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Annalena Baerbock flourishes in a crisis

March 7, 2022

The Green Party politician has received widespread praise for how she is representing Germany in the face of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On International Women's Day, DW looks at how she has exceeded expectations.

Annalena Baerbock with journalists' microphones
German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock has risen in popularity since she took office in December 2021Image: Thomas Trutschel/photothek/imago images

Annalena Baerbock, the former co-leader of the environmentalist Greens and now the first woman to serve as Germany's top diplomat, marks three months in office on International Women's Day (March 8).

She has emerged as one of the countryˈs most popular politicians, winning overwhelming praise also from conservative quarters for her clarity and steadiness in a time of great upheaval across Europe and major changes in German foreign policy.

On Thursday, the monthly Deutschlandtrend opinion poll found that Baerbock was easily Germanyˈs second-most-esteemed politician, after Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD). Some 50% of respondents said they were either pleased or very pleased with her work — a massive increase of 14 percentage points from the same time the previous month.

The growing appreciation for Baerbock stems largely from how she has handled Russia's invasion of Ukraine. On Twitter, German users have lauded her as "made for the role" of foreign minister and "the best choice" for the job that could have made.

Annalena Baerbock UN

Analysts have also noted that, ahead of Germany's 2021 federal election, Baerbock was the only chancellor candidate to call the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia a mistake. Less than two weeks ago, amid Russian aggression toward Ukraine, Scholz indefinitely blocked the pipeline from going into service.

Exceeding expectations

Across the board, German news outlets, such as the weeklies Der Spiegel and Die Zeit, have been applauding the foreign minister for "speaking plainly" about the crisis and also talking directly to the Kremlin. When she went to Moscow in the days before the invasion, she seemed unflustered by her surroundings.

In her speech last week at the United Nations, Baerbock looked straight at her Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, and said: "You are abusing your power as a permanent member of the Security Council. ... You can deceive yourself, but you do not deceive us."

Paul-Anton Krüger, the chief foreign policy writer for the Süddeutsche Zeitung daily, said her speech "made no attempt to hide behind diplomatic empty phrases. That's both good and long overdue."

Krüger said Baerbock's first months in office had confirmed for the general public what she spoke of in the autumn, namely "that switching to renewable energy as soon as possible ... is now mandatory," for both reasons of climate protection and security policy as European countries try to wean themselves off Russian gas.

In an article published by the Bavarian public broadcaster last week, foreign policy correspondent Barbara Kostolnik wrote last week of how Baerbock has exceeded expectations: "How many doubts, reservations and resentments were heard and read when Annalena Baerbock, wife, mother, 40, first entered the Foreign Ministry as Germany's top diplomat. More or less openly, many foreign policy observers asked the question that women are often asked: 'Can she do this?'"

Her election campaign to become German chancellor was marred by online trolling but also minor scandals such as plagiarizing parts of her 2021 book and delaying the payment tax on a Christmas bonus. Baerbock admitted her mistakes and apologized repeatedly, putting her firmly on the defensive, which many felt made her look weak. Now, Kostolnik emphasizes, in the face of a crisis, "nothing is left of that Annalena Baerbock, an insecure, tense, harried woman."

"She began cautiously," Kostolnik said, but quickly emerged as a decisive, clear leader acting on Germany's behalf internationally.

Baerbock's statement s day after Russia invaded Ukraine hit the right note: "We woke up in a different world today. ... We are stunned, but not helpless." These words, which were seen as refreshingly open and honest, were received in Germany as being in touch with the public mood.

Baerbock: 'Peace and freedom in Europe have no price tag'

'This young lady'

During Baerbock's campaign for chancellor and her early days in office, conservative pundits wondered whether the young mother was up for the job. But she went on the offensive arguing that if it was possible for Jacinda Ardern to combine a career and a political career in New Zealand, then it would also be possible in Germany. Baerbock has two daughters of primary school age and a stay-at-home husband.

Her first days in office saw users take to social media to ridicule her every minor slip of the tongue. For instance, when she spoke of "fressefreiheit" (which could be understood as a colloquial term for freedom of the mouth) instead of "pressefreiheit" (press freedom), a video of the lapse went viral on Twitter.

In February, it became obvious that not everyone had overcome sexist attitudes toward Germany's foreign minister when Christoph von Marschall, a correspondent for the Tagesspiegel daily, referred to the now-41-year-old top diplomat as "this young lady" on television, questioning whether she was fit for her role during a trip to Ukraine in which she visited troops wearing a flak jacket and military helmet. His comments were met with a barrage of criticism and accusations of sexism.

According to Agnieszka Brugger, a defense policy expert for the Greens, Baerbock's feminist leanings have given her special insight, particularly with regard to the current conflict.

Brugger told DW's Rosalia Romaniec that one of Baerbock's talents was "countering the narrative that powerful states have specific zones of geopolitical influence with another story, that of human security and human rights."

Brugger highlighted two exemplary Baerbock quotes: Security is "about whether families and children in the middle of our Europe can grow up safely and in peace" and when, after her trip to Ukraine's Donbas region, the foreign minister said that "only when women are safe is everyone safe."

Annalena Baerbock with COVID mask, wearing a helmet and bulletproof vest
Annalena Baerbock visited the Donbas region on a trip to Ukraine in JanuaryImage: Bernd von Jutrczenka/dpa/picture alliance

Climate policy takes a backseat

When Baerbock took office in December 2021, she announced the transfer of responsibility for international climate policy from the Environment Ministry to her Foreign Ministry and said she would be Germany's chief negotiator at the UN climate conferences. This gives foreign climate policy a higher priority than before in the "traffic light" government. This was seen as an upgrade for the Foreign Office, which had lost ground to the Chancellery in recent years.

Since then the issue has taken a back seat — with the exception of her appointment of Greenpeace International chief Jennifer Morgan to the position of special representative for international climate policy in the Foreign Ministry three weeks ago.

Whether Baerbock's current popularity holds out in the long term remains to be seen. But she has used her first three months in office to defy her skeptics and hold her own on the world stage.

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

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Elizabeth Schumacher
Elizabeth Schumacher Elizabeth Schumacher reports on gender equity, immigration, poverty and education in Germany.