Germany’s Foreign Policy: Ever Cautious?

The 17th of December saw the installation of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and her coalition cabinet following the longest entre-en scene of government in German history. Despite the prolonged negotiations, foreign policy has enjoyed bipartisan consensus. But if one talks about Germany’s foreign policy, the inevitable question that arises is: what foreign policy? So far, in the context of profound international challenges – the current Ukraine protests and role of Russia, stagnation in Turkey’s membership talks, growing Euroscepticism, and damaged Franco-German relations just to name a few – Merkel and her meandering minions pursued a strategy of hesitance and passivity. But is the new foreign minister Frank Walter Steinmeier able to bring in a new wind of change?

Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, © 2011, some rights reserved
Image courtesy of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, © 2011, some rights reserved

In order to make potential predictions, one needs adopt a retrospective lens. The new foreign minister is an alter ego, having already led the foreign office during Merkel’s first term between 2005 and 2009. You have never heard of him? Probably because his foreign political stamp has been blurry at best. For years, the foreign office has been losing much of its former glory, being replaced by the finance ministry as the second most important position next to the chancellor. Steinmeier’s first term marked no exception; after the outbreak of the financial and Euro crisis Angela Merkel was the dominant figure in German foreign policy, leaving Steinmeier’s initiatives focused on relations with the autocratic countries to the east. Other than Merkel, who has a Soviet-influenced past written in former East Germany (DDR), Steinmeier pursued a strategy of rapprochement based on 1970s ‘Ostpolitik’, albeit with very little success. German-Russo relations are currently as cold as the Siberian winter.

So what is to be expected from his second term, on the doorstep of the one hundred year anniversary of the catastrophic outbreak of the First World War? Will this potential underdog be able to break away from Merkel’s tightly wound leash and make a name for himself? In his inauguration speech, Steinmeier talked vaguely about modernising German foreign policy in adjustment to the 21st century world. However, for four reasons, it seems unlikely that Germany’s foreign political direction will change tangibly.

Firstly, Angela ‘Almighty’ Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble will continue to be the decisive figures in foreign affairs, after they cemented their power in the September elections. Merkel’s party, the CDU, subsequently withstood the pressure to concede control of the finance ministry to the SPD, thus ensuring command over fiscal policy at home and abroad. Whether it is in Brussels, London or Washington, the Merkel-Schäuble duo will set the tone. Secondly, the grand coalition – an arranged marriage of sorts – between the conservative CDU and social democratic SPD will administer rather than reform and agree on inert compromises. To give you an idea: since the outbreak of the Euro-crisis, the SPD, in the opposition at the time, approved to every single bailout package and thus conditionality of austerity. Cautiousness in foreign affairs is likely to prevail. Thirdly, the German electorate does not demand change nor the bearing of more responsibility. German taxpayers approved of Merkel’s handling of the Euro crisis, failing to look beyond their own wallet, rewarding her with a historic 41% of the votes in the September elections. Moreover, a poll by the tabloid BILD showed that whilst 62% of Germans supported the use of force against Qaddafi back in 2011, only 29% supported German participation, thus partly explaining the German abstention in the UN vote alongside countries like China and Russia. The German president Joachim Gauck recently said that “I do not like the idea that Germany plays itself up to impose its will on others, yet neither do I like the idea that Germany plays itself down to eschew risks or solidarity”. Lastly, Germany’s export-led economy will continue to dominate foreign political thinking. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Auswärtige Politik, a think tank, calculates that 47% of GDP comes from exports, and argues therefore that foreign policy will remain to be shaped by pragmatic and economic, rather than morale or strategic considerations.

German-Franco tête-a-tête

Nonetheless, a sliver of hope remains that Steinmeier can overcome the German foreign pragmatic political cautiousness. A key for that appears to be the Franco-German relationship; Merkel, openly favoured Sarkozy during the French election campaign, and Hollande, voted in on the promise to end German imposed austerity, struggle to cooperate effectively on European matters. But Steinmeier, who wants to ‘kickstart’ the relations between the two largest economies in the Euro zone, has, as a social democrat, a similar political background as the socialist Hollande and henceforth possibly the chance to break the ice between the backbones of the European Union – Paris and Berlin. Newly introduced measures such as the minimum wage and the retirement option with 63 after 45 years of work have sparked reserved optimism amongst those who blamed Germany for social dumping. Yet further progress is  sorely needed as rising populist Germanophobia in the French government further inhibits collaboration on European matters such as more substantial progress on the formation of a banking union that might actually be worthy of the name.

Those sentiments are partly justified.  Hitherto, Germany’s international commitment has barely gone beyond its short-sighted, some may claim egocentric, economic agenda to save taxpayer’s money by means of rigid austerity measures abroad, at the expense of the weaker European economies, a fate to which France may soon be damned. Ironically, domestic spending on welfare and infrastructure will increase with the new government. As this year potentially sees vital European Parliament elections in May, given the rise of the Eurosceptic alliances of the likes of Nigel Farage, Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen, a German concession on its austerity policies could prove decisive: it would not only enhance effective Franco-German cooperation but also boost popular opinion. It is about time for a foreign political renewal of Germany and a recollection of the ideals of European integration. The foreign minister is certainly not faced with an easy task; expected to improve relations abroad, whilst challenging foreign political thinking at home. Frank Walter, here is your small chance to make a big change.

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