Dependable Deutschland

The likely next German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

The likely next German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier

For all of the outrage and talk of the “severely shaken” relationship between Germany and the United States, the newly finalized coalition agreement between the Christian Democrats (CDU), its sister party (CSU), and the Social Democrats (SPD) takes a tentative step toward normalizing the transatlantic relationship. The deal, which was finalized last week, is still subject to a vote by the SPD’s 475,000 members before the new government can officially take office. However recent polls indicate that a healthy majority of SPD members are in favor of the coalition agreement, suggesting that a new German government – and its “new” foreign policy plans – will be in place just in time to ring in the New Year.

On the topic of relations with the United States, the 185-page agreement gently chastises the Americans for the Handyüberwachung scandal and for the NSA’s voracious appetite for data. Citing the recent decline in bilateral trust, the coalition pact admonishes the US to demonstrate its “clear commitment” to repairing the relationship. A data protection deal between Germany and the US, and a much-desired (although improbable) “no-spy” pact are offered as possible confidence-building measures.

Beyond a smattering of references to trust restoration, the imprint of the NSA scandal on the contours of the coalition agreement is surprisingly minimal, particularly given the 65% of German citizens who recently said that they do not consider the US government to be “trustworthy.” The US-EU transatlantic free trade deal (TTIP) remains a focal part of the coalition’s foreign policy agenda in spite of ongoing speculation that the NSA scandal might derail the negotiations.

Other key issues for the United States, including a preservation of Germany’s defense readiness in the face of a stagnating military budget, and an ongoing German commitment to NATO and to “smart defense,” also receive mention. And, with the agreement’s repeated emphasis on the importance of the transatlantic alliance, one has little doubt that Germany’s relationship with the US will inevitably – if slowly – return to normalcy.

As for the rest of the agreement’s foreign policy plans, they, too, reflect an eagerness to hurry up and carry on with the foreign policy of Merkel’s past eight years. Indeed, those who follow German foreign policy are unlikely to be surprised by the shortage of big ideas in the coalition agreement. Between paragraphs of vague commitments to multilateralism, the agreement mostly proposes to continue past initiatives: deeper EU integration and EU enlargement if countries can meet “strict criteria;” an unwavering commitment to the state of Israel; support of a political solution in Syria; ongoing commitment to Afghanistan, particularly through civilian means; and unfailing support of the UN, including a willingness to “take on more responsibility” through a permanent seat on the UNSC.

Where the agreement varies from pure status quo foreign policy, the proposed changes are intriguing but vague. On Russia, the agreement explicitly calls out Germany’s desire to deepen relations with Russian civil society, and insists that Russia must uphold minority and opposition rights – both signals of a new, harder line approach to Russia. The agreement goes on to state that Germany will work toward greater coherence in EU policy toward Russia – a goal that, if realized, could positively counterbalance Moscow’s bullying of post-Soviet states. Yet no further details are provided, and given the EU’s lackluster response to Ukraine’s eleventh-hour trade agreement reversal last week, it is difficult to envision a coordinated EU Russia policy any time soon. A strongly worded commitment to reinvigorating the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy is similarly lacking in crucial detail, particularly given the recent uptick in anti-EU sentiment in the United Kingdom.

One final noteworthy shift in foreign policy plans is the agreement’s proposal that Germany piggyback off the United States’ troubled “pivot to Asia” and intensify its own relations with Asian countries. According to the text of the deal, Germany will deepen its strategic partnerships with China, Japan, and India, but will be careful to avoid “confrontation” in the region. It consequently comes as no surprise that Germany has remained mum on China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone last week, apart from blandly noting that this move has “raised the risk of an armed incident between China and Japan.”

Even with this handful of new ideas, the foreign policy outlined in the coalition agreement overwhelmingly reflects continuity, conservatism, and an unconstructive lack of nuance. Whereas the majority of today’s international challenges demand nimbleness, Germany seems to deliberately constrain herself through one-dimensional regional policies (e.g. “deepen relations with Asia”) and a toothless commitment to forging common EU foreign policy.

When German foreign policy plans go awry – as they have, for example, with regard to Ukraine, or to Turkey’s troubled bid to join the EU, or even in the bilateral relationship with the US – Germany tends to default to the familiar, to the status quo. For the US, the familiar amounts to a welcomed response, as it means that relations between the two countries will likely normalize. But the underlying lack of foreign policy flexibility or strategic direction that this “status quo default” belies is cause for concern.

If, as expected, the coalition agreement is approved in December and Merkel is again elected Chancellor, the new government will have its hands full with several newly negotiated domestic policies. And in the midst of this flurry of activity, it is possible that the new foreign minister – widely expected to be Frank-Walter Steinmeier – can mold German foreign policy into something that is bolder, more flexible, and better matched to the today’s global challenges. However if past behavior can serve as any predictor, we certainly shouldn’t count on it.

Lauren Harrison is currently a German Chancellor Fellow in Berlin and a non-resident fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is researching the role of mediation in German foreign policy.