Concentric circles: The meaning of the German elections in international relations
Germany has always been about more than itself. Given its geographical position in the middle of Europe, Germany’s role, its power, and its influence on its neighbors over many centuries has been of importance to Germans and non-Germans alike. Indeed, Germany’s impact in the last century was pivotal for the entire world. Its path passed through a period of global power and influence into the darkest chapters of human history and emerged as a divided country – a frontline battle zone in a clash of ideologies backed by nuclear weapons. The last decade of the twentieth century then saw the opportunity for a united Germany to assume greater leadership as a nation embedded in a European framework, in which it shared a common future. And during the past quarter century Germany has taken gradual, sometimes slow and uncertain, steps in coming to grips with both expectations and capabilities circling around its changing role on the European continent and indeed the world stage. Today, Germany is the most powerful and indeed the most influential country in the European Union and plays a leading role on the world stage. Chancellor Angela Merkel has been identified multiple times as the most powerful woman in the world. Hence the upcoming election in September – regardless of the outcome – is of great importance to more than just Germans.
As German voters ready themselves for another national election to choose leadership over the next four years, other countries will be watching closely. There are three key areas of those challenges shaping the debates among the parties vying for support.
The domestic area
First and foremost is the domestic area. While concerns about economic scenarios and societal worries (educational performance, crime, or privacy security) tend to dominate voters’ behavior, foreign policy issues will have an impact as well. Clearly terrorist threats remain on the radar screen as does the continuing struggle to deal with the flow of immigrants and asylum seekers. While the wave of refugees has significantly decreased due in large measure to a deal struck with Turkey, there remains a tense truce with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan over that situation, which could change at any moment given his unpredictability and continuing aggressive stance toward Germany in particular, apart from the ongoing war in Syria.
Fear of other waves of refugees from further south in Africa are also part of those concerns. The debates over how Chancellor Merkel has dealt with the refugee crisis will no doubt impact the platforms of the electoral debates. But there remain many unresolved questions about the ability of Germany and Europe to absorb the current population of refugees – let alone to handle more. The arguments that there must be more efforts to stop the causes driving waves of refugees toward Germany will be central. But that is a challenge only to be addressed by a much larger international framework in which Germany must play a leading role, primarily in the European Union, but also across multiple international frameworks. Here is a good illustration of the interface of domestic and foreign policy.
While Germany’s economy is humming along with large export surpluses through its powerful manufacturing capacities, the locomotive role Germany plays remains critically important throughout Europe. German unemployment levels are low but there are concerns about longer-range issues involving infrastructural weaknesses, and indeed the vulnerability of Germany’s economy due to its dependence on exports. There are also criticisms of Germany’s low level of consumer spending which impacts negatively on other European countries. Calls for Germany to reduce its export surplus and increase its domestic purchasing power by a stronger fiscal policy have had less impact on Merkel’s government in the past few years. Yet given the need to boost growth in a still ailing EU-wide economy, pressure on Berlin will increase.
Again, Germany is always about more than itself.
The domestic battle over the elections will be centered around persuading voters about the policy choices in dealing with all these issues. Only with sufficient public support and a viable consensus can any political leadership in Berlin be successful in implementing policy. The spectrum is as broad as it has ever been with the likelihood of seven parties (counting the Christian Social Union, CSU, as one of them) represented in the Bundestag after the coming elections. This will be a challenge in two dimensions: forming a governing coalition with a sufficient majority in the Bundestag and sustaining it over four years. With the likelihood that Chancellor Merkel will remain in office, she will be faced with the choice of building that coalition between her party (the Christian Democratic Union, CDU) and either the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) in a smaller coalition than currently exists or perhaps with a revitalized Free Democratic Party (FDP). In either case, there’s going to have to be a decisive effort made to deal with these domestic and foreign policy questions through a difficult transition phase. The bottom line will remain: domestic issues and some critical foreign policy concerns will increasingly be intertwined for whomever will govern Germany. And given the central importance of Germany’s economy and political stability, many non-Germans will have a large stake in the results as well.
The European area
With regard to the second area – the future of the European Union – the importance of the German election will have a significant impact on how the challenges and choices are framed.
German leadership has been crucial to the efforts to both hold the EU together in critical crises while also trying to articulate the vision Berlin pursues while not alienating its neighbors. Germany has always been a major source of financial support for the EU going back to its beginnings over six decades ago.
