The Berlin Monthly Dispatch — September 2021

September 28, 2021
6 min read
Photo credit: S.Borisov /

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

A Campaign without much Foreign Policy

The biggest story in September 2021 was of course the elections in Germany, which would decide who after 16 years of the chancellorship of Angela Merkel will lead the country into the 2020s. Yet while the world was watching Germany, Germany mostly looked inward during the campaign. At the center of the three major TV debates between the three leading candidates for the chancellorship—Armin Laschet for the Christian Democrats, Olaf Scholz for the Social Democrats, and Annalena Baerbock for the Greens—were socioeconomic questions, from housing to salaries, and climate change. 

Yes, foreign policy was present from the start, including in smaller debates between the candidates and in newspaper interviews they gave. But it remained a secondary issue at best.

While experts complained about the lack of public and media interest, another reason for the relative absence of foreign policy during the campaign is that there was little difference between the candidates on the fundamental issues. All three made clear that they endorsed the centrist consensus that the EU and transatlantic relations are the vital pillars of German foreign policy and security, and that Russia and China have become challenges that Germany needs to deal with by mixing cooperation with caution. Only Baerbock sounded more hawkish on Russia and China, yet without calling for economic decoupling or for a substantially harder stance.

What Do the Elections’ Results Mean for Foreign Policy?

The results of the elections were inconclusive. Who will be the next chancellor or foreign minister is almost as unclear as before the people voted. What is clear is that foreign policy will not figure largely in the negotiations to form the next coalition government. It will probably be easy to agree on some standard formulas about Europe, about transatlantic relations, on Russia, and on China, without getting into the details. At the center of the negotiations will probably the financing of the transformation of the economy and the infrastructure for climate neutrality, with the Greens calling for more investments and the Free Democrats considering themselves the protectors of what liberals see as healthy state finances.

Dealing with the Afghanistan Failure

September was not all about the elections. The chaotic last chapter of the Afghanistan mission, with the shocking images from the airport in Kabul at the end of August, led to a critical debate in Germany. The government was accused of acting too late. As the foreign policy spokesman of the Greens, Omnid Nouripour, tweeted, “The government had many years to plan for the moment of the departure of the forces. And this planning hasn’t been made. The government has failed!” A big story in the media was the late start of the evacuation of people who had worked for Germany.

Against this backdrop, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas toured the region at the end of August, visiting Turkey, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Qatar, with two goals: to get Germany’s local partners and “other Afghans in need of protection” out of Afghanistan and to sound out these countries about whether they would be willing to accept Afghan refugees, offering them German and EU help to do so.

Growing Doubts about Mali

After Afghanistan, the second big military mission in which Germany has been involved in the last years, the one in Mali, came under the spotlight as well. After France’s Foreign Minister Jean Yves Le Drian said on September 14 that the presence of Russian mercenaries in Mali would be “incompatible” with the French presence, Germany’s Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer followed suit by saying that such a presence would “put the mandate for German troups in [Mali] into question.” Across the political spectrum, many voices have called for reconsidering the mission.

The failure in Afghanistan certainly affects the German views of the mission in Mali, which has in the last months become much more problematic with the latest coup in the country and the unwillingness of the junta to commit to a democratic transformation. The possibility of Mali inviting Russian mercenaries into the country is just the latest in a string of bad news. In an interview, Chancellor Merkel’s long-time foreign policy advisor Christopher Heusgen said about Mali: “We need to be clear: Either you implement good governance reforms, or we will end our support.”

China Rejects a Port Visit by a German Warship

When Germany sent its frigate Bayern on a trip through the Indo-Pacific, China refused it a port visit in Shanghai. With this move, Beijing sent the message that it is not willing to accept Berlin’s attempt to please all sides in the Indo-Pacific. Sending the warship was meant as a signal to the United States and to European and regional partners that Germany is willing to engage for freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific. Yet concerns over a confrontational stance toward China were so high—reportedly at the chancellery—that the port visit in Shanghai had been decided to make sure that Beijing would not see the Bayern’s trip as directed against it. This balancing act has failed.

Berlin Keeps a Low Profile in the Row between France and the United States

The Indo-Pacific also figured prominently in the U.S.-French dispute over the cancellation of a submarine deal between France and Australia, in the context of the new Australia-U.S.-U.K. security pact. When the news broke, Chancellor Merkel was scheduled for a dinner in Paris with France President Emmanuel Macron, with the Indo-Pacific among the items on the agenda. Yet, she did not comment on the issue when anger in Paris boiled over. Neither did Foreign Minister Maas, who only said—and quite late—a few words of empathy for France.

The view in Berlin was similar to what the EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said: “don’t dramatise ... don’t put into question our relationship with the United States that has been improving a lot with the new administration.” The head of the parliament’s Foreign affairs Committee, the Christian Democrat Norbert Röttgen, said that “escalation makes no sense,” and that it is “ultimately also in the European interest” that Australia is properly equipped to push back against Chinese maritime dominance.  And behind the scenes Germany successfully resisted French efforts to postpone this week’s EU-U.S. Trade and Technology Council to a later date. 

Germany’s view remains unchanged: its relationships with France and with the United States are each vital in their own ways. Taking side in such a quarrel would put these relations into an imbalance. Against this backdrop, it is only logical that the foreign policy spokesman of the Greens, Omid Nouripour, called on the German government to mediate between Paris and Washington.