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25. November 2021

A New Foreign Policy for Germany?

Experts Assess the German Coalition Deal of 2021

Leaders of Germany’s Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals unveiled a coalition pact on Wednesday. Getting three political parties to agree on anything is tough. It runs to more than 170 pages of which a 27-page chapter is devoted to “Germany’s responsibility for Europe and the world.”  DGAP experts give their initial reactions to key aspects relating to foreign and security policy, tech, climate, China, and more. 

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Ampel Pressekonferenz Koalitionsvertrag 2021
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A New Foreign Policy Outlook

Germany’s new ruling coalition has laid out an ambitious agenda that offers a strikingly progressive domestic policy and the promise of newly assertive foreign policy. The two will need to work in tandem for Germany to be seen as a global leader. Gone are the opportunist and mercantilist leanings of the Merkel government on China. The new coalition looks to be much more hawkish, aiming instead to “reduce strategic (economic) dependencies” on China through close coordination with the United States and “like minded” democracies to defend human rights and international law – as well as functional value chains. The new coalition is also looking to bolster Europe’s norm- and standard-setting role across a broad front, including on technology, cyber, and AI. Only if Germany can rapidly advance its own digital and data capacities (referenced earlier in the coalition blueprint) will it be a credible actor in this space. Relieving international migratory pressures and pushing back against Russia’s tactics in Belarus, in turn, can only be a realistic policy stance if the government manages to reform its own immigration, citizenship, and asylum practices. And leadership on climate foreign policy will only be possible if domestic goals are both ambitious and achieved.

The coalition’s foreign policy stance falls short where no amount of dedicated negotiation could paper over divisions among the three parties: Russia and Turkey policy remains largely vague; ambitions on defense policy remain low. Instead, negotiators embraced a “work around” – three percent of GDP is earmarked to enable yet undefined “international engagement.” But define this coalition must. They have promised the German public its first-ever formal National Security Strategy. Scheduled to be published next year, it could force this government to formulate its views as actual interests – historically a difficult concept in German foreign policy – providing the clarity allies and voters need, making Germany a more “normal” foreign policy actor at last. 

 

Solid on Defense, Fuzzy on Strategy

Germany’s new course on security policy is pretty much the old course… and that is good news as there was serious concern that the German commitment to defense would erode further. But the final text of the coalition agreements carries Germany’s commitment to nuclear deterrence over to the next government. However, there is a bitter pill to swallow: To bring the critics on board, the new coalition envisions to possibly join the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) as an observer – not as a member.

For a coalition between Social Democrats, Greens, and Liberals, it would clearly have been impossible to explicitly commit to the toxic two percent formula on defense spending. Instead, they included several positive notes on spending, burden sharing, and the need to invest and to overhaul the procurement system. This is accompanied by a key phrase, “reliably equipped with financial resources,” which opens the door to multi-year projects that are more cost-effective and can be delivered on time because they are fully financed from the start.

On a negative note, the new coalition’s European and bilateral commitments are few and lukewarm. A second sobering result is a lack of an ambitious agenda for civilian crisis management and stabilization. Even more importantly, there is still a lot of work to be done to fulfill the coalition’s biggest promise and create a truly comprehensive and coherent foreign policy for Germany. 

Clarification on the EU-US Trade and Technology Council Needed

Refreshingly, the coalition agreement engages with the links between Germany’s domestic and international technology capacities and objectives. It declares that Germany will have an “active digital foreign policy” in support of a global, open internet. Germany’s future government speaks clearly about tech access and control to address the developments in biotech, hypersonic weapons, space, cyber, and AI. At the EU level, the agreement supports continuity. The EU digital rule book gets an endorsement – particularly the AI Act’s prohibition of social scoring and real time remote biometric identification – and the European CHIPs Act.

