Foreign and defence policy in the German election

The parties in Germany’s next coalition government could find it hard to bridge their differences on foreign and defence policy

Image by Capt. Coffee

Foreign and defence policy rarely decides German elections. Even though the current debate over the botched NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan has brought these issues to the fore again, most German voters do not prioritise foreign affairs – let alone defence policy. But, unnoticed by the electorate, foreign policy could play a bigger role than expected in the negotiations to form a governing coalition that will follow the federal election later this month. With the world entering an era of strategic competition, many look to Germany to play a stronger role. And, in the next legislative period, the government will need to make at least one fundamental decision about the direction of Germany’s defence policy: whether and how to replace the country’s ageing Tornado aircraft, which are nuclear-capable and thereby ensure that it can participate in NATO’s nuclear sharing programme.

Do the parties competing for seats in the Bundestag recognise and prioritise these kinds of challenges?

Manifesto length139 pages65 pages271 pages  90 pages162 pages207 pages
Title of chapter on foreign and defence policy (translation)Germany’s New Responsibility in the World – By Conviction for Peace, Freedom and Human RightsA sovereign Europe in the worldWork together internationallyThe opportunities have never been greater: let’s master the great challenges of our timeWithout peace everything is nothing: For peace and disarmament. Ban arms exportsForeign and defence policy
Chapter pages6-16 (with additional elements in Europe section)55-65 (includes EU politics)217-254 (includes EU politics)62-79 (includes EU politics)133-13962-73 (includes most of the party’s EU policy)

The six parties currently in the Bundestag dedicate around 10-20 pages of their election manifestos to foreign and defence policy, with some of them covering EU policy in separate sections of these documents. Traditionally, the topic comes at the end of the manifesto. This is the case for the documents produced by the Social Democratic Party (SPD), the Greens, the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the socialist Die Linke. The right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) puts its foreign policy section in the middle of its manifesto. Only the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU) have chosen to make foreign and defence policy the topic of their (joint) manifesto’s first chapter, entitled “Germany’s New Responsibility in the World – By Conviction for Peace, Freedom and Human Rights”. This approach, a first for the two parties, is clearly meant to send the message that they take the topic seriously.

Distribution of seats in the Bundestag

The big picture

Broadly speaking, the parties appear to share an assessment of global challenges. The CDU/CSU note that “we are in the middle of a worldwide, epochal change” and that democracies and authoritarian states “are struggling with each other to shape the future in the 21st century”. Equally, the SPD speaks of a “global competition”. The AfD notes that international relations are shifting towards a multipolar world order. The FDP wants to “counter the autocratic striving for power”, a formulation that can be found almost verbatim in the Greens’ manifesto. Even Die Linke sees rising geopolitical rivalries – though it finds all sides equally guilty, criticising the United States for taking a “confrontational course to maintain its own supremacy”.

While the parties broadly agree on the overall situation, they differ on how to address these challenges, how active Germany and Europe should be in doing so, and what role military power has in this equation. Die Linke’s vision is a clear outlier. The descendant of the East German Socialist Unity Party, it wants a “paradigm shift in foreign policy”. This includes the dissolution of NATO and its replacement with “a collective security system with Russian participation”. The party opposes any European “military union”. It wants to close all foreign military bases on German territory and advocates for an end to all German military deployments abroad, including current training missions and support operations for NATO allies in the Baltic region. These positions, however, make it rather unlikely that Die Linke – currently polling at around 7 per cent – would enter any governing coalition. Indeed, the party’s manifesto univocally states that “we will not participate in a government that wages wars and allows the armed forces to take part in operations abroad – that promotes an arms build-up and militarisation.” As the other manifestos show, this should rule out a coalition with every other party in the Bundestag.

The foreign policy roles of Germany and Europe

Most other parties want Germany and the European Union to take on a stronger role in foreign policy (the AfD aims to limit the EU’s influence in this area). The Christian democratic parties envision the strongest role for Germany, which they view as an “anchor of stability in a global world”. They add that, “as Europe’s strongest economy, Germany must play a leading role in foreign and security policy. We must be more prepared than in the past to use all the instruments of our foreign, defence and development policy – including military ones if necessary – together with our allies and partners, while respecting international law and our constitutional requirements” (emphasis added). The CDU/CSU want Europe to be an equal partner of the US, a country with which it can stand for freedom, peace, and democracy in the world. The FDP is even more Europe-focused, as it wants the EU to become “a real global player”. The FDP argues for “open strategic sovereignty” – which it defines as the ability to act independently – and wants the EU to eventually transform into a federal state. It supports the creation of a European defence union as step towards the famous European army.

The SPD also mentions a European army in its manifesto, envisioning this “as part of the Peace Force Europe”. While the party emphasises the importance of NATO, it wants to develop a more capable EU in parallel.

The Greens support an EU security union “with strong parliamentarian control and a common, restrictive arms export controls”. They want more military cooperation at the European level, though their motivation is to build up European capabilities “instead of putting ever more money into parallel national military structures”. But, despite this rhetorical support for European defence efforts, the Greens’ manifesto reveals that they oppose current efforts such as the European Defence Fund (EDF): in the last sentence of their manifesto, they “reject the reallocation of funds from the EU budget previously earmarked exclusively for civilian purposes for military purposes”. As the Greens see member states’ current contributions to the EU as exclusively civilian, this would mean the end of the EDF in its current form.

