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Germany Must Reset The Transatlantic Alliance – Analysis

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By Ambassador Gurjit Singh*

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The new German government led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz replaces the 16-year-long chancellorship of Angela Merkel and emerges at a time when there is international uncertainty around Germany and the world at large. The three-party ‘traffic light’ coalition worked out a detailed charter to guide the government and apportion the ministries according to the parliamentary strength of each of the partners: the red left-leaning Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, and the yellow pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP). They have often had contrary and competing visions, which coalesce in the coalition compact.[1] It is an innovative alliance indeed.

The main challenges to the government are domestic, dealing with the recurrent Covid and the economic consequences. Germany always supported the climate agenda which now becomes more important with the Greens as coalition partners.

The significant international task is to strengthen the relationship with Europe, reduce the imbalance in the relationship with the U.S. and influence the behaviour of important economic partners, Russia and China.[2] Germany is the largest EU economy though its military strength has not kept pace with it potential. The U.S. remains consistent in its approach that the European countries must spend more on defence and has set a target of 2% of GDP for all NATO members.

The Koerber Stiftung carried out a survey to judge German attitudes to foreign policy prior to the elections.[3] It reflected that German thought and consequently policy may alter their preferences. For instance, over the last year the importance of France as the most important partner for Germany has fallen by nearly 20% whereas the importance of the U.S. has risen from 10% to 45%. Three-fourths of German respondents see the U.S. as a partner for protecting European security; 64% for promoting free trade and 63% for protecting democracy and human rights.

Germans are divided evenly on the U.S. as a partner in dealing with Afghanistan or China. While only a minority believe that the U.S. is a partner in the Green or Covid agenda, 67% of Germans believe that having closer relations with the U.S. as important while 19% approve of a close relationship with China and only 16% for a close relationship with Russia. Half the respondents believe that China and Russia are minor threats and about 25% believe they are no threat at all.

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Based on the survey, it appears that rejuvenating the Transatlantic Alliance is a preference of the German people and dealing steadily with Russia and China is called for. However, if the coalition compact is studied, along with the policy speech at the Bundestag by the Chancellor[4], then it is evident that it is Europe and the EU which is the top priority for the government.

Germany aligns its policies with the EU and coordinates its responses with the Common Foreign and Security Policy of Germany. On economic policy, it will abide by the fiscal stability pact. Even on the Indo-Pacific, where Germany’s guidelines were announced before those of the EU, Germany will abide by the consensus on the Indo-Pacific led by the EU.[5] “The success of Europe is our most important national concern,” Scholz told the Bundestag.[6] The European initiative is supported by the survey since 65%, supported strengthening the Common Foreign and Security Policy of the EU.

Germans are concerned that in the future, Europe should be able to compete against China and the U.S. in technological innovation and digitalisation in which they are lacking. Half the survey’s respondents believe that this is tentatively possible.

Despite the positive feeling for the Transatlantic Alliance, the post Trump period leaves Germany with some thinking to do. Will a Trump return be an important imponderable? The uncertainties faced by Germany when Trump was U.S. president has persuaded them that they must have an independent outlook which can work in tandem with the U.S. but not to a level that the U.S. can dictate terms.[7] Between Joe Biden and Scholz, the partnership is likely to continue with each promoting their own agenda, without the rancor of the Trump period.[8]

Three issues stand out here. First, the U.S. wants a more robust European response in dealing with Russia and China.[9] While suspicion of Russia and China in Germany’s mind is growing, the economic partnership with Russia for energy and China for trade and investment urges caution to the coalition. The Greens favour calling out China, the SPD prefers caution so that the economic engagements don’t suffer. Germany does not want to be the burden-carrier for the U.S. agenda and prefers to keep its own communication links with Moscow and Beijing.

