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Who is Germany's Annalena Baerbock?

Germany's new top diplomat emphasizes a "values-guided" foreign policy. But what inspired those values, and can the Green party politician back them up in one of the most high-profile offices?

Annalena Baerbock at a press conference in Paris on her first visit abroad
Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock took office on December 8, 2021Image: Gonzalo Fuentes/AFP/Getty Images

Annalena Baerbock had a fiery baptism in her new job. Within weeks of being sworn in, Germany's first-ever female Foreign Minister, still only 41 years old, found herself in Moscow face to face with Sergei Lavrov, Russia's top diplomat for the last 18 years, trying to diffuse the powder keg in Ukraine.

Given the skepticism — and the misogynistic vitriol on social media — she has received since she was first mooted for the role, Baerbock's reception from Germany's media afterwards was virtually triumphant. Newspapers of various political stripes praised her preparation and confidence in the face of one of the longest-serving politicians in the world.

"I thought she was good," Wolfgang Schroeder, a political scientist at Kassel University, told DW. "It was surprising that she made no mistakes, that her tone was assertive but not too pointed."

Schroeder also noted that Baerbock's handling of the Ukraine crisis so far has given the impression that she is working closely with Chancellor Olaf Scholz, of the Social Democrats, something that cannot necessarily be taken for granted, given that they are of different parties. "There was no attempt to challenge the chancellery — instead, there was an attempt to find a common line with the chancellor," he said.

Friendly media, solid performance

Hubert Kleinert, a politics professor at the Hesse University of Applied Sciences and himself a former Green Party Bundestag member, is not surprised that Baerbock has done well. "These are good conditions for early success," he told DW. "She's a young woman who brings a certain element of vitality. She's a bit different, and I'm sure the imagery in the media helps her."

Then again, he noted, going down well in the media is not the same as de-escalating major power on the brink of war. "At the end of the day, it depends on what substance comes out of it. Whether anything was actually achieved I can't say," Kleinert added cautiously.

Green Party tradition

Perhaps the pundits needn't have been all that surprised that Baerbock has made a principled stand in her early appearances as foreign minister. She had already emphasized the "value-guided foreign policy" she favored in last year's election debates. As the Green Party's candidate for chancellor, she made what many saw as assertive statements about China, Belarus, Hungary, and Russia.

Moreover, as Kleinert pointed out, "it has always been part of the Green tradition that ethics and human rights aspects are emphasized more strongly."

Indeed, the Greens have a tradition of posting troublesome foreign ministers. Baerbock's most notable predecessor is Joschka Fischer, the Green veteran who started out as an anti-establishment protester and rose to become Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's top diplomat in the late 1990s. Fischer's most famous moment of defiance came when he was one of the few US allies to openly question the evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, ensuring that Germany took no part in the US-led invasion in 2003.

Baerbock's rise

Baerbock's parents took her on anti-nuclear demos in her youth in the 1980s, and in the biography on her personal website, she describes being "touched by worldwide injustice" since her teenage years, which she claims fired early ambitions to be a journalist.

She studied political science and public law in Hamburg, earned a Master's Degree in international law at the London School of Economics, and then began a doctorate at Berlin's Free University, which she broke off in 2013 on being elected to the Bundestag.

Her academic career ran in parallel to a steep political ascent. Having joined the Green Party at the age of 25, she became leader of the party in the state of Brandenburg only four years later, while simultaneously acting as spokesperson of the party's working group on European affairs and serving as a member of the board of the European Green Party.

She continued this focus on European affairs in her first term in the Bundestag, when she claims to have "worked hard on making the German government finally acknowledge its international responsibility as one of the largest economies in the world and to lead the German 'energy transition'."

Nevertheless, her attention shifted to domestic affairs in her second term in the Bundestag, from 2017, when she focused on child poverty and single parents.

Germany's Greens see chance for 'new chapter' in transatlantic relations

A rocky candidacy

Her triumphal procession continued into April 2021, when she won an internal Green Party power struggle against her co-leader Robert Habeck, and became the party's first-ever chancellor candidate in a national election.

That's when she hit trouble: Almost as soon as her candidacy was announced, negative press appeared, crushing early hopes that the Greens might even challenge the two big German parties, the center-left Social Democrats and the center-right Christian Democrats.

In May it emerged that she had failed to properly report her extra income to parliament — something she described as a "silly mistake" — and a hastily ghost-written book, published in June 2021, was found to be riddled with plagiarized lines and poor annotation.

Though her TV debate performances against future chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) and conservative candidate Armin Laschet (CDU) were praised, her campaign never recovered, and the Greens ended with a disappointing 14.8% in September's election. In line with their earlier agreement, it was her rival and co-leader, Robert Habeck, who became vice-chancellor in the new coalition government.

Bouncing back

But that chapter is now over, and Baerbock has turned her attention to the challenges of her new office. Speaking to DW, Gustav Gressel of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) said he did not see any particular weakness in Baerbock's relative youth and inexperience. "Anyone who has risen that far in politics has to have a certain amount of toughness," he said.

"I think much of this criticism as misguided because that's simply not how electoral democracy works," he added. "Ministers are not technocrats. They need to find and identify the people they can rely on in specific areas to work for them and with them."

How green can a Green foreign minister be?

Perhaps mindful of criticism of the Greens from environmentalist pressure groups like Fridays for Future, Baerbock has been at pains to sell her new brief as essential to fighting the climate crisis: "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."

When faced with countries such as China that have generally blocked global climate agreements, Baerbock has argued that the key was not to strive for unlikely global solutions, such as a universal carbon tax, but to cooperate bilaterally with countries prepared to retool their industries to be carbon neutral.

Ultimately, though, Gressel believes that Baerbock's success will not only be measured in what she says about "values" in foreign policy. The more important question, he said, was: "How willing is Germany to create means to that end? For example, she has asked for a new fund for strategic infrastructure. That's a start to countering the Chinese takeover of infrastructure around the world, especially in the neighborhood of the EU. You have to stand for your values not just in words but also in money."

Edited by: Rina Goldenberg

This text has been updated since its publication in late 2021.

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Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight