The far right party in Germany, Alternative for Deustchland, or AfD, won a district council election in the eastern town of Sonneberg, Thuringia last month. Nationally, the AfD is now polling at 19 percent, just under Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s Social Democrats, polling at 20 percent.
The AfD has historically been an anti-EU, anti-immigration political party. The party usually does best in East Germany, where economic grievances and an inferiority complex have existed since the Cold War. But nationally, the party has almost doubled in popularity since September of 2021 when it garnered 10 percent in polls.
The sudden changes can be partially explained by the significant political and economic upheaval the country is experiencing as a result of the war in Ukraine and Germany’s response to it.
As I wrote in these pages earlier this year, the state of the German economy was bound to get worse as the war in Ukraine rages on and inflation soars. What’s more, economic instability has occurred concomitantly with asylum seekers trying to reach Europe from different parts of the world including South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
At the beginning of this year, there was a 78 percent rise in asylum applications in Germany. This figure does not include the more than one million Ukrainians who have entered Germany since the Russian invasion. The combination of these two factors is a perfect recipe to rile up populist sentiment, as many Germans blame the status quo for their perceived insecurity.
The AfD’s rise in popularity also suggests that a growing percentage of the population believes that sanctions on Russian energy are hurting Germany’s economic interests. Opinion polls conducted a year ago revealed that half of Germans perceived sanctions were hurting Germany more than Russia.
Support for AfD additionally stems from reluctance to send weapons to Ukraine, since the party is known for being generally critical of the government’s support for the country. Back in January of this year, one poll found that 84 percent of AfD supporters opposed sending German-made Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine.
Support for supplying the tanks was highest among supporters of Germany’s newly bellicose Green Party at 61 percent approving delivery. The war in Ukraine has led the Greens to shift away from their pacifist roots to becoming the most hawkish party in Scholz’s coalition government. Overall, however, the poll showed that only 46 percent of Germans were in favor of sending them, demonstrating a divided public on the matter of sending heavy weapons to Ukraine, which is understandable given the country's commitment to pacifism after the Second World War.
In 2021, the three-party coalition government was formed in Germany, comprising the more cautious and pragmatic Social Democrats, the more ideological Green Party, and the pro-business Free Democrats. The parties disagree over key issues such as energy procurement, the transition to alternative energy, increases in military spending, migration, and health reform, making it difficult for them to unite on issues such as Ukraine, Russia, and China. The lack of consensus on major issues exhibited by the three-party coalition government has resulted in major dissatisfaction among the German public.
After the elections, the coalition initially promised to lead Germany through a necessary transformation in the energy and economic sectors to manage climate change and rising competition from China. But shortly afterwards, Russia invaded Ukraine and Germany plunged into deeper uncertainty as sanctions were slapped onto Russian energy exports and the country had to wean itself off of decades of dependence on the former. Cheap Russian gas had previously fueled the manufacturing base of Germany’s export-driven economy. Now, the country has plunged into recession, in no small part due to the lack of cheap energy.
A more positive side effect of abandoning Russian gas could have been a faster transition to clean energy, but in fact, it has had the opposite effect. Germany is now reverting back to the use of fossil fuels to avoid buying expensive gas elsewhere. According to the federal statistical office, coal accounted for 33.3% of electricity production in 2022, up from 30.2 percent in 2021.
According to the New York Times, AfD supporters have said their reasons for voting for the party include feeling unsafe due to rising migration and feeling uncomfortable with providing weapons to Ukraine. A local interviewee also mentioned feelings of disapproval over the government’s disagreements on issues such as climate plans and fears it will cost her and other citizens “their modest but comfortable way of life.”
An uptick in political extremism usually accompanies worsening economies. Populist groups such as the AfD tend to capitalize on that narrative and use it to their advantage to gain supporters. According to a study on the rise of extremism and the far-right in Germany during the Great Depression, a link was confirmed between political extremism and economic hard times. In other words, GDP growth is negatively related to the rise of far-right parties.
A negotiated end to the war in Ukraine would likely limit the successes of the AfD in Germany. It would reduce sanction-related inflation, climate-change related expenses and lessen tensions with Russia as well as the steep rise in military spending, both pushed by the Greens and both unpopular with much of the German public.
The Greens have become the most unpopular party in the coalition in part because of their bellicose stance toward Russia, as much of the German public still supports the country's pacifist political culture. Fifty-five percent of Germans surveyed in a national poll believe that diplomatic efforts to end the war have not been sufficient, demonstrating an openness to ending the war diplomatically rather than through continued fighting.
