Washington just lost its north star in Europe. Since 2005, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been the rock of the US-European relationship. Through the trials and tribulations of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, the global financial crisis, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, and the tumultuous four years of former US President Donald Trump, Merkel has been the unfailing constant in the transatlantic partnership. She’s had strong relations with Democrats and Republicans alike (Trump notwithstanding), and she was the first European visitor that President Joe Biden welcomed to the White House, even as her chancellorship was coming to an end. But that constant has changed, and there are major implications for the US, Europe, and NATO.
After the announcement of a new coalition agreement, Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, now takes the reins as Germany’s new chancellor. He’s leading a first-of-its-kind coalition between the Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens, and the Free Democrats (FDP). Much has been made about the progressiveness of the parties’ Koalitionvertrag — its coalition agreement — presented to the public on Nov. 24, 2021 after about two months of negotiations. After 16 years of conservative rule, the plans laid out are bold and progressive. The agreement seeks to modernize the German state, liberalize immigration, invest massively in climate, and even legalize marijuana. However, what does the new government mean for US foreign policy?
WHAT THE US SHOULD EXPECT
The Biden administration should be ready for at least four changes in Germany’s foreign policy that will impact its relationship with Germany.
First, expect a more values-driven foreign policy, which means taking a harder line with autocrats. Annalena Baerbock, the Greens candidate for Chancellor, will lead the foreign ministry. The Greens were the most critical of the major parties of both Russia and China and, alongside the US, have strongly opposed the construction of the Nordstream II pipeline. Germany will also take a much firmer line with Poland and Hungary on rule of law issues. Merkel has been heavily criticized for her soft-touch approach to democratic backsliding. Germany, as the strongest economic player in Europe, has immense leverage and influence and has thus been reluctant to use it.
The Greens values-driven approach will mesh well with the Biden administration and will stand in sharp contrast to Merkel’s more mercantilist foreign policy that heavily prioritized business and economic interests, especially toward China. The challenge for Baerbock is that her approach may also put her at odds at times with the new chancellor Scholz, who represents more continuity with Merkel’s foreign policy. This will create some tension, especially since foreign policy decision-making became increasingly centralized with the chancellorship under Merkel. But Baerbock’s high profile and alignment with Washington will inevitably push Germany in a more values-driven direction. This will likely turn Russia and China policy from being a source of tension in German-American relations, to an area of strength.
The new German government creates an opportunity for the US to push Germany to take bolder action in both Europe and the world stage, especially as both shift their attention to the Indo-Pacific region.
Second, the new government will put Europe first. The coalition agreement is incredibly bold in its support for strengthening the EU. This contrasts sharply with Merkel’s general caution when it came to any EU initiative, with Merkel rejecting French President Emmanuel Macron’s many bold ideas for reform. This was particularly apparent in the area of defense; Merkel always preferred to view European defense through the lens of NATO, and pushed back on Macron’s vision of European strategic autonomy. In contrast, the new coalition parties said they want “to raise Europe’s strategic sovereignty,” and in a recent news conference, Scholz said, “sovereignty of Europe is a cornerstone of our foreign policy.” While the coalition agreement’s embrace of NATO more broadly and its nuclear sharing arrangement more specifically (not a given considering anti-NATO/pacifist elements in the base of the Greens and the SPD) should soothe American nerves, the new German government is likely to be more focused on Brussels than Washington.
Third, Germany will become the global pacesetter on the climate transition. While Germany has long been a global climate leader, Merkel leaves office with a mixed domestic record. She made the abrupt decision to close Germany’s nuclear plants after the Fukushima disaster but did not pursue a similar effort to close coal power plants. Germany’s slow pace of emission reductions has left activists disappointed and prompted the German Constitutional Court to mandate more robust action.
The coalition agreement is incredibly strong on climate, which will see massive investment. Germany, the EU’s most powerful state, will therefore push the EU, an economy the size of the US and China, to continue to take bolder action. This is good news for the US. During the four years of Trump’s presidency, much of the US’ progress on climate came from initiatives by cities and states due to a lack of top-down attention from the federal government. Given the Biden administration’s focus on climate and its reversal of many Trump-era environmental policies, the two sides should use the opportunity to really push the envelope.
Lastly, expect more of the same on defense — which means that the US should expect no change at all. Concerns in Washington and NATO’s east that the new government would back out of its NATO nuclear sharing commitment or would stop the acquisitions of armed drones were unfounded. But for defense spending, in particular, it barely gets a mention in the coalition agreement. Today, the German military is in a dreadful state, suffering from chronic underinvestment — and that’s unlikely to change in a coalition of two fairly dovish parties and a party opposed to more spending. The coalition agreement doesn’t explicitly mention Germany’s NATO commitment to spend 2% of GDP on defense. Instead, it mentions vaguely spending 3% on a more broadly defined set of priorities in addition to defense, which includes diplomacy and development.
It is about time for the US to move past the arbitrary 2% defense spending measurement. Low European defense spending has plagued transatlantic relations (and Germany, in particular) for decades. Instead of pushing fruitlessly for Berlin to hit the 2% of GDP defense spending target, Washington should support calls for more development and international climate spending. At the same time, the US should focus on tangible gaps in NATO capabilities and should turn the tables on Berlin, seize on the coalition’s pro-EU tilt, and encourage more collective spending at the EU level to fill these gaps. A stronger, more cohesive EU that can take bold action on climate or stand up to Chinese economic coercion, is good for both the US and NATO.
This is a historic moment for Germany. Merkel may have been a bridge connecting the two sides of the Atlantic, but transatlantic relations have also grown stale. The Biden administration entered office earlier this year with the goal of renewing the transatlantic partnership and rebuilding the trust amongst US-European partners that was so badly damaged during the four years of Trump’s presidency. The new government creates an opportunity for a renewed relationship by highlighting our shared values, and, as US strategic attention shifts to the Indo-Pacific region, by pushing Germany to take bolder action in both Europe and the world stage.
Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center. Her research focuses on European security, NATO, and the transatlantic relationship.
Max Bergmann is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, where he focuses on Europe, Russia, and US security cooperation.