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The Berlin Monthly Dispatch – November 2021:

First Insights into Germany’s Future Foreign Policy

November 29, 2021
6 min read
Photo credit: S.Borisov / Shutterstock.com

Welcome to the Berlin Monthly Dispatch, in which Ulrich Speck, a German foreign policy analyst and senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund, gives an overview of the key developments in Germany’s foreign policy making as it transitions to a new government. The Berlin Monthly Dispatch is based on his daily briefing Morgenlage Außenpolitik.


The biggest story in November for German foreign-policy watchers has been the emerging first contours of the foreign policy of Germany’s next government, the so-called traffic light coalition. While we have known since election night that Olaf Scholz (SPD) will almost certainly be the next chancellor (he will be elected by Bundestag in early December), the coalition agreement was published on November 24, and the next day the Greens announced their cabinet members, confirming the expectation that Annalena Baerbock will be Germany’s first female foreign minister. 

All this gives us some solid ground for speculation about the future shape of German foreign policy.

Let us start with Olaf Scholz. The next German chancellor holds pretty mainstream, centrist foreign policy views: Germany’s foreign policy is based on two pillars, the EU and NATO, with Russia and China as the key challengers.

Scholz has, like many others in Germany, embraced the term “European sovereignty,” but not in the sense of autonomy. European sovereignty, he said, should be “embedded” in the transatlantic partnership and in NATO. Germany’s next chancellor said he is “happy” with President Biden, with whom he shares the ambition to push back against populists and autocrats.

But Scholz does not want a world divided into blocs and warns against “decoupling.” For the former mayor of global trading hub Hamburg, globalization is a key German interest. And while Scholz is clearly critical of Russia and China on human rights and democracy issues (in stark contrast to Germany’s last SPD chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now a lobbyist for Russia’s Gazprom), he also continuously emphasizes the need to cooperate with them. (More on Scholz’s views in last month’s Dispatch here.)

The second indicator for the next German government’s foreign policy is the coalition agreement, in which the EU plays an important role: German interests shall be “defined in light of European interests,” and Germany should “serve” the EU. “Strategic sovereignty” is a key term in the text as well, but in contrast to the French vision, the agreement outlines a “civil” context for sovereignty: energy, health, raw material, and digital technology are mentioned. A “European army” or a “European intervention force” are not mentioned, only the “increased cooperation of national armies.”

When it comes to security, NATO is given the central role. The traffic light coalition promises to be a good NATO partner, as NATO remains the “indispensable foundation of our security.” The next German government “commits” to nuclear deterrence, especially in light of the concerns of Central Europeans. Military experts such as Christian Mölling from the German Council on Foreign Relations see the agreement as a “rock-solid commitment to nuclear sharing.”

The incoming coalition wants to work with the US, according to the agreement, on plenty of issues: strengthening the “rules-based international order,” pushing back against “authoritarian developments,” and cooperating on the Eastern and Southern neighborhoods of the EU. Moreover, the coalition is looking for a “climate and energy partnership” with the US and to work together on human rights, geopolitical questions, global health, trade, connectivity, international standards, and disarmament.

On Russia, the coalition agreement is rather critical, especially regarding Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine and Belarus, but also regarding the repression of “democratic freedoms” in Russia.

On China, the traffic light coalition aims at a more coordinated EU approach and, at the same time, wants to work “closely” with the US. The agreement calls on China to play a responsible role in its neighborhood and criticizes human rights violations in Xinjiang. It also promises that Germany is going to work more with “value partners” in the Indo-Pacific.

The third indicator that helps us forecast the contours of the foreign policy of the next German government are the views of Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s next foreign minister.

40-year-old Baerbock has been a member of Bundestag since 2013 and a co-leader of the party since 2018 (together with Robert Habeck, who will become minister for economics and climate). She has a master’s degree in Public International Law from the London School of Economics and experience in Brussels working for a German Member of the European Parliament, and, as a teenager, spent a year in Florida in an exchange program. 

During the election campaign—in which she was running as the Green candidate for the chancellery—Baerbock highlighted the challenge of “liberal democracies” by “authoritarian powers.” A “key question” for Germany’s next government would be how it deals “with authoritarian regimes,” not only for “our values,” but also for “our security.” Like the Greens in general, Baerbock is looking for a new, more critical balance in relations with Russia and China, as the old approach has clearly failed. (Watch GMF’s former President Karen Donfried discuss foreign policy with Annalena Baebock here, at an event hosted in DC in September 2018.)

In the emerging “systemic competition,” Baerbock emphasizes strong transatlantic relations, with regard to a renewal of democracy, the pushback against autocracy, and the fight against climate change, which the Greens see as a comprehensive project requiring a major transformation of the economy and infrastructure.

With these three indicators, we can make six initial predictions about the foreign policy of Germany’s next government.

  1. Continuity rules: The traffic light coalition is positioning itself in the mainstream of German foreign policy making; there is no sign of a major break with Merkel's approach. Change may come, but not a radical change.
  2. The coalition is using the term “strategic autonomy” to describe its ambition for the EU, but the emphasis is quite different from the one in Paris. The goal is not to rebuild the EU as a more autonomous power (“Europe puissance”), but to make it more robust and crisis-proof in its traditional form, as a joint socioeconomic space with common rules and institutions.
  3. On everything related to military security, the transatlantic alliance remains central for the traffic light coalition, which promises to be a good and reliable NATO partner.
  4. There is plenty of interest in working more with the US on a whole range of issues. Scholz considers Biden a like-minded leader; both he and Baerbock have talked about the need for democracies to team up and push back against autocracy.
  5. Baerbock, Germany’s next foreign minister, has often emphasized the need to work more with Central and Eastern Europe; we may see some new initiatives in that direction. 
  6. The Indo-Pacific is getting more attention in Berlin—at least, this is the ambition in the coalition treaty, and with the promise of regular government-to-government consultations with Japan, it is at least one concrete step in that direction.

It remains to be seen whether the traffic light coalition will make good on its promises to get tougher with Russia and China. Scholz seems clear-eyed about the emerging landscape of systemic competition, but whether he is ready to take more risks and to pay an economic price is another question. Scholz also consistently stresses the need to work with autocratic countries on global issues such as climate. Another open question is whether the next chancellor will fully monopolize relations with great powers in the chancellery—or whether there will be space for the foreign minister to introduce some change in relations with Russia and China.