Berlin’s foreign policy dilemma: A paradigm shift in volatile times

Outgoing Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, new appointed Economy Minister Brigitte Zypries, President Joachim Gauck and new appointed Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel pose after receiving their certificates at Bellevue Castle in Berlin, Germany January 27, 2017. REUTERS/Axel Schmidt

Germany’s foreign policy over the last decades has been a paradox. An economic power­house with the potential for a key lea­der­ship role in Europe, Germany has often been accused of being too cautious or uncooperative in addressing European and transatlantic challenges. At the same time, expectations for German leadership have only grown as numerous internal and external crises plague the continent. In response, Ger­many has significantly stepped up its foreign policy posture, providing new leadership in European affairs and reliable partnership in transatlantic endeavors. From the Ukraine con­flicts to the refugee crisis, even Berlin’s harshest critics concede that there has been a notable change in Germany’s policy.

However, the context in which Germany operates has dramatically changed within the past several months. The Brexit referendum and the election of Donald J. Trump as 45th President of the United States have reinforced an almost tragic dilemma for Germany. After decades of caution and restraint, German political elites are mostly converging on the need for a stronger German leadership role in foreign and security policy. Yet, the institutional order in which Germany can exercise leadership is at risk of crumbling away. The EU, with centrifugal and populist forces on the rise, has become an increasingly fragile and contested architecture. And now, following the U.S. elections, the transatlantic space appears to be in danger of its liberal hegemon abandoning its long-held role as the guarantor of the existing order.

This poses a host of new questions for German leadership and the U.S. commitment to Europe—the backbone of the Euroatlantic security architecture. While it is unclear how exactly the Trump presidency agenda toward Europe will unfold, some of the campaign and transition rhetoric suggests that the approach of a Trump Administration could be very different from that of its predecessors, effectively calling into question the commitment of the U.S. to the continent and to the transatlantic partnership. The new Administration will in all likelihood demand that Europe “take on its fair share of the burden,” maybe even to the extent of tying the U.S. commitment to NATO’s Article V to its allies’ levels of defense spending. This will put pressure on Germany to seek more proactive (and European) solutions to security challenges. Analyzing and understanding the potential challenges and limits for German foreign policy leadership is therefore more critical than ever. Is Germany ready and able to take on a greater leadership role for Europe even under these new circumstances? How substantial and how sustainable is Germany’s new foreign policy course, in particular given that Germany faces a populist challenge in the September 24 elections this year?