Quo Vadis, Germany? What to Expect from Germany’s New Government on the International Stage

Germany's Reichstag parliament building and the German flag
Maheshkumar Painam/Unsplash

Last week, after 16 years in office, Angela Merkel, dubbed the world’s most powerful woman, handed over the German chancellorship to her successor, former vice chancellor and finance minister Olaf Scholz. Scholz leads a novel progressive coalition between his own Social Democratic Party (SPD), the climate-focused Green party, and the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), which presented their policy priorities in a 177-page coalition treaty two weeks ago. Many German allies are hoping for a more assertive foreign and defense policy from Berlin. But can the new government deliver?

Old Wine in Greener Bottles

The new coalition’s plans for the international arena were much anticipated by the foreign policy bubble, as little had been said about them during the campaigns. With Germany’s weight in the E.U. and globally (mainly due to Angela Merkel’s legacy), expectations weighed heavily on Germany conceptualizing a more assertive foreign policy agenda. 

The coalition agreement’s foreign policy language, however, points to more continuity. It reads mostly like a diplomatic manifesto. Most passages do not come as a surprise: The new government articulates a strong commitment to the transatlantic relationship as well as to the E.U. This includes specific mention of fellow member states France and Poland. Additionally, multilateralism continues to stand at the forefront of Germany’s international endeavors.

Is the agreement thus void of any surprises? Not entirely. There are a few glimpses of strategic turns respectively new avenues.

What is truly new is the focus on climate or green foreign policy. Certainly motivated by the Greens running the Foreign Ministry, Germany will attempt to factor in how climate change is related to foreign political topics, including security and migration. This is also a direct consequence of the ongoing increase in climate awareness as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Additionally, the new government joins the ranks of Canada, Sweden, France, and a number of countries following feminist foreign policy. The incoming administration will have to deliver concrete policy initiatives that include marginalized perspectives and question traditional approaches to power and security. However, the agreement reads “feminist foreign policy” – in English. This leaves the door open to seek refuge in the term being an academic concept rather than a specific foreign policy maxim. It raises doubts about the actual implementation of the concept.

Given the continuous and diplomatic language of the foreign policy section, it will therefore be interesting to see whether Germany is comfortable to remain a leader in Europe, and whether the country will translate this European leadership into more responsibility on the global stage, also in military terms. 

Reconciling Progressive Agendas With Traditional Tools of Defense

On defense policy, Germany’s allies feared the new left-leaning government could become even more restrained than its predecessor. The Greens have their roots in the peace movement and key parts of the party remain pacifist. During Merkel’s latest term, the SPD raised many eyebrows in the defense community when they paralyzed important military procurement decisions, including the successor system to Germany’s tornado aircraft, a crucial component of NATO nuclear sharing. 

The coalition treaty, however, contains several strong commitments to NATO and the United States. While there is no clearly-worded commitment to maintaining U.S. nuclear sharing, the compromise that Germany will join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons as an observer – and not as a member – highlights the new coalition’s commitment to NATO as a nuclear alliance, at least for the near future. 

The concept of strategic autonomy is notably missing. While French president Emmanuel Macron has been pushing the concept as a way to boost European defense capabilities, past German governments have worried that it could result in weakening transatlantic security ties and the new government appears to share that concern. While the treaty mentions “strategic sovereignty”, the concept is related to energy, health, resource importance and technology – and not defense.

The new government elegantly circumvents the 2% defense spending goal, instead committing to spending a combined 3% GDP on the three Ds: defense, development and diplomacy. Defense enthusiasts hope that this allows for increased defense spending through the back door but the lack of further specification could just as well end up in a larger contribution to the other two Ds. The new government’s aim to treat the different aspects of foreign and security policy in an integrated way will also be demonstrated in Germany’s first comprehensive national security strategy, to be published in the coming year.

Paper Is Patient

After 16 years of continuity, Germany’s new progressive government offers the chance to bring fresh momentum into German foreign policy. While the coalition treaty laid the ground for a more forward-looking approach to foreign policy and dutifully covered all geographical regions and issues, it stayed vague on concrete policy commitments. 

A German saying preaches “paper is patient” – what’s written on paper doesn’t matter as long as it’s not followed up with actions. When it comes to implementing their program, the new government cannot count on a grace period, because the world won’t wait: Pressing issues like climate change, the Russian military buildup outside of Ukraine and the systemic competition with China have already started to shape their agenda.

Authors: Ronja Ganster and Carolin Wefer, Editors at Foreign Policy Rising.

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