünf renomierten Powerfrauen geleiteten strategischen Beratungsfirma mit Sitz in London.

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