Since unification in 1990, Germany has been impacted by calls from some corners – particularly in the U.S. – to assume more engagement in dealing with a world permeated by permanent crises. Responding to these calls has generated extensive projects in the foreign and defense ministries with the purpose of explaining where, when, how, and why Germany wishes to exercise its global responsibility, deploy its foreign policy resources, and engage in dealing with crises in the service of its own interests and that of a peaceful world. This has been framed by the realization that Germany has the capability and the responsibility to engage as both a wealthy and a successful stakeholder in a world in which its security is both directly and indirectly affected by critical developments in Europe, its neighborhood, and its global environment.
More recently, Germany has approached this challenge by emphasizing its role as “leading from the middle” in its efforts to mobilize not only all its own resources, but also in acting as a leader in encouraging a multilateral approach to threats, crises, and a sustainable global order together with its partners and allies. Germany has evolved an extensive set of tools to implement those goals dealing with crisis prevention and management, development aid, as well as military engagement. It has emphasized the extensive overlapping network of domestic and international organizations, government agencies, and the Bundeswehr in the effort to deal with conflicts and crises in regions where they can be engaged. It has recently increased its investments and budgetary expenditures accordingly.
This multi-level comprehensive approach is not necessarily unique to Germany, but it serves as a blueprint for expanding its capacities through a European framework at all levels. The goals aim to draw on the resources of all EU members in positioning a stronger European response to challenges across a range of issues by sharing tools and coordinating policy.
The full meaning of a shared European security and defense posture must be framed by a commitment to pooled policy priorities including non-EU NATO member states. Few (if any) of the major security challenges – be they military threats, terrorism, arms control, or climate change – are manageable by a single state. Germany has prioritized that reality in order to encourage the comprehensive approach to finding solutions. As mentioned above, that priority includes strengthening the commitment to these priorities within its own national dialogue.
While those should be the priorities, serious problems stand in the way of implementing them. Again, one is convincing the German public about their importance. While embedding itself in a multilateral cluster appeals to most Germans, the challenge occurs when the model of implementation runs into stormy waters instead of sunny weather. The reality of permanent crises will not allow a reprieve from engagement. The experience Germany has had in Afghanistan since 2001 is an illustration of the difficulty of sustaining public support despite setbacks and serious losses.
The second problem is implementing the multinational engagement with European partners who also have difficulties in securing support for their policies. There will be asymmetric equations of pooling resources – just as there is in the transatlantic framework. Maintaining coherence and effectiveness depends on identifying the purposes of joint engagement in the perception of national interests as well as affirming the value of joint efforts to meet threats and crises. For reasons that reflect a variety of centrifugal trends in Europe pulling at the fabric of European policymaking, it will likely fall to Germany to lead the effort to sustain that purpose in the coming years regardless of the election results. However, it will continue to be a challenge for Germany to balance calls for and exercise of leadership against some resistance to it within the larger European framework.
The poster child for this dilemma is the euro crisis. Dealing with that challenge led to enormous criticism aimed at Germany for its alleged fixation on austerity. Berlin’s preference for tight fiscal and monetary policies raised hackles on both sides of the Atlantic over arguments about the need for consumption and infrastructure investment. That was augmented by criticism regarding Germany’s ever increasing trade surpluses. However, the forces of compromise prevailed and Germany’s priority not to break up the currency union was a major factor. That said, the euro crisis is far from over and whoever wins the election will continue to be confronted with the congenital defects of the euro in the divergence between a common monetary policy without common fiscal policy parameters.
This has been an age-old dilemma for Germany, but how and when German leadership lines up with European support will be driven by the key issues of economic and political security. The adage applies here: damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But Berlin will need to continue to be creative and circumspect as it crafts its policies with an effort to forge a common European platform and a path forward.
The transatlantic area
The third area filed with challenges for the winners of the German elections will be in the framework of transatlantic relations.
There can be no doubt that the first few months of the Trump administration have severely rattled the framework of transatlantic relations in several ways. Donald Trump has called into question a number of assumptions that have been sacred over the last decade even if they have been questioned behind closed doors in the past. Whether it be the mission and maintenance of NATO, trade relations, climate policies, or finding the balance of strategic priorities on both sides of the Atlantic, there is uncertainty where in the past continuity has been assumed. During the recent week of NATO meetings in Brussels and G7 meetings in Italy, there was ample illustration of these transitions. Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accords is another area of transatlantic tensions. But there are other points of contention over issues such as the deal with Iran, digital policies, and dissonance over dealing with Russia.