The coalition also states that Germany must reach the goal of investing 3.5 percent GDP in R&D. It also pushes for the establishment of a German Agency for Transfer and Innovation (DATI), a recognition that Germany’s challenge is translating innovation into commercialization. It endorses open-source software (OSS) in multiple areas, including in 5/6G as a key component of “strategic sovereignty.” This is a tough message to France, the Commission, and the European champions, Nokia and Ericsson, who see their global position on mobile technology threatened.

Vis-à-vis the United States, the agreement states that Germany “seeks a transatlantic dialogue on data sovereignty, Internet freedom, and AI.” But it neglects to mention the EU-US Trade and Technology Council (TTC), the central Euro-Atlantic project with the Biden administration. This is a missed opportunity. The new Berlin government must clarify its position to the TTC if tech policy is to be a central pillar of the transatlantic relationship.

Germany Toughens Up on China

Germany’s new leaders will likely be much tougher on China than Angela Merkel’s outgoing government. For the first time, Germany will develop an explicit China strategy and embed it in the EU’s policy. In their coalition agreement, the three parties forming the new government announce they will cooperate with China on the condition of compliance with human rights and international law. This is also the first coalition agreement ever to mention several acute conflicts involving China, including the South China Sea, Taiwan, human rights violations in Xinjiang, and Hong Kong. Ratification of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investments will be put on hold. In the recent past, many EU partners had rightly criticized Germany for prioritizing its economic interests over EU solidarity.

Most importantly, the new government commits to a more European approach to China and adopts the EU’s description of China as partner, competitor, and systemic rival. In the context of growing systemic rivalry between democracies and autocracies, Germany’s commitment to cooperate more with like-minded partners, including the United States, also may imply a clearer stance. Yet all this will require to be implemented in practice. The fact that key posts, the Economics Ministry and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, will be held by leading Green politicians, points toward a principled China policy. The coalition agreement is a signal that change has come to Germany’s approach to China.

Ecological Modernization

Germany’s new coalition declares climate protection to be its top priority. Respecting the lower temperature limit of the Paris pathway – a 1.5°C warming above pre-industrial temperature levels – is defined as a prerequisite for sustainable economic and human development in Germany and abroad. The new coalition agrees with science that to limit global warming, innovation and reform need to be accelerated. The coalition wants to achieve this through several measures, including scaling up renewable energy and reducing bureaucratic and regulatory hurdles and the development of capacities for green hydrogen. German industry received a clear message that sustainability should guide investments. While research and development of new technologies are key, the upscaling of existing solutions for CO2 emissions reductions should not take second stage.  

After long negotiations, the three parties forming the new government agreed on 2030 as the “ideal” exit date for coal. Ambitious goals are set for protecting carbon sinks, such as moors and forests, and creating new sinks by using wood for construction. Climate and biodiversity protection are anchored as cross-cutting themes in agricultural policy.

Yet to make a dent in the global emissions curve, Germany needs partners. While the phrasing on new climate partnerships and open climate clubs is promising, the increase in international climate finance is not sufficiently concrete. The coalition agreement delivers on the promise to form an alliance for ecological modernization and aims to position Germany as a leader of climate-neutral technologies. Now the difficult work of implementation can begin.

More Ambition for the EU’s Capacity to Act 

A central objective in the coalition treaty is “more strategic sovereignty for the European Union.” Importantly, it is a clear signal to those member states that have pushed for more “strategic autonomy” for years. Foremost among this group is France, which Olaf Scholz singled out as key partner in his short press statement, and which will need Germany’s support on a number of important EU items early on in its Council presidency in 2022.

For the traffic light trio, EU strategic sovereignty means the capacity to act independently on the world stage, and being less “dependent and vulnerable” in strategic sectors such as health, energy, raw materials, and digital technologies. It also means better protecting critical infrastructure and technology. The treaty also sets the ambitious objective of introducing qualified majority voting (QMV) in EU foreign policy, finding a mechanism that will involve smaller member states without making them feel overruled, and developing the European External Action Service as a future EU foreign ministry.

