The slow death of ambition: German foreign policy after Kramp-Karrenbauer’s resignation

The grand coalition will continue to be a kind of caretaker government in its lack of a big foreign policy vision.

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When Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) announced her resignation as leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) on 10 February, the Berlin rumour mill began to buzz with one big question: would this mean the end of the party’s unpopular “grand coalition”?

It soon became clear, however, that the German proverb Totgesagte leben länger (the dead live longer) is grounded in reality. The forced marriage between the CDU, its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) has survived no less than a very close vote on the coalition agreement among SPD members; an existential clash between Chancellor Angela Merkel and Horst Seehofer, minister of the interior and leader of the CSU; and the election as leaders of the SPD of two little-known left-wingers who called for an immediate exit from the coalition during their campaign. As a member of the Bundestag recently remarked, this version of the coalition has been in a state of emergency since day one.

Nonetheless, the grand coalition has been pronounced dead so many times that one can be almost certain all three parliamentary groups will stick with it until the very end. Both the CDU and the SPD now have a leadership problem: they do not know who they could put forward in an early race for the chancellorship. Moreover, support for the conservatives and the social democrats is at a record low, while the Greens are surfing a wave of success. Given that there is also widespread fear of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) becoming more popular and more radical, it is easy to understand why both parties tend to see a snap election as political suicide.

This has troubling implications for German foreign policy. From the beginning, the grand coalition has been primarily concerned with navel-gazing party politics. There has been little trace of the spirit of awakening that captured German foreign policy in the years that followed the 2014 Munich Security Conference. Back in those days, it seemed as though Germany had begun to develop a new understanding of itself – if only hesitantly, and well below its potential. Slowly but definitively, Germany was saying goodbye to its role as a “free rider” and “net importer” of security by increasing its international commitments. Berlin finally seemed willing to bear a level of responsibility for world peace and international security commensurate with Germany’s position as the biggest and most powerful country in Europe.

AKK is one of the few political figures who dares to position herself outside the ponderous foreign policy status quo.

However, by the time the grand coalition was formed (if not earlier), it was evident that this incipient process of foreign policy adjustment was over. In recent years, no matter the shocks to the liberal international order on which Germany depends, there has been little tangible sense of urgency in Berlin. Instead, it feels like Germans have pushed the snooze button while the world around them fundamentally changed, raw power replaced international law, and an increasing number of conflicts ended in military solutions.

While the CDU, the CSU, and the SPD all pushed for a more ambitious German security and defence policy under the previous coalition government, there is little left of this initiative. To the contrary, new security and defence policy ideas have become highly controversial within the current grand coalition. Instead of using the opportunity to begin a sensible, wide-ranging argument about which security policy goals Germany should pursue in light of the new threats it faces – or about which commitments it has made and which resources it needs to draw on – the government is stuck in discussions reminiscent of the early 1980s, centring on the “militarisation” of the country and possible “arms races”. As a consequence, many important decisions, such as that on a replacement for the Tornado combat aircraft, are on hold.

AKK’s resignation will make things even worse. The leadership dispute in the CDU – which is, in reality, a fundamental disagreement about the party’s political direction – will take up even more energy than before. The grand coalition will continue to be a kind of caretaker government in its lack of vision and big ambitions. Other member states should scale down any high hopes for the German presidency of Council of the European Union they may have – even though an inward-looking Germany could be preferable to one in election mode while the EU negotiates the next Multiannual Financial Framework and its future relationship with the United Kingdom.

Moreover, AKK is one of the few political figures who dares to position herself outside the ponderous foreign policy status quo. Even if her proposals were not always convincing or well timed – for instance, her idea for establishing an international security zone on the Turkish-Syrian border – she at least dared to tackle issues that others had left in a vacuum. She has built on the foreign policy ambitions sent out into the world by the 2014 Munich Security Conference. She has repeatedly pointed out that Germans cannot just stand on the side-lines and that they need to keep their promises, such that to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence.

It looks as though AKK will remain in office as defence minister – probably for as long as the grand coalition holds together. On the positive side, AKK’s withdrawal from the party leadership could allow her to concentrate on her ministry more, now that she no longer has to engage in turf wars. The Bundeswehr can certainly benefit from this. However, in view of the wider debate on Germany’s foreign, security, and defence policy – or the lack of it – AKK’s ambitious ideas will have less resonance. Her proposals will no longer come from a future candidate for chancellor, but from an ousted former party leader. This will certainly not increase her authority in the cabinet.

It is still an open race to succeed her as head of the CDU. The most obvious choices include Armin Laschet, minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia; Federal Minister of Health Jens Spahn; and Friedrich Merz, the old anti-Merkel warrior-in-exile who came second in the December 2018 race for the CDU leadership. With Laschet having clearly set himself apart from the CDU’s course on Russia and Syria in the past, Merz and Spahn are more aligned with the party’s broad transatlantic, European, and liberal foreign policy traditions.

But the real question is: which of the candidates would be open to entering a coalition with – and would be acceptable to – the Greens? This is because a new coalition that can rejuvenate German foreign policy is urgently needed.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

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