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Transatlantic Take

The World According to Annalena Baerbock

May 07, 2021
8 min read
Photo credit: photocosmos1 / Shutterstock.com
Since she was nominated last month by Germany’s Greens party to be its candidate for chancellor in the federal elections later this year, Annalena Baerbock has been making international headlines.

She and the Greens have performed even better in polls than they had been in recent months, taking the lead as the preferred party and the preferred leader. As a result, the conversation in Germany has shifted from one in which the Greens were increasingly seen as a likely member of a next coalition government to one in which they may be the largest one—with Baerbock as chancellor.

The focus on the woman who could become not only the Green’s first head of government but also Germany’s youngest one will intensify as the country’s voters and international partners want to find out more about her beliefs and what kind of leader she might be. Below are three frames through which to understand how she could approach the task of being in, or even leading, Germany’s government.

The Unifying Force

Born in 1980, Baerbock is the first chancellor candidate whose life has been almost entirely influenced by developments in a unified Germany. Originally from the western state of Lower Saxony, in 2005 she joined the Greens party and moved to Potsdam in the eastern state of Brandenburg to head the office of its local MEP. She now represents the constituency of Potsdam in the federal parliament.  

Viewing herself to be simultaneously an easterner and a westerner, Baerbock is considered by many of her supporters to embody the party’s bridging of the two Germanys. Despite the western Greens merging with the eastern civil rights movement in 1993, the party initially struggled to gain ground in the east due to its skepticism of reunification. It is today part of governing coalitions in four of the six state parliaments there, including Baerbock’s Brandenburg. However, she is aware that constituents in the rural eastern regions have different views than the urban elites that typically make up a large share of the Greens electorate. She has said that she finds the urban-rural divide more relevant in Germany than the east-west divide.  

The Greens were long deeply rooted in West Germany’s pacifist and environmentalist movements, considering themselves as an uncompromising non-parliamentary force. But the party has gradually moved from its activist origins to become a possible coalition partner for almost any other party at the state and federal levels. Reflecting this post-reunification shift, Baerbock is a proponent of forging broader alliances. In her words, the Greens should work “with those who challenge us. People who really want to shape things are prepared to face opposition.” Together with co-leader Robert Habeck, she has succeeded in strengthening the party’s cohesion and positioning it as an appealing moderate force. With easterners holding other senior party positions, many argue that merging the Greens’ eastern and western roots has been completed.

In this context, Baerbock represents a general and generational shift within the Greens, which promises something of a Velvet Revolution of “reform without disruption,” as the analyst Mark Leonard argues. As part of their pragmatist wing, she says she is prepared to balance socio-ecological transformation and the economy. She represents a party that has come to realize that the socioeconomic implications of environmental policy need to be taken into account. Under her leadership the Greens set up a platform for dialogue with the business community from a broad mix of industries. Commenting on France’s Yellow Vest protests as a response to President Emmanuel Macron’s environmental plans, she argued that “we cannot save the climate at the expense of social justice. The two things need to go hand in hand.”

While many other senior German politicians might describe the fall of the Berlin Wall and Germany’s subsequent reunification as the key moment for shaping their political worldview, Baerbock links hers more directly to the European unification project. She has said that the opening in 2004 of the bridge between the German city of Frankfurt Oder and the Polish city of Słubice to mark the eastern enlargement of the European Union was a defining political moment for her. Similarly, the Greens party also puts a strengthened EU that is more “capable of action” as the starting point of its foreign policy program.

The Change Candidate

Critics say that Baerbock lacks governing experience. She joined the Greens Party in the year that Angela Merkel became chancellor.  She quickly rose through the ranks of the Brandenburg party and became its head at the age of 28. But, not unlike Barack Obama, who faced similar questions about experience, she turns this around by arguing she is the change candidate. “Others stand for the status quo,” she said after her nomination.

Compared to the chancellor candidates of the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, she can clearly claim to represent a new beginning. While Armin Laschet and Olaf Scholz first held seats in the Bundestag in the 1990s, Baerbock entered parliament for the first time in 2013. And, while they represent parties that have been in government with little interruption for decades (19 of the past 23 years in the case of the Social Democrats and for the past 16 years in the case of the Christian Democrats), the Greens have undergone a complete generational change since they were last part of a coalition government in Berlin. The generation of Joschka Fischer, who turned the Greens from a strict opposition into a governing party, is now retired. Baerbock can thus also cast herself as the candidate of a fresh party. On the campaign trail, she will not be weighed down by decisions earlier Greens took in office. And to counter criticism of inexperience from those competitors who have been in office before, she can reply: “Why haven’t you done more or better in the decades you have been in charge?”

Still, if some of the recent comments in the German press are any indication, the inexperience argument will play a role during the campaign. The question will be what German voters are in the mood for: continuity or change. Notoriously stability-minded, they have endorsed only three chancellors in almost four decades. Merkel remains the most popular politician even after 16 years in office—something inconceivable in most other countries. On the other hand, polls show a population increasingly unhappy with the current government. And, the last time a German chancellor was in office for 16 years, the German electorate voted for change, ejecting    Helmut Kohl in 1998.

An Internationalist

Baerbock displays an internationalism grounded as much, or even more, in her personal experience and interest as in her relatively short political career. What many have described as her mainstream foreign policy views, compared to some Greens of earlier days or even today, to a degree stems from that, and from her different generational perspective. In many ways she represents the Greens’ party move away from its pacifist roots and toward the foreign policy mainstream—even if they do not seem to have quite completed it yet.

Baerbock initially wanted to become a war reporter, and she studied political science and public law in Hamburg. Unlike some other prominent German politicians, she speaks fluent English, having gone on a student exchange in Florida at 16, and later studied public international law at the London School of Economics. She began a doctorate in international law but put it aside owing to her political career. Baerbock became head of office for a Green MEP, and she also served as foreign and security policy advisor for the party’s Bundestag faction before being elected. She is a Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund and a Young Global Leader of the World Economic Forum.

On foreign policy and security issues, Baerbock argues that the EU must take on more responsibility and advocates the strengthening of European sovereignty. She criticizes both Germany’s and the EU’s rather reactive foreign policy in a time of competition between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes. Baerbock also emphasizes that the international community cannot stand idly by in cases of genocide, citing the international responsibility to protect. She and party co-chair Habeck have proposed a “new transatlantic agenda.” In their view, only the transatlantic partners working jointly can offer “a democratic alternative to the authoritarian hegemonic ambitions of China.” Baerbock has also called for ending the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. These positions will certainly be well received on the other side of the Atlantic if turned to Greens government policy.

However, when an intra-party debate about the issue of nuclear sharing between the United States and Germany flared up again earlier this year, Baerbock reiterated the Greens’ stance by calling for an end to this and demanding that Germany join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. Having been taken by her parents to demonstrations against the deployment of Pershing missiles in West Germany as a child, her personal views seem to align strongly with her party’s traditional position on the issue.

The same seems to be true of her position on NATO’s 2 percent of GDP defense-spending target, which Germany has been missing for years, to the great chagrin of the United States and other European allies. Very much in line with her party’s position on the matter, she rejects this goal as outdated and wants to discuss NATO’s strategic orientation. Against this backdrop, some in German foreign-policy circles have questioned how these positions can be reconciled with her clear-eyed views on authoritarian powers.

These issues show that it remains to be seen how Baerbock’s more mainstream foreign policy positions and more traditional Greens views would play out with respect to Germany’s global role if she were to actually assume a role in government, or even head it.