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The Green Party co-leader Baerbock is set to become the country's next foreign minister. Critics wonder whether it's the office the Greens really wanted, and what her stances on China and Russia are likely to be.
Annalena Baerbock is not everyone's idea of a German foreign minister. Last week, firebrand Left party politician Oskar Lafontaine flatly told Die Welt newspaper that the 40-year-old Green party co-leader would be a "catastrophe" in the post.
The veteran socialist was being typically blunt, perhaps especially so now that he is about to retire after a career of annoying center-left politicians, and his reasons for objecting to Baerbock were exactly what one would expect: "She wants 'increased pressure on Russia,'" he said. "And will uncritically follow the US' confrontational policy towards China and Russia."
The fact that a normally conservative newspaper chose to print this interview (and headline the article with the "catastrophe" quote), shows that Baerbock is likely to face criticism from all directions when she takes on the new job.
Nor is nostalgia likely to sway her critics: The last time the Greens were in the German government, from 1998 to 2005, they also held the Foreign Ministry, with the outspoken Joschka Fischer — who gained much favor for his uncompromising opposition to the Iraq war — in the top diplomat post.
This time, there has been criticism from the environmentalist pressure groups on Baerbock's new job. The party has taken plenty of flak for giving up the Finance and Transport Ministries to the neoliberal Free Democrats in the coalition negotiations – two areas where they were seen as more likely to influence their core issue: the climate crisis.
Confronted with this point on Wednesday, Baerbock was at pains to sell her prospective new brief as essential to fighting global warming: "We can only solve the big domestic policy questions like climate neutrality with a globalized world," she told public broadcaster ARD. "That's why, for a strong climate policy, we need an active European and German international foreign policy."
Lafontaine was accurate about her views on Russia. In the TV debates during the election campaign, then-chancellor candidate Baerbock claimed that while her opponents saw Russia's Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline across the Baltic as a "purely economic project," she considered it "a treacherous plan" on the part of Russian President Vladimir Putin. She said that this had been confirmed by her own trip to Russia to speak to key players.
The Greens have also openly shown support for opposition groups in China, Russia, and Belarus, and one can expect a clearer line from her toward China on its treatment of the Uighurs.
On other issues, meanwhile, Baerbock will represent continuity. Like most other German parties, the Greens want a strong Europe and a strong trans-Atlantic relationship. Isolated groups in the Green party may still want Germany to get out of NATO, but the leadership and large sections of the party see it differently.
Also in those TV debates, Baerbock took a noticeably harder line on Hungary than either Christian Democrat candidate Armin Laschet or the man who is now her new boss: the designated chancellor-to-be, Olaf Scholz. The Green candidate spoke of cutting EU funds to Hungary for its continued authoritarian trajectory, something Laschet and Scholz both objected to.
Of course, being principled and uncompromising in a TV debate is easier than being so in office, as her predecessor found out. A key moment for Joschka Fischer came in a 1999 vote on the German participation in military missions in Kosovo, in which the minister — formerly a radical student protester — had to convince the delegates at a party conference to give up on their pacifist agenda.
Baerbock is also likely to face continued scrutiny in office, after she suffered a barrage of personal attacks during the election campaign that put her on the defensive and fatally hurt her bid to become chancellor. Baerbock, who has never held a government office before, was accused of minor inaccuracies in her official resume, a delay in paying taxes on a sizable Christmas bonus, and plagiarizing parts of her new book.
This is a reworked and updated version of an article that was first published on April 3, 2021.
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Edited by: Kyra Levine