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Foreign policy

Nina Werkhäuser / mllNovember 26, 2013

German foreign policy is largely determined by the chancellor, meaning that, even in a new coalition, it will be marked by continuity. The foreign minister will have to try to put his own stamp on the job.

Merkel walking up the steps of a plane Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle still has a lot to do. Even though his party, the liberal Free Democrats, failed to get into parliament at the last election, and he really shouldn't be a minister at all any longer, the delay in forming a new coalition meant he still had to travel the world, rushing to Geneva to help negotiate the Iran nuclear deal or take part in talks with US senators over the NSA spying affair.

But when he finally clears his desk some time in December, he can be pretty sure that German foreign policy will continue much as it is, whichever party his successor belongs to. The chancellor, Angela Merkel, will make sure of that, as will the nature of the grand coalition between Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Social Democrats (SPD), with its need for compromise.

And, in fact, the working group on foreign and security policy which drew up guidelines for the future coalition produced its results promptly and without much public argument. As far as foreign policy is concerned, the motto is "continuity" - even if that doesn't exclude some new ideas. The few points of disagreement were in the realm of security policy - for example, the purchase of armed drones for the military or the demand for a more restrictive policy on arms exports.

New priorities in security policy

Westerwelle had also wanted to set a few markers while remaining within the tradition of great liberal foreign ministers such as Hans-Dietrich Genscher. He would have liked the US to have removed its nuclear weapons from German soil, and had that demand included in the coalition agreement in 2009. But the nuclear weapons are still there, and the grand coalition obviously doesn't feel this is a battle worth spending too much energy on.

Westerwelle's policy on military intervention by German troops was characterized by "a culture of military restraint," with which he justified Germany's abstention in the UN vote on intervention in Libya. The coalition says it wants to be "ready for the deployments of the future," and it wants the German military to increase its cooperation with EU partners in order to make that possible. The draft coalition agreement speaks boldly of a "European army under parliamentary control," although there aren't even the first hints of such a development.

Westerwelle waving Photo: Wolfgang Kumm/dpa
Soon saying goodbye: outgoing Foreign Minister Guido WesterwelleImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Whoever isn't a friend is a partner

The draft praises the good relations between Germany and its partners and allies, especially its neighbors France and Poland. The US has a particularly predominant role as "the backbone of our security and freedom." But that doesn't include the freedom to snoop, and so the new coalition expects the US government to win back lost trust and respect German privacy in the future. But still, the most important future project is the free trade agreement between the EU and the US.

The two sides in the coalition agree in defining Germany's relationship with Russia as "a partnership for modernization," but it admits that the two countries have "different conceptions" of what that means. The draft says that Russia needs to uphold legal and democratic standards in its treatment of civil society, minorities and the opposition.

China and India are seen as "strategic partners," with whom economic cooperation should be intensified. Africa should receive German support so that it can eventually solve its own problems. The countries of the Maghreb in North Africa should be able to count on Germany as what the draft calls a "transformation partner," especially if there is evidence of "a positive development towards democracy and pluralism in society."

And all this, says the draft, should mean that Germany deserves a seat on the UN Security Council, although that would require a reform of the UN.

Foreign mini-ministry

When Merkel became chancellor in 2005, she didn't have much experience in foreign policy. One of her staff members gave her a globe as a present, and she kept it on her desk to help her know her way around. Eight years later, she's thoroughly at home on the international stage, and it's clear that she and her advisers in the chancellery will continue to set the tone on foreign policy.

The entrance to the ministry
The Foreign Ministry has less power than it used toImage: CC-BY-NC-SA-Michel Balzer

The preeminent role of the chancellor is not unusual, but it's clear that the Foreign Ministry has lost much of its former glamor, when the minister was usually vice-chancellor. Nowadays, it's the finance minister who has the influence.

Who'll be Germany's head diplomat?

The most likely candidate for the Foreign Ministry is 57-year-old Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who led his party's team in the working group.

He had the same job in the last grand coalition under Merkel, from 2005 to 2009. The two of them rarely disagreed - one of the rare occasions was when Merkel invited the Dalai Lama to her office, which Steinmeier saw as an unnecessary provocation of the Chinese. They got on so well that when Steinmeier became his party's challenger for the chancellorship in 2009, he could only handle her with kid gloves.

Merkel and Steinmeier sitting side-by-side ERIC FEFERBERG/AFP/Getty Images
Merkel and Steinmeier were a well-oiled teamImage: Eric Feferberg/AFP/Getty Images

The SPD's miserable result in that election, after four years of grand coalition, was a shock for the party. They had long been complaining that they were doing all the hard work in the engine room of the national ship while the CDU was out sunning itself on the deck. Although they weren't referring to foreign policy directly, it applied there too: Merkel was happy to swap the annoying details of domestic politics for the occasional red carpet abroad.

And, in the end, it was the CDU which won the votes, so that the SPD promised itself it would never let itself be outmaneuvered in a grand coalition again. That will depend on how much of their own content SPD ministers are able to include in the work of government. And that applies to the foreign minister, too.