Germany’s new National Security Strategy, released last month, suggests that the country has embraced multipolarity and is open to cooperation with China as well as (less certainly) to a possible future European security architecture that includes Russia, given the lack of any mention of Ukrainian NATO membership and of bolstering NATO’s eastern flank.
Given the word formulation in this document, the German security establishment appears to believe its existing difficulties are only temporary and is prepared to wait them out.
However, it appears that the longer the war continues, the more extremism Germany is likely to witness as it struggles through recession and increasing migrants. Rising economic malaise will also hamper any progress towards a green energy transition. Finding a negotiated end to the war would bring economic and political stability to Germany and other European countries, a factor that must be considered given the internal political threats now facing Germany.
As the country with the largest economy in the European Union and one of Europe's major leaders upon which much of the continent's economic support depends, the fate of Germany should concern us all.
Suzanne Loftus is Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute’s Eurasia program. She specializes in Russian foreign and domestic policy, nationalism and identity, and strategic competition between the great powers. Prior to arriving at the Quincy Institute, Suzanne worked for the Department of Defense as Professor of National Security at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany. Suzanne obtained her PhD in International Studies from the University of Miami, where she also taught classes in international relations and security studies. Prior to that, she worked at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland and the private sector. She speaks French, Spanish and Russian.
A participant of the AfD rally in Magdeburg, Germany, on July 1, 2023, wears a T-shirt with the inscription "Get your country back". At the rally, AfD state and federal politicians criticized the European Union and called for change. (Reuters)
Left-to-right: Senator-elect Ted Budd (R-N.C.); Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY), the Senate Minority Leader; Senator-elect Katie Britt (R-AL); and Senator-elect J.D. Vance (R-OH) pose for a photo before meeting in Leader McConnell’s office, at the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, November 15, 2022. (Graeme Sloan/Sipa USA)
The so-called GOP “civil war” over the role the United States should play in the world made headlines earlier this week when the Senate finally passed a national security supplemental that provides $60 billion in aid for Ukraine and $14 billion for Israel.
The legislation, which was supported by President Joe Biden and the overwhelming majority of the Senate’s Democratic caucus, proved more controversial among Republicans. Twenty-two GOP Senators voted in favor of the legislation, while 27 opposed it.
An analysis of the votes shows an interesting generational divide within the Republican caucus.
Each of the five oldest Republicans in the Senate — and nine of the ten oldest — voted in favor of the supplemental spending package. Conversely, the six youngest senators, and 12 of the 14 youngest, opposed it.
Equally striking was the breakdown of votes among Republicans based on when they assumed their current office. Of the 49 sitting GOP Senators, 30 were elected before Donald Trump first became the party’s presidential candidate in 2016. Eighteen of those 30 supported the aid legislation. Of the members who came to office in 2017 or later, only four voted to advance the bill, while 15 voted against.
The difference in votes among those elected since 2016 is likely partly attributable to Trump’s unconventional approach to foreign policy. The Republican party establishment during the Cold War and Global War on Terror is often associated with hawkishness, including towards Russia. While the party has always carried some skepticism toward foreign aid, some of the most significant spending increases have taken place during the presidencies of Republicans Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.
Trump, however, won in 2016 in part for his open disdain for mission creep after the GWOT, what he called the failed war in Iraq, and foreign aid he believed made countries dependents rather than reciprocal partners and allies.
“[Trump] certainly created the cognitive space,” Brandan Buck, a U.S. Army veteran and historian of GOP foreign policy, tells RS. “He's more of an intuitive thinker than a person of principle, but I think him being on the scene, prying open the Overton window has allowed for a greater array of dissenting voices.”
Others have argued that the trends are perhaps also indicative of the loyalty that Republicans who assumed their offices during the Trump presidency feel toward him. Trump spoke out forcefully against the legislation in advance of the vote.
“WE SHOULD NEVER GIVE MONEY ANYMORE WITHOUT THE HOPE OF A PAYBACK, OR WITHOUT “STRINGS” ATTACHED. THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA SHOULD BE “STUPID” NO LONGER!,” the former president wrote on the social media platform Truth Social the weekend before the vote.
The vote cannot only be explained by ideology, as some typically hawkish allies of Trump, like Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) ultimately voted against the package. Graham is a staunch supporter of Israel, has voted for previous Ukraine aid packages, and in the past called aid for Ukraine “a good investment” and “the best money we’ve ever spent.” By the time the vote on the most recent spending package came around, Graham was lamenting the lack of border security provisions and echoing Trump’s argument that aid to Ukraine should be a “loan.”
Meanwhile, Senators took note of the generational gap, and the debate spilled over into the public. .
