How will Merkel's foreign policy change after the September elections?


Picture of Karl-Heinz Kamp
Karl-Heinz Kamp

Karl-Heinz Kamp is President of the Federal Academy for Security Policy in Berlin

In the September federal elections in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel won a fourth term in office, but probably not the way she wanted. Her conservative party polled at historic lows and she will have to rely on an untested and difficult coalition with the Green Party and the revived Liberals.

Merkel will also face a harsher and angrier opposition featuring the right wing nationalist Alternative for Germany (Alternative für Deutschland, AfD), which became the third largest group in the national parliament. What does this new constellation mean for Germany’s future security policy course? Will the country, which has meanwhile taken the lead in the EU and NATO, reduce its international engagement?

It is unlikely. Angela Merkel as one of the most experienced and respected political leaders on the international scene will remain firmly committed to a strong Europe and a firm transatlantic security partnership. Moreover, Germany’s political class – except the extreme left and right – has been characterised by a broad political consensus on the basics of security policy for decades, such as internationalism, alliances, commitments, consensus and solidarity. This consensus can hardly be destroyed by populist movements, which usually fail when their presence in governments or parliaments forces them to transform their simple slogans into realistic policy concepts.

Still, the new government will be confronted with a vast number of foreign and security problems that will require stamina, patience and smart politics. Five areas will be particularly difficult.

Angela Merkel as one of the most experienced and respected political leaders on the international scene will remain firmly committed to a strong Europe

First, with Russia’s aggression in Eastern Europe, NATO finds itself back in an Article-5 world, where deterrence and defence has to be bolstered by credible military capabilities. Germany provides a large share of these forces in the East. At the same time, the Alliance is suffering from an East-South divide when it comes to the debate about the core functions of the Alliance: more defence in the East versus more anti-terrorism and crisis management in the South. The new government will therefore further increase defence spending in order to come at least close to the heavily debated two-percent target, and at the same time it will push for a new NATO Strategic Concept in order to recommit all allies to a common understanding of roles and missions.

Second, keeping NATO intact will require paying special attention to the transatlantic relationship. By now, Europe has painfully realised that Donald Trump will never become a serious and reliable politician. This explains Chancellor Merkel’s appeal to Europe to take its destiny into its own hand. At the same time, though, the United States remains an indispensable partner for Europe, particularly with regard to security and defence. Therefore the government will have to avoid anti-Americanism in public and must carefully explain the quandary of not writing off the United States even though its president is but a disgrace to the community of liberal democratic nations. Donald Trump might be dispensable – the United States is not.

Third, taking fate into its own hands particularly concerns the foreign and security efforts of the European Union. With respect to the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), two requirements will be crucial. There is an urgent need to manage expectations about what can realistically be achieved in terms of common security and defence given the difficult situation the EU is still in. Loose talk about the “light speed” with which the CSDP allegedly proceeds, or of a European “superpower”, can only lead to disappointment and frustration. Moreover, the EU needs to find a consensus on what the “D” (defence) in CSDP actually means. What are common military capacities good for if in the Article-5 world common defence is undoubtedly provided by NATO? Is military crisis management the task or does European defence mean capacity building through military cooperation and common procurement?

The new government will be confronted with a vast number of foreign and security problems that will require stamina, patience and smart politics

The fourth point, Franco-German cooperation, is closely intertwined with European defence. The victory of President Macron is an opportunity to overcome stagnation in France and free energies for Franco-German cooperation benefitting EU security in general. However, despite common good will, both countries still differ fundamentally with respect to threat assessment and level of ambition. Germany will have to bridge the gap between France’s request for strong intervention capabilities for Africa and the NATO defence needs in the East.

Fifth, in order to make headway in all three areas, NATO, CSDP and cooperation with France, Germany has to make up its mind on two core issues: one is nuclear deterrence and the other is its policy on arms exports. NATO is improving its nuclear posture in reaction to the threat Russia poses in Eastern Europe. In the German public, however, the anti-nuclear tenor gains force, particularly since the United Nations voted for the condemnation of nuclear weapons in general. Moreover, one of the new coalition-partners, the Green Party, has its roots in the pacifist movement of the 1970s and is therefore strictly anti-nuclear.

Regarding arms exports, Germany traditionally adopts a much more restrictive course than most of its European allies and France in particular. However, European or Franco-German defence cooperation will not work if commonly produced weapons cannot be exported because of a German blockade. This is once again an issue that will be tough to solve with the Greens in government.

Hence, Germany’s general course will not change but there will be more potential for friction both at home and between Germany and its partners.

This article reflects the author’s personal opinion

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