Cornelia Hildebrandt analyses the new German government’s approach to foreign and peace policy in the coalition agreement.
For the past 16 years, German foreign policy has been shaped by continuity and by the political weight of Angela Merkel. The de-escalation culture of Merkel’s political dialogue was widely considered to be a dependable anchor. Now, for the first time, a coalition of three parties is in charge: the SPD (Social Democratic Party), who appointed the Federal Chancellor; the FDP (Free Democratic Party), who set the tone; and the Greens, who appointed the ambitious Foreign Secretary Annalena Baerbock. Baerbock is oscillating between a foreign and security policy that is driven by values and rules and the necessary climate dialogue. But what does this mean?
The continuities of German foreign policy
Germany will not leave the well-trodden path of its foreign and security policy. Part of this is its commitment to NATO and its “transatlantic partnership” with the US – a pillar of German foreign policy – as well as its commitment to the OSCE, the Council of Europe and the UN. In all of these, Germany perceives itself as a “reliable partner”: as the circumstances require, it will take part in military operations abroad, where armed drones are to be employed only according to the provisions of international law. Just like during the former government’s term, the aims and characteristics of German security and foreign policy remain contradictory and encompass “credible deterrence”, arms control and disarmament, as well as attempts to create a nuclear-weapons-free world.
In 2018, the CDU and SPD agreed on a restrictive policy for arms exports. The extent to which this has proven to be politically ineffective was demonstrated during the final days of the old coalition, when 2021 arms exports totalling €9bn were authorised, with arms worth €4.3bn going to Egypt alone. The motto ‘foreign policy from a single mould’, including development and human rights policy, is also nothing new. It is, however, worth noting that the definitions have become blurred. At the suggestion of the FDP, in the spirit of an integrated and inclusive approach, three per cent of GDP should be invested in international action, diplomacy and development policy, and the country’s commitments within NATO must be fulfilled.
What is new?
1. Germany’s role: the leader of a free world?
In 2013, at the Munich Security Conference, the then Federal President Joachim Gauck called for an end to Germany’s policy of military restraint, in light of the globalised economic power of the country. In the coalition agreement of 2018, “Germany’s new role” was reflected upon and integrated into European policy.
In 2021, however, it is not only about integration, but about leadership:
“We understand the global responsibility Germany is carrying as the fourth largest economy in the world. We are assuming this responsibility and will strengthen existing partnerships and launch new ones as part of our foreign, security and development policy and will defend our values in the areas of freedom, democracy and human rights.”
Ergo, global economic power establishes global responsibility. There are some (minor) references to German history to be found at different places in the coalition agreement, but not when formulating the objectives of German external policy.
2. Solidarity or confrontation: active intervention instead of taking a supporting role as a facilitator:
References to human rights, democracy and the rule of law have also been a part of many coalition agreements in the past. In light of ecological issues and climate change, the question of sustainability has now been added in a very comprehensive manner. It is, however, not the climate issue that dominates questions of foreign and security policy, but a foreign and security policy “driven by values”, on the basis of the rule of law and human rights, especially vis-à-vis authoritarian states, as relevant instruments of the conflict. Therefore, a differentiation is made in multilateral cooperation between states “which share our democratic values” and states with authoritarian governments such as Russia or China. Germany wants to enter into dispute with this latter category of countries because it believes the countries are a source of “system rivalry” but are also needed in order to tackle ecological problems.
3. A changing perspective on Russia
On the one hand, the new government emphasises Russia’s importance as an international actor and the relevance of having a substantial and stable relationship with the country. On the other hand, Germany is only ready to engage in dialogue with Russia according to its own interpretation of international law, human rights, the European peace order, and the interests and “worries particularly of our Central and Eastern European partner countries”. The CEE countries perceive Russia as a threat in individual ways, a fact which Germany does not want to ignore; in case of emergency, the government is ready to hand matters over to its national defence and the alliance defence. Hence, it is necessary to keep up credible deterrent potential with simultaneous efforts to engage in dialogue. The coalition calls for “an immediate end to destabilising attempts against the Ukraine, the violence in Eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea which violated international law”.