“Nearly every Republican Senator under the age of 55 voted NO on this America Last bill,” wrote Sen. Eric Schmitt (R-Mo.), 48, on the social media platform X. “Things are changing just not fast enough.” Schmitt was elected in 2022.
“Youthful naivety is bliss, the wisdom of age may save the west,” retorted Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) “Reagan may be dead, but his doctrine saved the world during less dangerous times than these. If the modern Marx (Putin for the youngsters) restores the USSR while we pretend it’s not our problem, God help us.” Cramer, 63, was sworn in in 2019, making him one of the handful of recently elected senators to support the aid legislation.
“I like Kevin, but come on, man, have some self-awareness,” Sen. J.D. Vance fired back. “This moment calls out for many things, but boomer neoconservatism is not among them.”
Vance, who at 39 is the youngest Republican member of the Senate, noted in his post that “the fruits of this generation in American leadership is: quagmire in Afghanistan, war in Iraq under false pretenses.” He said younger Americans were disillusioned with that track record.
Buck, who served several tours in the Afghanistan war, and whose research includes generational trends in U.S. foreign policy thinking, pointed out that there is strong historical precedent for believing that age and generation affect how members of Congress view America’s role in the world.
“It's certainly not unusual for there to be generational trends in foreign policy thinking, especially within the Republican Party,” Buck told RS. Following the end of World War II, he said, it took “a full churning” of the conservative movement to replace old-school non-interventionist Republicans and to get the party in line with the Cold War consensus. “I think what we're seeing now is something similar but in reverse with a generation of conservatives.”
He added that the failures of the War on Terror resulted in a deep skepticism of the national security state and the Republican party establishment. Opinion polling and trends show that the American public that grew up either during or in the shadow of the disastrous military campaigns in the Greater Middle East is generally opposed to military intervention and more questioning of American institutions.
“All the energy on FP [foreign policy] in the GOP right now is with the younger generation that wants fundamental transformation of USFP [U.S. foreign policy],” noted Justin Logan, director of defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute, on X. “The self-satisfied, insular neocons who loathe their voters’ FP views are a dying breed.”
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Volodymyr Zelensky speaks at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. (David Hecker/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY — If U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris dominated the first day of the Munich Security Conference with her remarks, today it was German Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s turn.
It was not only Zelensky who understandably devoted his whole speech to the Ukraine War but also Scholz, too. The German Chancellor, while boasting that his country will devote 2% of its GDP to defense expenditures this year, remarked that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security now and in the future.”
In a brief but clear reference to Trump’s recent statements on NATO, Scholz said, "any relativization of NATO’s mutual defense guarantee will only benefit those who, just like Putin, want to weaken us.” On the guns and butter debate, which is particularly relevant in Germany due to negligible economic growth, Scholz acknowledged that critical voices are saying, “should not we be using the money for other things?” But he chose not to engage in this debate, noting instead that “Moscow is fanning the flames of such doubts with targeted disinformation campaigns and with propaganda on social media.”
The Russian capture of the city represents the most significant defeat for Ukraine since the failure of its counter-offensive last year. On the loss of Avdiivka, Zelensky said that Ukraine had lost one soldier for every seven soldiers who have died on the Russian side. This, however, is difficult to reconcile with the reports about the rushed Ukrainian retreat, with a Ukrainian soldier explaining that “the road to Avdiivka is littered with our corpses.”
Throughout his speech, Zelensky repeatedly referred to the importance of defending what he called the “rules-based world order” by defeating Russia. If there was one take-away that Zelensky wanted impressed on this audience: “Please do not ask Ukraine when the war will end. Ask yourself why is Putin still able to continue it.”
He also seemed to suggest that it was not a lack of available weapons and artillery but a willingness to give them over to Ukraine. “Dear friends, unfortunately keeping Ukraine in the artificial deficit of weapons, particularly in deficit of artillery and long-range capabilities, allows Putin to adapt to the current intensity of the war,” Zelenskyy said. “The self-weakening of democracy over time undermines our joint results.”
The future of NATO was one of the main topics of the day. European leaders were in agreement that Europe needs to spend more on defense, and occasionally appeared to compete with each other on who has spent the most on weapons delivered to Ukraine or in their national defense budgets.
With NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in attendance, one of the panels featured two of the most talked-about names to replace the Norwegian politician in the 75th-anniversary summit in Washington in July: EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and caretaker Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. According to a report by the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, President Joseph Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken favor the German leader, but in Paris, London, and Berlin, the Dutch politician is preferred.
The participation of the Netherlands in the initial U.S.-UK joint strikes against Houthi positions in Yemen on Jan. 11 was read in some quarters as a sign of Rutte’s ambitions. The Netherlands was the only EU country to join these initial attacks.
