First Steps and First Cracks in the “Traffic Light” Government’s Foreign Policy

December 21, 2021
6 min read
Photo credit: S.Borisov /

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. The Berlin Monthly Dispatch is based on his daily briefing Morgenlage Außenpolitik.

Since December 8, Germany has a new chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and a new government. Sixteen years of Angela Merkel have come to an end. Whether there is going to be a different foreign policy remains to be seen.

Merkel’s positions were usually supported by large majorities in Germany and her successor from the Social Democratic Party (SPD) looks to be equally driven by the broad foreign policy consensus of the political center, to which the new “traffic light” coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democrats largely belongs. Scholz has promised continuity and one should not forget that the SPD was in charge of the Foreign Ministry for 12 of the 16 Merkel years (under Frank-Walter Steinmeier in 2005–2009 and 2013–2017, Sigmar Gabriel in 2017–2018, and Heiko Maas in 2018–2021).

At the same time, there are drivers for change. First, the change in the international environment, with Russia and China posing more of a challenge to the West. Second, the presence in the cabinet as foreign minister of the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, who was critical of Merkel’s approach, especially toward Russia and China.

A Crisis from Day One

Scholz takes over the chancellery in the middle of a foreign-policy crisis created by Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who kept Merkel busy like no other world leader. With Russia’s current heightened threat to Ukraine, Putin has upset the status quo over the conflict. This signals the failure of Merkel’s balancing act between firm support for Ukraine, the opposition in Belarus, and high-profile Russian opposition figures such as Alexei Navalny, and a “positive agenda” of economic cooperation and regular talks with Russia.

It is now up to the new coalition government to deal with Putin’s attempts to rewrite the European security order.

It is now up to the new coalition government to deal with Putin’s attempts to rewrite the European security order. Scholz has so far signaled continuity on Russia policy. He is aligning Germany closely with the United States and reaffirming its strong opposition to any change of the status quo in Eastern Europe. The new German chancellor has said that “any violation of territorial integrity will come at a price, a high price” and that “it is of utmost importance that borders in Europe are not going to be changed.”

On the other hand, just like Merkel, Scholz does not want to target the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline as part of sanctions should Russia escalate its aggression against Ukraine. In a joint press conference with France’s President Emmanuel Macron after the European summit in Brussels, he called Nord Stream 2 “a private-sector project” and said that its certification will be decided by a German authority in a “completely apolitical way.” 

First Cracks

This is where first cracks in the government are opening between Scholz and the Greens. (The Free Democrats do not hold any ministry dealing with foreign affairs.) While Foreign Minister Baerbock and Vice Chancellor and Minister for the Economy and Climate Robert Habeck have not directly challenged the chancellor's position, they have indicated that in case of a new large-scale Russian attack on Ukraine, Nord Stream 2 might not go online—which could be read as strategic ambiguity. The Greens agree with Scholz that Germany should proceed with the certification of the pipeline according to the laws, but they add, crucially, that security issues related to Nord Stream 2 must be discussed with European partners, and that everything must be on the table in case of a renewed Russian attack on Ukraine.

Another potential fault line between Scholz and the Greens has become visible in the debate about whether Germany should join the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Australia in a diplomatic boycott of the 2002 Beijing Winter Olympics. On December 1, before the new government took office, Baerbock said:

When I see how China’s leadership deals with the tennis player Peng Shuai or the arrested citizen journalist Zhang Zhan, we should of course also take a closer look at the Olympic Games. There are different ways of dealing with this for governments, which will certainly be discussed in the coming weeks.

In response to this comment, the Chinese embassy in Berlin took the extraordinary step of criticizing the incoming foreign minister for her remarks on China: “We need bridge builders, not builders of walls.”

While Baerbock seems to lean toward a diplomatic boycott, Scholz apparently disagrees. During their joint press conference, Macron said that he did not want to “politicize” the Olympic Games and reiterated that he is not in favor of a boycott, while Scholz just said that he had “nothing to add.”

The chancellor and the foreign minister have demonstrated considerable like-mindedness with their highly symbolic first visits of foreign capitals.

At the same time, the chancellor and the foreign minister have demonstrated considerable like-mindedness with their highly symbolic first visits of foreign capitals. Both have chosen the Paris-Brussels-Warsaw route, and both have met in Brussels with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Both have quickly engaged with the United States too. Scholz participated in Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy and he talked on the phone with the U.S. president on the same day he visited Paris and Brussels. Baerbock met U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on the sidelines of the meeting of G7 foreign ministers in Liverpool. She has tweeted: “I look forward to build on the transatlantic partnership & friendship to, among other things, tackling the climate crisis and strengthening the rules-based international order.” 

Differences on the Back Burner

While Scholz is reluctant or unwilling to envisage adding Nord Stream 2 to the list of potential Russia sanctions, the new government is otherwise clearly engaged in the U.S.-led effort to deter Russia from a renewed attack on Ukraine. Not only have the chancellor and the foreign minister met with Stoltenberg very early and travelled to Warsaw in a gesture toward the countries on NATO’s eastern flank, Scholz has also met with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky on the sidelines of the Eastern Partnership summit, bilaterally and together with Macron.

In addition, the minister of state in the Foreign Ministry, Tobias Lindner, a defense expert from the Greens, has travelled to Kyiv while Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) visited Lithuania. With regard to the massing of Russian troops close to the Ukrainian border, Lambrecht has said:

I watch what is happening there with great concern. I can understand the Ukrainians’ fears very well. That is why my first mission on Sunday goes to Lithuania to the NATO rapid reaction force to get an impression of how the soldiers see the situation in the region. It’s very clear: the aggressor is Russia. We must do everything possible to stop an escalation. This also includes the threat of harsh sanctions.

What makes it easy for Scholz and Baerbock to put their differences on the back burner in the first days of the new government is the fact that the United States has taken the lead in the West’s response to Putin’s latest escalation over Ukraine. Germany largely follows this lead, unlike in 2014–2015 when Merkel played a major diplomatic role. This time, the Biden administration has stepped up very early, coordinating and leading the efforts to deter Russia. This helps the new coalition government in Berlin maintain unity on foreign policy—so far.