Steinmeier′s return to the Foreign Ministry | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 19.12.2013
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Steinmeier's return to the Foreign Ministry

Social Democrat Frank-Walter Steinmeier will take control of the Foreign Ministry for the second time under a grand coalition. But this time it will be harder to leave his mark - next to "foreign chancellor" Merkel.

Frank Walter Steinmeier is back in his old office. Just like during the last grand coalition between Social Democrats (SPD) and Christian and Social Democrats (CDU/CSU) from 2005 to 2009, he once again heads Germany's Foreign Ministry. And that, the 57-year-old lawyer and politician said, is an "honor and privilege."

His first official trip abroad took him to France, together with Chancellor Angela Merkel, with whom he reportedly got along with well during his previous time in office. Only rarely did they have disagreements - such as when she received the Dalai Lama at the Chancellery, a step Steinmeier regarded as an unnecessary provocation of the Chinese government. But despite the two being an experienced team, it may very well be that Merkel and Steinmeier may have to reassess their common modus operandi.

The glamour is gone

View of the Foreign Ministry in Berlin Copyright: imago/Hoch Zwei Stock/Angerer

Not so powerful any more: the Foreign Ministry in Berlin

When Merkel was elected chancellor in 2005, she had little political experience abroad. Consequently, one of her colleagues gave her a globe, which she promptly placed on her desk, for better orientation. Eight years on, she is more than experienced on the international stage, everyone knows her and she knows every maneuver. When it comes to important areas of foreign policy, she will take the lead.

It's not unusual for the chancellor to mark out the route for her chief diplomat to embark on. What is unmistakable, however, is how the office of foreign minister has lost much of its former glamour. It used to come with considerable prestige, as well as, usually, the position of deputy chancellor. Today, the Foreign Ministry at times is seen merely as a satellite branch of the Chancellery. In the media it has already mused about the foreign office having lost its clout, passed off for a knock off price at the "bargain table of coalition talks."

Military constraints

For every foreign minister, the basic coordinates are more or less the same: Germany's integration into Europe on one side and its transatlantic partnership on the other. When it comes to foreign policy, it's all about the proven principle of continuity, which Steinmeier, too, mentioned in his inaugural address. However, he added that "merely conjuring up the well-known" will not be enough for the future. That's why the chief diplomat would like to see a discussion on the future orientation of Germany's foreign policy.

Frank-Walter Steinmeier next to Guido Westerwelle Photo JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP/Getty Images

Inaugural words of welcome: Steinmeier (left) and his predecessor Westerwelle

It's a discussion that Steinmeier kick-started with voicing one of his own beliefs: Threatening and resorting to military force could not be the "litmus test for [Germany's] political credibility abroad." Such behavior would be ignorant to the potentials of prudent diplomacy as well as the particular responsibility Germany bears due to its history. Steinmeier also praised his predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, for maintaining a "culture of military restraint."

Of friends and partners

The coalition agreement between CDU/CSU and SPD comes without any surprises in the field of foreign policy. It specifically mentions France and Poland as particularly important neighbors. Special recognition goes to the United States as "key to liberty, security and prosperity of all." As this does not include the liberty of eavesdropping, the coalition partners do expect the US government to restore lost trust and better respect the privacy of German citizens. As the most important future project, the agreement lists the free trade agreement between the EU and the US.

Under the new government, relations with Russia remain labeled as a "partnership of modernization," on which both countries would, however, have "different views." Ukraine also comes in high on Steinmeier's agenda. Demonstrators in Ukraine have been pushing for closer ties with Europe for weeks even as the country's president intensifies ties to Russia. Steinmeier has put forward the question whether the country might be overwhelmed "should it have to choose between Russia and Europe," adding that the West had perhaps underestimated Russia's determination in this matter.

When it comes to Asia, the coalition agreement sees China and India as "strategic partners" with whom economic cooperation should be intensified.

In Africa, German support should help states to deal with regional problems on their own, and states of the Maghreb can continue to count on Germany as a "partner for transformation," especially whenever there is "a notable positive development towards democracy and pluralism in society."

A bundle of foreign policy measures that, in the eyes of the new government, qualifies Germany for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council - when and if the respectively necessary reforms within the United Nations are put in place.

Caught between reasons of state and party politics

German Chancellor Angela Merkel at the top of a gangway outside a German government plane (Photo: MICHAEL KAPPELER/AFP/Getty Images)

Jetting from one summit to the next: Chancellor Angela Merkel

Following his previous term as foreign minister, in 2009 Steinmeier ran against Merkel in federal elections. The result was a shock for his party: The SPD brought home the worst result in its history. It was already during the previous CDU/CSU - SPD government that the Social Democrats complained about having to slave in the engine room of the "grand coalition steamer," while the Christian Democrats would be lolling on the sun deck - a complaint referring to foreign policy and beyond.

Germany's foreign policy and politics of European integration might just be the SPD's chance to distinguish itself as Merkel received ample criticism for both her strict stance towards southern European crisis states and her management of the NSA scandal. It remains to be seen whether Steinmeier succeeds in giving these aspects of German foreign policy a signature of his own.

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