After years of hesitation, an ambitious German agenda on European sovereignty is welcome. But the devil is in the details: The treaty does not reveal which tools can be used to get there, or how they can be used. Before it can improve EU-level coordination, the government needs to better coordinate its own EU policies across ministries that will now be held by three coalition partners. The coalition agreement recognizes this need for an “ambition to shape” EU policy, and to react earlier and better to Commission proposals, but it does not introduce new means for doing so. Much of the ambition thus depends on the modus operandi that a Green Foreign Office, an SPD-led Chancellery, an FDP-held Finance Ministry, and 14 other ministries – all of which have an important EU dimension – will adopt. 

Christian Lindner in the European Spotlight                                                  

Following the coalition agreement, commentators noted that the liberals had abandoned their legacy in German foreign affairs. With the Foreign Office taken by the Greens, and the Ministries of Defense and Development claimed by the Social Democrats, what was left for the party of Hans-Dietrich Genscher? This first impression might soon change, however. Discussion of the agreement outside of Germany suggested that the party affiliation of the new Finance Minister, Christian Lindner, was what mattered most to many foreign observers.  

In France, Lindner has been in the spotlight for a while. Emmanuel Macron welcomes the upcoming French presidency of the European Council as a platform for his plans for EU reform, and is looking to repeat his pro-European electoral campaign from 2017. In a nutshell, the fate of Macron’s biggest European success – the Covid recovery fund – now depends on Lindner. The coalition agreement sends controversial signals in this regard. The coalition partners seek to “deepen the Economic and Monetary Union,” while adding that the EU’s Stability and Growth Pact has already “proven its flexibility.” And they want the recovery fund to contribute to a “forward-looking post-crisis recovery,” while underlining that the instrument is “limited in time and amount.” 

The moment of truth will likely come when Europe’s economy hits rough seas. Lindner and the Finance Ministry could suddenly be the most important reference for Germany’s European partner countries. Ask yourself how many people in these partner countries remember Germany’s last Liberal Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle. And now ask yourself, how many of these same people remember Wolfgang Schäuble, former Finance Minister and Westerwelle’s cabinet colleague at the onset of the Eurozone crisis?  

German Foreign Policy Goes Feminist?

For the first time, Germany has included the term “Feminist Foreign Policy” in its coalition agreement. Following in the footsteps of Sweden – the birthplace of Feminist Foreign Policy –, Canada, Mexico, and Spain, it joins the ranks of countries that increasingly want to pursue a foreign policy which seeks to eliminate structural inequalities and discrimination. In a time when the rights of women and marginalized communities are increasingly under attack, this is an important signal from Germany.

Besides having opted to use the English term instead of the German translation, the formulation seems to be slightly vague – not adopting a feminist foreign policy per se, but acting in line with its principles. It nevertheless highlights the need to strengthen the “three R’s” – rights, resources, and representation – as well as promoting societal diversity, and therefore follows the Swedish model. Also mentioned is the further implementation and development of the National Action Plan on UN Security Council Resolution 1325, as well as the need for more women in international leading positions. With Annalena Baerbock becoming Germany’s first female Foreign Minister, the country is taking a historic step towards this goal.

It thus remains to be seen whether a German Feminist Foreign Policy will go beyond gender equality and base future foreign policy decisions on the premises of a feminist approach. This also applies to further topics, such as arms control and disarmament, domestic politics, climate policy, and migration, where a feminist approach would mean constantly seeking to disrupt colonial, racist, and patriarchal power structures. There is room for maneuver – to be filled with action.


Germany’s 2021 federal election marks both the end of Angela Merkel’s 16-year chancellorship and the realignment of German foreign and security policy. It presents an ideal opportunity for DGAP to offer the future German government constructive recommendations for action based on its foreign policy expertise on geo-economics, technology, climate, migration, international order, and security. We invite you to engage in dialogue with us through the publications and events in this dossier.

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