A G7 meeting of foreign ministers also took place Saturday on the sidelines of the conference. In a press briefing that followed, Italian Foreign Minister Antonio Tajani — who currently presides the G7 — reiterated the group’s support for Ukraine. The current situation in the Red Sea, as is often the case in the West, was presented by Tajani as a topic divorced from the Gaza Strip. The Houthis started their campaign against ships in the Red Sea after the beginning of the war in Gaza, claiming they want to force an end to the conflict.
There is no certainty that the end of the war in Gaza would put an end to Houthi attacks, but presenting the situation in the Red Sea as being nothing but a threat to freedom of trade is considered by experts to be a a myopic approach.
Nevertheless, Italy will be in command of the new EU naval mission ASPIDES, to be deployed soon in the Red Sea. The mission is expected to be approved by the next meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers on Monday. When asked whether he could ensure that ASPIDES would remain a defensive mission, the Italian Foreign Minister said ASPIDES aims at defending merchant ships and that if drones or missiles are launched, they will be shot down, but no attacks will be conducted.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing and is being updated.
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Vice President Kamala Harris at the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 16, 2024. (Lukas Barth-Tuttas/MSC)
MUNICH, GERMANY – The 60th year of the Munich Security Conference opened today with much of the early energy surrounding remarks by Vice President Kamala Harris.
The vice president noted that it was nearly two years since the beginning of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She said that when Putin unleashed his troops along different fronts in February 2022, “many thought Kyiv would fall within a day.” It is also true, as she pointed out, that “Ukraine has regained more than half the territory Russia occupied at the start of the conflict.” (Russia held about 7% before the invasion, 27% right after, and about 18% today.)
However, by choosing the first months of the war as the starting point of her speech, Harris sought to avoid the obvious. Namely, that in the year that has gone by since her last visit to Munich, the Ukrainian army has been losing ground. Yet, her remarks regarding Ukraine today did not differ much from her speech in 2023.
Harris seemed dedicated to keeping to the administration’s recent script, which is warning against heralding in a new era of “isolationism,” referring to President Biden's likely presidential election opponent, Donald Trump.
As president Biden and I have made clear over the past three years, we are committed to pursue global engagement, to uphold international rules and norms, to defend democratic values at home and abroad, and to work with our allies and partners in pursuit of shared goals.
As I travel throughout my country and the world, it is clear to me: this approach makes America strong. And it keeps Americans safe.
Interestingly, the U.S. has been accused of thwarting "international rules and norms" in its unconditional support of Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed upwards of 29,000 Palestinians, mostly of them civilians, since Hamas’s Oct. 7 invasion of Israel and hostage-taking. Christoph Heusgen, the chairman of the Munich Security Conference, asked Harris whether a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine was achievable. Harris answered that “the short answer is yes… but we must then put the discussion in context, starting with October 7.” Not 1948, not 1967, but October 7, 2023.
Her prepared remarks on the situation were very brief, overall, saying:
In the Middle East, we are working to end the conflict that Hamas triggered on October 7th as soon as possible and ensure it ends in a way where Israel is secure, hostages are released, the humanitarian crisis is resolved, Hamas does not control Gaza, and Palestinians can enjoy their right to security, dignity, freedom, and self-determination.
This work — while we also work to counter aggression from Iran and its proxies, prevent regional escalation, and promote regional integration.
October 7 was the topic of a conference side event hosted by Brigadier-General Gal Hirsch, Israel’s Coordinator for Hostages and Missing. In his opening speech, he called for a Global War on Kidnapping inspired by George Bush’s War on Terror. Hirsch was short on the specifics, and Israeli foreign minister Israel Katz did not develop the concept further when he followed Hirsch at the podium. During the event, several hostages released during the short ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in November 2023 described their harrowing experiences in captivity. Relatives of the remaining hostages accompanied them.
Meanwhile, in a morning event, German Finance Minister Christian Lindner and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis discussed how to increase defense spending in a time of economic stagnation. Mitsotakis, whose country has always spent significantly more than the expected 2% of the GDP required by NATO, stated that defense policy cannot be done on a budget. Lindner, meanwhile, remarked that Germany is on the way to spending 2% of its GDP on defense. Economic prosperity, the German Liberal minister noted, should avoid tradeoffs between social and defense policies. This is certainly a difficult equation to square since the German government just announced it was reviewing its forecast for GDP growth in 2024 from 1.3% down to 0.2%.
Marc Martorell Junyent is in Munich, covering the conference for Responsible Statecraft this weekend. This story is developing.