There is nothing new about having tensions across the Atlantic and that includes between Germany and the United States. But the basis of that relationship has always been trust in the reliability of the “partnership in leadership” as President George H.W. Bush once labeled it. Yet in this particular phase of Donald Trump’s presidency we’re going to see a struggle to find common ground in the different domestic debates going on in Germany and the United States. Trump’s “America First” principle of his foreign policy has raised serious questions in Europe about the reliability of the United States as a global leader, as Chancellor Merkel recently stated.
For decades Germany, while it was divided, was secure under the umbrella of American defense policy. Following unification in 1990, that umbrella remained in place. But in the more recent years questions have been raised not only by the Trump administration, but also by previous administrations concerning the equation of burden sharing in the alliance after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. And even now despite a resurgent Russia raising concerns about its aggressive posture, those questions are very much a part of Donald Trump’s messages to European allies. Trump’s appearance at the May 25 NATO summit meeting was an illustration. In an awkward presentation to NATO allies, the president delivered a set of criticisms about financial obligations to NATO without mentioning the mission of alliance. And this happened standing in front of the monument to the 9/11 attacks which was the one and only time that NATO implemented its Article 5 commitment – and that to the United States.
There are legitimate questions involved in how NATO should be structured almost seven decades after it was created. But that was neither the occasion nor the message to make the point.
Dealing with this clash will undoubtedly seep into the election campaign leading up to the elections at the end of September in Germany. Trump’s popularity level in Germany is the worst of any president since the conflict over Iraq in 2003. Yet regardless of who wins this election, major challenges remain. If there is to be an effective response to a transformation of the Atlantic bargain, whether it deals with security, trade relations, or indeed relations with other countries or regions around the globe, Europe, and Germany in particular, has to develop a more effective strategy toward crafting an international role with capacity and commitment in the global arena. That will require changes within Germany and within the EU at large. The shift in Germany is becoming visible as documented in a recent publication on defense policy, the so-called White Paper in 2016 and in its commitments to an expanded defense budget. Yet that same trend needs to be applied to the larger European framework. A deeper European defense strategy to create more multinational capabilities, reduce redundancy, and generate more investment and pooled investments in the kind of capacities of which the U.S. has been the primary supplier for decades. This will be particularly relevant for the Franco-German partnership as it can act as a catalyst to enhance the meaning of collective defense within NATO.
This will be no easy accomplishment as it will involve persuading a skeptical public, particularly in Germany, about the need to enhance Europe’s security structure, which will not be cost-free. Yet the demand for German leadership is in direct proportion to its emergence as the EU’s key economic and political power in a Europe which needs it even if it is simultaneously sometimes resented.
The past few years have demonstrated the limits and the possibilities of exercising that leadership whether it be in the euro crisis, the Ukraine-Russia standoff, the conflicts in the Balkans, or in dealing with Iran. But if there was a message coming from Berlin after the Trump tour, it was simply: we understand that we have to do more, but the United States should understand that we are the partners that can offer you a set of advantages you will not find elsewhere.
Reversing the exchange from Washington to Berlin, the post September 24 coalition in Berlin should not think that the Trump administration will significantly change its messages. While it may be difficult to deal with conflicting signals emerging out of Washington, it is clear that criticism of Germany’s $ 65 billion trade deficit in goods will continue. Pressure for Germany to increase its domestic demand and to enhance more growth throughout Europe will stay in place. There will continue to be calls to ease German fiscal policy and support looser monetary policy in the euro zone along with steps to make the euro area a more effective single market. In addition there will be calls for a more coordinated approach to shared challenges such as energy security or refugee issues.
In one particular area – fighting terrorism – there will be calls for more coordination of intelligence policies both within Europe and on the global arena. And there will be expectations that Berlin lead the effort to negotiate a sustainable relationship with the United Kingdom, maintaining strong trade and security ties.
Finally a strong message will be continuing for Germany to increase its defense spending. While a debate over the quality and effectiveness of that spending within NATO will continue, Germany will be expected to expand its capacities within the Alliance as the primary framework for mutual security.
The importance of the German elections is about challenges and choices which will have consequences in many different concentric circles surrounding the Federal Republic. That is not a new situation. But it is an increasingly important one for Germany, Europe, and transatlantic relations, particularly now.