From a left perspective, the annexation of Crimea by Russia constitutes a breach of international law and therefore merits condemnation, as well as the eastward enlargement of NATO. Furthermore, by deploying more than 100,000 troops and weaponry along the Ukrainian border, Russia is clearly playing with the fire of war.
One aspect, however, is disregarded in the external position of the Federal Government, and Russia’s attitude clearly shows this: conflicts must be seen within their historical contexts and how they developed over the past 30 years, ergo the understanding of politics as a process of one’s own actions and reactions, taking into account the interests of all parties involved. The fact is that with the systematic eastward enlargement of NATO – Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are amongst the candidate countries, with Georgia and the Ukraine having also expressed their wish to join NATO – Russia’s security interests are also affected. This must play a role when analysing the options for action of all involved parties.
If these contexts and options for action are disregarded, this kind of political behaviour also presses for war.
4. The strategic sovereignty of the European Union
In this chapter, the government addresses Germany’s capacity to act independently in the areas of energy supply, health, primary commodity imports, technology, and securing critical infrastructure. The European Union should evolve to be capable of global action – not only politically and economically, but also in terms of military action. This means, however, turning the EU into a “Federal States of Europe”, if necessary by changing treaties and initiating a “constituent convention”. This represents a country “which is organised in a decentralised way, according to the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality and bases itself on the Fundamental Rights Charter”. Concerning this, the coalition formulates a number of subgoals – which partially contradict themselves – such as strengthening Parliament, e.g., in the area of the right of initiative and the precedence of the Community method, as well as introducing further possibilities for majority votes, a unified European voting system with transnational lists (in part) and a system which ensures that only the parties’ leading candidates can be chosen for top EU jobs. The coalition also plans to further develop instruments that safeguard the rule of law, to strengthen the European Court of Justice, to introduce an “EU foreign affairs ministry”, to improve the collaboration of the national armies of EU Member States who are willing to integrate and establish civil-military headquarters, and to further develop Frontex as an EU border management agency. The EU should enter the battle against climate change in the framework of the European Green Deal via investments which are part of the Stability and Growth Pact.
Contradictions and gaps
First of all, we have to distinguish between mere letters of intent and plans which are formulated in clear terms. Amongst the latter are the rejection of lethal autonomous weapon systems and their international ban, an EU regulation on arms exports and a national arms control law, and the rejection of arms export permits “to states who are demonstrably directly involved in the Yemen war”. Moreover, the German government aims to advocate for the implementation of a ban on biological and chemical weapons, for the peaceful use of space, for timely initiatives in developments on weapons technology such as the areas of bioengineering, hyper sound, or artificial intelligence, and will promote the further development of humanitarian international law.
It is the aim of German foreign policy to create a world – and a Germany – free of nuclear weapons. In order to achieve this, Germany wants to play a leading role in strengthening international disarmament initiatives and non-proliferation regimes and fight to ensure that the 2022 Review Conference of the Non-Proliferation Treaty becomes an impetus for disarmament. This includes support for a New START agreement between the US and Russia to reduce strategic nuclear weapons. At the same time, the new German government also refuses to join the UN Convention on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and wants to maintain the NATO "nuclear sharing” agreements. One part of this is the procurement of a successor system for the Tornado combat aircraft, a procurement and certification process which is to be monitored objectively with a view to Germany’s role in the NATO nuclear sharing agreements.
When the three parties’ individual electoral programmes are compared with the statements in the coalition agreement, the individual thumbprints of all three parties can be found. They all share a commitment to a foreign and security policy “driven by values” and “close relationships” with states “which share our democratic values” and the definition of “authoritarian states” such as Russia or China which, according to the coalition, pose a growing threat and can be seen as “system rivals”. The call for safeguarding values such as human rights, however, soon becomes less tangible when talking about the EU’s external borders or the people in Afghanistan and Saudi-Arabia.
It is astonishing to see the subordinate importance of the climate issue in the approach to foreign and security policy. The formation of international climate partnerships, an open international climate club, the New Green Deal at the European level, and the reference to necessary global climate cooperation also with Russia and China do not do justice to the present challenges. Germany’s current foreign and security policy also abstains from addressing new conflict dimensions that are already emerging, such as the ever-increasing number of people forced to leave their homes due to the consequences of the climate catastrophe or the struggle for access to drinking water.