The second issue is that of increasing defence expenditure.[10] The SPD and the Greens both have never been in favour of this. The coalition charter does not explicitly mention this, though it says that they will work in tandem with NATO. With the FDP having extracted a policy of no new taxes, and no stretching of debt limits, the prospect of a slow-growth Germany expanding its defence budget from $63.8 billion and 1.57% to 2% of GDP seems unlikely.[11]

The third is the understated perception that Germany and the EU must carve their own space from the U.S. to prevent what happened in Afghanistan and with Iran. The EU would still like the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action JCPOA to be rekindled[12] but the U.S. and U.K. approach prevents this. In Afghanistan, Germany was left to pack its bags without much consultation.[13] It would now like to work with the U.S. but pick their own quarrels on terms they can manage.

Among the various trials that the Scholz coalition faces, the management of the Transatlantic Alliance will test it the soonest.

*About the author: Gurjit Singh is former Ambassador of India to Germany.

Source: This article was written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations.

References:

[1]Full text: What SPD, Green Party, FDP have agreed on, DW https://www.dw.com/en/full-text-what-spd-green-party-fdp-have-agreed-on/a-59548008

[2] For an elaboration see Gurjit Singh. India relations set to climb new heights as new coalition assumes charge in Germany, First Post 22 December 2021, https://www.firstpost.com/world/india-relations-set-to-climb-new-heights-as-new-coalition-assumes-charge-in-germany-10228111.html

[3] Special survey The Berlin Pulse 2021 Körber Stiftung https://www.koerber-stiftung.de/en/the-berlin-pulse/special-survey-the-berlin-pulse-2021

[4] We will strike out on a new path, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag, The Federal Government, 15 December 2021, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/government-statement-1991614

[5] Gurjit Singh, Germany takes view of the Indo-Pacific, ORF, 1 October 2020, https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/germany-takes-view-indo-pacific/

[6] We will strike out on a new path, Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in the Bundestag, The Federal Government, 15 December 2021, https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-en/news/government-statement-1991614

[7] Heather Conley, Why Germany is Resistant to Change, The Berlin Pulse 2021, chrome-extension://efaidnbmnnnibpcajpcglclefindmkaj/viewer.html?pdfurl=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.koerber-stiftung.de%2Ffileadmin%2Fuser_upload%2Fkoerber-stiftung%2Fredaktion%2Fthe-berlin-pulse%2Fpdf%2F2021%2FTheBerlinPulse_2021_komplett.pdf&clen=2972014&chunk=true

[8] Steven Pifer, Rebuilding US-German relations: Harder than it appears, Brookings, March 25, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2021/03/25/rebuilding-us-german-relations-harder-than-it-appears/

[9] Ivan Krastev, What Europeans think about the US-China Cold War, ECFR, 22 September 2021, https://ecfr.eu/publication/what-europeans-think-about-the-us-china-cold-war/

[10] Germany Defense Market – Attractiveness, Competitive Landscape and Forecasts to 2026, Global Data, 30 June 2021, https://store.globaldata.com/report/gddf0696mr–germany-defense-market-attractiveness-competitive-landscape-and-forecasts-to-2026/

[11] Peter Suciu,  Despite NATO Pressure, German Defense Budget Has Failed to Increase, The national Interest 17 August 2021, https://nationalinterest.org/blog/buzz/despite-nato-pressure-german-defense-budget-has-failed-increase%C2%A0-191897

[12]  U.S.-EU Summit Statement, The White House, 15 June 2021 https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/15/u-s-eu-summit-statement/

[13] Afghanistan pulls out chills US-German relations, DW, 31 August 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/afghanistan-pullout-chills-us-german-relations/a-59026553

Gateway House

Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations is a foreign policy think-tank established in 2009, to engage India’s leading corporations and individuals in debate and scholarship on India’s foreign policy and its role in global affairs. Gateway House’s studies programme will be at the heart of the institute’s scholarship, with original research by global and local scholars in Geo-economics, Geopolitics, Foreign Policy analysis, Bilateral relations, Democracy and nation-building, National security, ethnic conflict and terrorism, Science, technology and innovation, and Energy and Environment.

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