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As Germany lurches left, its foreign policy may go right

The current race to replace Angela Merkel will likely result in an entirely new government, and a chance for more autonomy in defense.

Analysis | Europe

Germany is three weeks away from its first election since 2005 without Angela Merkel as the Christian Democratic Kanzlerkandidat, or chancellor candidate. She led four coalitions, famously providing a pair of “safe hands” for Germany and Europe amid economic turmoil, international conflict, and European discord.

None of the candidates seeking to succeed her fare well in comparison, though the Social Democratic Party’s Olaf Scholz most modeled his candidacy after her. In fact, Merkel pulled the Christian Democratic Union and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union leftward, stealing the SPD’s issues. Wags called her the Social Democrats’ most successful chancellor. Three times she headed so-called “grand coalitions” with the SPD, which some Germans saw as a convenient stitch-up by established politicians. Both traditional governing parties consequently hemorrhaged votes.

The once marginal Greens grew, this election offering a Kanzlerkandidat for the first time. The party mixes leftish activists and centrist environmentalists and features sharp ideological divisions between leaders and members. Support for the liberal — in a European sense —pro-business Free Democratic Party oscillated wildly.

The xenophobic Alternative for Germany forced its way into the Bundestag and numerous state parliaments, but the other parties refused to include the AfD in any coalition. Finally, Die Linke, or The Left, an amalgam of former East German communists and SPD hardliners, participated in state-level coalitions, but so far the SPD and Greens have rejected working with it at the national level, too.

With seven parties expected to win the five percent necessary to end up in the Bundestag, for the first time a three-party coalition will almost certainly be necessary to form a government. Trending slightly right would be CDU/CSU, Greens, and FDP or CDU/CSU, SPD, and FDP. Heading moderately left would be SPD, Greens, and FDP. Pushing strongly left would be SPD, Greens, and Die Linke. The final vote total will determine which amalgam emerges, as well as the claim to the chancellorship, distribution of cabinet posts, and final policy program.

Despite the manifold possibilities, until the end of August there seemed to be one certainty. The CDU/CSU would receive the most votes and, as the largest party, be almost guaranteed the lead position and chancellorship in any coalition. For a time a two-party arrangement with the FDP seemed a slight possibility. Most likely was a coalition with the Greens and FDP, with the SPD a potential substitute for one of the other two. No longer, however.

There are no chancellor primaries in Germany. The Greens chose Annalena Baerbock; they jumped to a short-lived lead and settled back in second place. Although a moderate in a left-leaning party, Scholz was easily selected Kanzlerkandidat. However, in a heated contest between the CDU’s Armin Laschet and CSU’s Markus Soeder to lead the joint ticket, Laschet won because his party is the larger. However, even many CDU members preferred the more dynamic Soeder.

And they seemed prescient. Laschet’s lackluster, gaffe-prone campaign steadily drove down his party’s poll standing. In contrast, Scholz’s significant lead in chancellor preference—as in other parliamentary systems, voters choose the party, not the chancellor directly—helped spark a steady rise for the SPD, which narrowly overtook the CDU/CSU at August’s end. Scholz also handily won the first debate, offering Merkel-like reassurance to German voters. Although the political winds could shift again, a SPD/Green/FDP or even SPD/Green/Die Linke coalition, the most radical option, look not just possible but most likely.

The eventual German government’s international policies have as many permutations as potential coalitions. Although in a coalition, since 2005 the CDU/CSU has had the greatest influence over policy. Merkel imprinted her views on her party and thus government. She is pro-EU, but skeptical of budget prodigality. Restrained in her willingness to commit troops, she backed increases in military outlays. She supported commercial ties with both China and Russia, downplaying human rights and security concerns, though some of her colleagues were more critical. She supported completion of Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline from Russia.

In broad sweep the SPD is internationalist and pro-EU, with less emphasis on fiscal probity. However, it is neo-pacifist, opposed to the major military spending increases necessary to reach the two percent of GDP NATO standard. The SPD holds the foreign ministry in the current government and took generally accommodationist positions toward Russia and China. However, as with the CDU/CSU, criticism of Beijing has risen within the party.

The Green membership historically trended more pacifist — Fundis, as they are known — but the leadership trends “Realo” and supports a more assertive foreign policy. The latter members advocate a stronger emphasis on human rights, even at the expense of business: the party opposed Nord Stream 2, for instance. They also are internationalists and EU advocates.

The Greens believe that Germany should have additional military capabilities, though the membership dislikes the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in Europe. Baerbock allowed: “I think that it’s not only appropriate but also needed that Europeans, and therefore Germans, have to take more responsibility for our own security.” The Greens promised to “securely” fund the Bundeswehr, but, importantly, they did not specify an amount.

The FDP’s attitude toward Europe is similar to that of the CDU/CSU. The Free Democrats also advocate increased military outlays but have showed some reluctance in using military force, as in Libya. They advocate prioritizing human rights, but still seek better relations with China and Russia. Although supporting the European investment treaty with Beijing, the FDP dropped its formal commitment to “one China,” suggesting support for Taiwan’s claim of nationhood. The party advocated a moratorium on Nord Stream 2.

The AFD likes Russia, wants to participate in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, dislikes Europe, advocates increased military outlays, but desires a more nationalist foreign policy, with no out-of-area NATO deployments. Die Linke wants Germany to leave NATO, drop weapons exports, and end foreign military deployments. The party also is friendly with China and Russia (against which the party would drop sanctions).

The German people seem less inclined than their leaders to back the United States A poll by the ECFR earlier this year found that only 19 percent of Germans considered the U.S. to be an ally and 39 percent to be a “necessary partner.” The rest said rival, enemy, or don’t know, hardly a reassuring result. Adam Taylor of theWashington Post reported: “A poll conducted for the Welt newspaper by polling firm Infratest Dimap in December found that only 17 percent of Germans supported siding with the United States in a potential U.S.-China conflict, with three-quarters preferring to remain neutral.”

Almost as stunning is the increasing reluctance of the German people to defend their neighbors. According to a Pew Research Center survey last year, only a third of Germans — whose parents enjoyed NATO’s protection throughout the Cold War — backed fighting for other Europeans. Support for the alliance dropped from 73 percent in 2009 to 57 percent in 2019, the second largest reduction among those surveyed. These numbers probably won’t be helped by Afghanistan’s denouement, seen as a debacle in Germany; the CDU/CSU, SPD, and Greens all had their hands on policy.

Increasingly it looks like Germany’s upcoming election will bring not just a change in chancellor but a significant change in government. With that would come an unpredictable shift in Berlin’s foreign policy.

President Joe Biden, the ultimate Atlanticist, should take advantage of the opportunity to rebalance defense responsibilities for Europe. America’s military presence originally was supposed to be temporary. Yet decades later the continent remain dependent on the U.S.

Rather than pressure Berlin to do more, Washington should do less, allowing the German government to adjust its policy accordingly. After the German people decide whether they believe they face serious security threats and, if so, how they should respond.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2020(photocosmos1/Shutterstock)
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