Germany’s new Chancellor ought to not deviate from Merkel’s pathway. A domestic political mission among many international challenges.
As Olaf Scholz was sworn in as Germany’s ninth postwar chancellor this month following Angela Merkel’s 16-year reign, capitals around the world were wondering what would change.
The short answer: Not much.
“I want to maintain the northeastern German mentality that has dominated here,” Scholz said as Merkel handed over control of the chancellery to him. “Not that much will change.”
That’s unsettling news for Germany’s partners in Europe and across the Atlantic. With tensions simmering on the borders of Ukraine and Belarus as well as big challenges in the Continent’s relations with China and the United States, German leadership is needed more than ever.
Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to materialize. Instead of locking arms with Germany’s international partners to meet those challenges, Scholz looks poised to offer Europe more of the same: slow progress on European integration, vague promises on improving German defence capabilities and a lukewarm approach to China and Russia with an eye towards German interests there.
Biden administration officials have been pressuring Germany for months to join Washington in taking a more resolute position towards China amid the growing tensions in the Indo-Pacific. But with many in the German establishment worried that Donald Trump could return as US president in 2025, there’s strong resistance in many foreign policy quarters to following Washington’s lead. The reason: China is now Germany’s largest trading partner.
Asked repeatedly whether Germany would join the US diplomatic boycott of the winter Olympics in China, Scholz has equivocated, signalling that he’s unlikely to take a hard line towards Beijing.
“We believe that international cooperation is important,” he said. “In a world that must work together, it’s important to seize opportunities to signal cooperation.”
That approach worked well for Merkel over the years. But as the world becomes more turbulent by the day, sitting on the fence while playing both sides of every flashpoint, from Iran to Russia to China, is unlikely to be an option for much longer.
Ukraine could be the canary in the coal mine. If Russia invades Ukraine, as Washington fears, what happens to Nord Stream 2, the recently completed Baltic pipeline between Russia and Germany that is waiting for final regulatory approval? Will it be dropped altogether? Given Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas, that wouldn’t be easy, especially if the other main pipeline connection — via Ukraine — was disrupted due to a war.
Germany faces a similar dynamic in the Indo-Pacific. If China tries to seize Taiwan, a move some international security experts believe has recently become more likely, Berlin would inevitably be forced to choose sides between the US and its largest trading partner.
Whatever happens on those fronts, Scholz can’t dodge US pressure for Berlin to line up behind Washington on China forever. In May, President Joe Biden agreed to suspend planned US sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a move that created an uproar in both parties in Washington. So far, it looks as though Biden spent that political capital in vain, as Germany has yet to change course on China.
In November, Scholz met with Biden’s “shadow Secretary of State,” Senator Chris Coons, and tried to reassure him that Germany remains a reliable ally. Scholz pledged to continue to honour Germany’s nuclear participation commitments within NATO, for example. On other fronts, however, Scholz has remained vague.
In Washington, some officials in the Biden administration have argued that Greens, who advocate a harder line on China in the face of the communist party’s human rights abuses, are Washington’s best hope of nudging Berlin on Beijing. Greens’ co-leader Annalena Baerbock joined Scholz’s Cabinet as foreign minister.
Yet the early evidence suggests that like Merkel before him, Scholz will use his executive purview to keep control of foreign policy in the chancellery. Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats in the German parliament, said recently that the government would pursue “a smart foreign policy that above all will be driven by and conceived in the chancellery.”
The comment drew swift protest from the Greens.
Nonetheless, it’s far from certain that Baerbock, a 40-year-old novice minister with no background in international security, will be able to stand up to Scholz on foreign policy.
The other likely point of tension between Germany and its allies is defence. As noted, the new coalition has signalled it will continue to honour its nuclear obligations, yet it’s less certain whether Berlin will fulfil its NATO pledge to spend 2% of GDP on defence. Instead, the coalition agreement sets a spending goal of 3% for “international engagement,” including diplomacy and development aid along with defence, a formulation sufficiently vague to mean anything.
Scholz has been careful not to adopt Emmanuel Macron’s use of the term “strategic autonomy,” employing the more diplomatic “strategic sovereignty” instead.
Whatever the label, Germany would need to spend substantially more on defence to achieve that goal, a scenario that seems highly unlikely, considering the financial constraints on the coalition, which has pledged not to raise taxes.
As a consequence, German foreign policy in the coming years is likely to be very familiar to most observers. Until, that is, events intervene and force Scholz to do what Merkel avoided for 16 years — choose a side.