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. Click here to get the dispatch delivered directly to your inbox.
German Politics between the Past and the Future
Germany is currently in transition with the Merkel era coming to an end and the next government not yet in office. While still carrying out her duties as chancellor, Merkel is not shaping policy anymore. She is spending her time largely on a farewell tour, meeting with foreign leaders or talking with them on the phone. Since the new parliament met for the first time on October 26, Merkel and her government are in office only in a caretaker function. Naturally they take a low profile. And naturally their authority is waning, inside and outside the country, as everybody knows that the next government may pursue a different path at least on some issues.
This transition will hopefully be over soon. In all likelihood Olaf Scholz will be the next chancellor as his Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) are making progress in putting together a new coalition government. Their timetable is ambitious: 22 working groups are expected to deliver results by November 10 and a coalition agreement is expected at the end of the month. The parliament could then elect Scholz chancellor in the week of December 6.
As Germany’s foreign policy is currently in a holding pattern, this dispatch focuses on Scholz’s foreign policy views.
What Kind of Foreign Policy Can We Expect from Scholz?
With Scholz, there would be no generational change in the chancellery. He is at 63 only four years younger than Merkel. Scholz is also a well-known figure in German politics. He was secretary-general of the SPD in 2002–2004, minister for labor in 2007–2009, and mayor of Hamburg in 2011–2018 before becoming finance minister in 2018.
In his long career, Scholz—who practiced labor law in Hamburg before being elected to the German parliament in 1998—has thus never had a role that was particularly linked to foreign policy. Yet as the mayor of Hamburg and as finance minister, he gained some international experience.
Overall, Scholz’s foreign policy views are very much in Germany’s centrist mainstream. For him, the EU and transatlantic partnership are the key pillars of German foreign and security policy, and Russia and China are challenges on some issues but partners on others
As chancellor, Scholz would go to Paris for his first foreign visit. Like all leading politicians from Germany’s four largely centrist parties, he emphasizes the importance of the EU for the country. Scholz has adopted the term “European sovereignty,” which France’s President Emmanuel Macron has promoted in the last years. Yet, when asked about his projects for the EU, he talks about majority voting on foreign policy in the EU and not much else.
Happy with Biden
At least in the last months, the state of transatlantic relations—the second traditional pillar of German foreign policy—has triggered more enthusiasm in Scholz. He said he was “happy” with Joe Biden because the U.S. president has “re-emphasized the community of democracies as the core of our transatlantic partnership.” Scholz wants Germany to work more closely with the United States: “[If] we look at the world, with China, Russia and many others rising nations, in Asia and elsewhere … it remains central that we stick together, also as a transatlantic alliance, and insist on democracy.”
The Biden agenda has “not yet been understood” in Europe, Scholz says. “In a very comprehensive way, it is about the open and free systems proving that they provide better answers to the worries and needs of the citizens.”
While Scholz emphasizes “European sovereignty,” he does not define it as “independence” from the United States. Quite the contrary: European sovereignty must be “embedded” in the transatlantic relationship and built “within the framework of NATO.” For him, NATO is the “indispensable defense alliance,” and in the future it will be “of utmost relevance [because] in today’s world we will only be able to protect democracy together.”
Democracy vs. Autocracy, But No Division in Blocs
Scholz emphasizes, like Merkel, multilateralism as the key feature of the broader international order. Protecting and defending this order against “the renaissance of thinking in terms of great powers, spheres of influence and dependencies” and against “authoritarian systems” is a priority. In the “new competition of systems … we have to define clear standards and say which rules have to apply to those who want to do business with us,” Scholz says.
Yet, while he talks about “systemic competition,” Scholz warns at the same time of “decoupling,” which he describes as the division of the world into blocs and in which “the US, Europe, China remain apart and develop all kinds of economic structures only for themselves.” Against this vision, Scholz defends economic globalization: “It’s a great progress that we have a global economy.”
Scholz also says that China is “a trading partner for [Germany], but also a rival when it comes to the question of systems.” Thus, on the one hand, he acknowledges there is a “system competition” but he also claims to take a “sober view of mutual dependencies.”
On Russia, Scholz defends the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and insists on the need to reach out permanently to Moscow and to try to bridge divides. In this he is very much in line with the SPD mainstream, and like many in his party he often refers to Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik as a model of how to deal with “difficult partners.”
But, on the other hand, Scholz sharply criticizes Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, emphasizes the inviolability of borders as a fundamental principle in Europe, and insists on calling out Russia for its human-rights record, referring to the case of the opposition figure Alexei Navalny with whom he spoke while the Russian was recovering in Germany from the attempt on his life by poisoning.
A Globalist from Hamburg
Olaf Scholz is a “globalist”: he believes that globalization is fundamentally a force for good, that international cooperation must be tried relentlessly even if there are growing obstacles, and that like-minded countries together must make sure that liberal democracy remains the prevailing force shaping the international order. It is a view that comes naturally to someone who has lived and worked for decades in leading positions in Hamburg—a global port and trading city whose success story is built on the existence of a free and open global order.
The main theme of Germany’s foreign policy under Scholz would be, at least in the beginning, continuity with the Merkel years. The outgoing chancellor and the likely next one are very much in the German mainstream and both are centrists within their parties. Any change of foreign policy under the next government would rather be driven by the Greens and the FDP, with the two expected coalition partners of the SPD more willing to confront Russia and China, at least to some degree.