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What is Angela Merkel's foreign policy legacy?

September 6, 2021

In her 16 years as chancellor, Angela Merkel has made her mark on German foreign policy. The country's role in the world has grown significantly, as have global political challenges.

Angela Merkel with Xi Jinping and other world leaders at G20 in Hamburg in 2017
Angela Merkel proved again and again how she was a central player on the world stage Image: picture alliance / Christian Charisius/dpa

Hardly anyone outside Germany knew who Angela Merkel was when she first became chancellor in 2005. And hardly anyone could have imagined how much she would shape world politics.

She quickly found her feet, both at home and abroad. From the beginning, she largely shaped her government's approach to foreign policy herself, rather than leave it to the foreign minister. As host of the G8 Summit, held in the Baltic coast resort of Heiligendamm in 2007, she was already dealing confidently with the most important heads of state and government in the world. In retrospect, it looks like an almost idyllic world.

Bildergalerie Merkel mal anders - wir gratulieren zum 60.
Angela Merkel hosted a G7 summit with George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin in Heiligendamm in 2007Image: Reuters

Germany takes the lead in the euro crisis

However, the chancellor would soon have to switch to crisis mode: In 2008 the global financial crisis broke out. The euro, one of the strongest symbols of European unification, came under pressure. "If the euro fails, then Europe fails," Merkel warned. 

Under Merkel, the nation with the strongest economy in the EU reluctantly took on the leadership role in Europe. On one hand, the German government forced tough austerity and reform measures on the particularly indebted countries: in Greece, some critics even drew parallels with the German occupation during World War II. On the other hand, Merkel approved extensive European aid. Germany's liability for the debts of other countries increased massively.

The fact that the remainder of the EU, on the whole, accepted Germany's new leadership role is also due to Merkel's sensitive demeanor. She combines a "culture of restraint" with a "culture of responsibility," as political scientist Johannes Varwick from the University of Halle put it in an interview with DW.

Greek newspaper showing Angela Merkel as Hitler
Greek public opinion famously attacked Angela Merkel as excessively tough in the financial crisisImage: picture-alliance/dpa/O. Panagiotou

France and Germany: Not-so-close neighbors and allies

Germany's growing role also created a power imbalance with France. Merkel was expressly committed to this closest partner; the media even invented the portmanteau Merkozy because of her good cooperation with then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.

But she let the demands of various French presidents — most recently Emmanuel Macron — for a deepening of the EU, for example by creating a eurozone finance minister, fizzle out.

That was a "missed opportunity," according to Henning Hoff from the German Council on Foreign Relations. And there has been an "increasing alienation" from France, political scientist Varwick told DW, adding that Merkel had "no great visions" with regard to deepening the EU.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel
Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy had a famously close relationship with Angela MerkelImage: Getty Images/G. Bergmann

Fascinated by China

Apart from this, the chancellor continued the foreign policy of earlier governments: objective, businesslike, without big gestures, in good agreement with all sides where possible — always with an eye toward Germany's worldwide economic interests.

This paid off: Trade, especially with China, grew rapidly. Merkel often traveled to China and seemed fascinated. Hoff saw from her an "admiration of Chinese economic power bordering on awe." Questions of human rights were only cautiously brought up by her there.

VW police car in China
Germany is keen to make sure that Volkswagen cars are sold in ChinaImage: Daniel Kalker/dpa/picture alliance

Generous asylum policy 

Nothing made Merkel more famous worldwide — and nothing polarized public opinion more on her domestically and internationally — than her decision to keep Germany's borders open for the hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants coming to the country in August and September of 2015. She justified this with Christian charity — as well as with her experience as a citizen of the communist former East Germany, the GDR, with its impenetrable borders. Merkel posed for selfies with Syrian refugees — Germany became a place people from all over the world looked to in hopes of a better life.

She was chosen as "Person of the Year" by Time magazine, dubbed "Chancellor of the free world." Others, especially governments in eastern European Union countries, resented her for trying to impose her generous asylum policy on the whole of the EU. Since then, right-wing populism in Europe has significantly increased.

Deutschland Hamburg Plakat der AfD Ausschnitt
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/D. Bockwoldt

Relations with Washington cool down 

Merkel was initially an ardent supporter of a close trans-Atlantic relationship. As an opposition politician, she even advocated for the Iraq war of US President George W. Bush, something the vast majority of the German population rejected at the time.

But relations cooled under her tenure, also because under Bush and his successor Barack Obama the US was increasingly orienting itself toward Asia. Under Obama, who in retrospect described Merkel as his most important foreign policy partner, it was revealed in 2013 that the US secret service had spied on the chancellor for years. Merkel was outraged: "Spying among friends, that is unacceptable," she said. 

Dark clouds 

The global political situation changed: Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea in 2014; the British voted in a 2016 referendum to leave the EU; shortly afterward, Donald Trump became president of the United States. With his slogan "America first", he thumbed his nose at multilateralism.

With a view to the US, Merkel stated with disappointment in 2017: "The times when we could fully rely on others are to an extent over."

Hoff attests to her the "extraordinary ability to hold Europe and the West together and keep conflicting parties in dialogue." She tried repeatedly to do just that in the Ukraine-Russia conflict but was ultimately unsuccessful. This ability was demonstrated, however, when she held fast to the German-Russian natural gas project Nord Stream 2, which was opposed by the US and eastern EU countries.

Right at the end of her chancellorship, in mid-August — to the surprise of Berlin and Washington — the consequences of a colossal misjudgment by the US, but also by Merkel, were demonstrated. Shortly after the withdrawal of Western troops, the Taliban took over the whole of Afghanistan at lightning speed. Everything Germany had tried to achieve for the civilian population there is now in danger of being lost. The German government reacted much too late and argued over whether and how to take in local Afghan employees who now fear the bloody revenge of the Taliban. The debacle is already likely to go down as one of the low points on Merkel's record in governance.

Who comes after Merkel?

'Nothing can be taken for granted'

Merkel has never been a stirring speaker; she hardly exudes enthusiasm. But, especially during times of crisis, she showed what Varwick describes as "a mixture of pragmatism, assertiveness and personal robustness."

Hoff also sees her as a "tireless crisis manager," who has "accomplished a great deal." However, Merkel was "always primarily concerned with preserving the status quo." She had "used the crises too little as opportunities for new beginnings and fundamental change," for example, promoting steps toward greater integration in the EU.

Varwick sums up Merkel's approach to foreign policy this way: She has understood "that Germany has global interests and, on the one hand, Germany is too small to achieve things by itself. On the other hand, because of its size and role in Europe, it is condemned to leadership." 

How, then, might Merkel herself summarize her foreign policy perspective? Her comments when she received her 16th honorary doctorate, from US-based Harvard University in 2019, perhaps give some insight: "Nothing can be taken for granted. Our individual freedoms cannot be taken for granted; democracy cannot be taken for granted, neither peace nor prosperity."

This article has been translated from German

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.