“European Army” –  defence union In favour
Joint European armed forces in the long term.
In favour
A European army.
In favour, to an extent  
Expand enhanced cooperation between armed forces in the EU; pool military capabilities.
In favour  
A European army under common under joint supreme command and parliamentary control.
Reject the plans for a European defence union and cooperation between the EU and NATO.
The AfD rejects the communitarisation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
Majority decisions in EU on foreign policyIn favourIn favour In favourIn favour  Not mentionedNot mentioned, but AfD is against a common EU foreign policy in general.
Permanent seat for the EU in UN security council  In favour  In favour  Not mentioned, but Greens want to abolish the veto power in the security council in the long run (page 224).In favour  Not mentioned, but explicit no to German permanent seatNo, but AfD wants a permanent seat for Germany.  
The European component

The most important unique feature of the Greens’ manifesto is their aim to adopt a feminist foreign policy. This foreign policy will be “post-colonial” and “anti-racist” as well as feminist. While there are different interpretations of feminist foreign policy, the Greens note that the goal is “a world order in which conflicts are resolved not through the law of the strongest, but at the negotiating table.” In this context, the Greens also want regular “gender analyses for individual country contexts” and “binding guidelines for a feminist foreign policy for the federal government”.

The AfD’s foreign policy vision is, like Die Linke’s, a clear outlier. While it does not completely reject the EU, the AfD wants a “Europe of the Fatherlands”, a community of sovereign states, and regards further European integration as counterproductive. It opposes the EU’s Common Foreign and Security Policy and the European External Action Service. Most striking is the AfD’s insistence on “strict compliance with the non-interference requirement in internal affairs of states, including by non-state actors”. The party explicitly refers to peoples’ right to self-determination, which “must not be undermined” by intergovernmental organisations, NGOs, or large corporations. The party notes that states such as Russia have “spheres of interest” in their immediate neighbourhood, where other powers should abstain from military build-ups. The AfD and Die Linke advocate most strongly for a new relationship with Russia. The AfD argues for an end to EU sanctions on Russia and wants to integrate the country into a comprehensive security structure. The party considers the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to be “indispensable”.

 CDU/CSU  SPD  GreensFDP  Linke  AfD  
On the United StatesThe United States is our most important world-political partner.We need nothing less than a new beginning in transatlantic relations. We will continue the partnership between Europe and the US, based on common and democratic values.The transatlantic partnership remains a central pillar of German foreign policy, but it must be renewed, framed in a European way, multilateral and oriented towards clear common values and democratic goals.We Free Democrats are convinced transatlanticists and are committed to German-American friendship.The US and the EU are trying to assert their supremacy over Russia and China. This threatens to escalate into a new Cold War. In NATO and EU strategy papers, Russia and China are described as enemies, which we reject. We oppose all forms of imperialism. A stable European peace order requires balanced cooperation with both the US and with Russia. ... The US is currently Germany's strongest alliance partner. The guiding principle of relations between our countries must be the equality of both partners.
On Russia
Programme includes formulation (and criticism) of “illegal annexation of Crimea”  Yes  Yes  Yes  YesNot mentioned
We need a policy of détente towards Russia instead of further escalation and troop deployments on its western border.
Not mentioned
Détente in relations with Russia is a prerequisite for lasting peace in Europe. It is in German and European interests to integrate Russia into an overall security structure.
Russia sanctionsSupportive
Sanctions to remain in place until the end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine and a return to Crimea’s legitimate status under international law. 
End of sanctions dependent on implementation of the Minsk agreement.
Easing of sanctions dependent on clear conditions formulated by the EU. If needed, sanctions can be tightened further.    
Possibility to further tighten sanctions in case of a further military escalation.  
Opposes all “unilateral sanctions” by the US and the EU.
Wants to lift EU sanctions and increase economic ties to Russia.  
Nord Stream 2Not mentionedNot mentionedWant to stop the pipelineWant a moratoriumNot mentionedCompletion of Nord Stream 2 pipeline considered indispensable.  
On China[China is] the greatest foreign and security policy challenge today. It is a competitor, a cooperation partner, but also a systemic rival.Conflicts of interest and values with China are increasing. Europe must conduct a dialogue with China on cooperation and competition in a coherent, constructive, and critical manner.China is Europe's competitor, partner, systemic rival.We want to further develop EU-China relations in a targeted manner, despite the systemic rivalry, and to deepen economic and civil society relations. A closer exchange with China can, however, only take place on the basis of and in compliance with the applicable international law.  The US and the EU are trying to assert their supremacy over Russia and China. This threatens to escalate into a new Cold War. In NATO and EU strategy papers, Russia and China are described as enemies, which we reject.China’s increasing influence in the world is a a challenge. Cooperation with China must only take place under conditions of equality and fairness ... The Chinese Silk Road strategy from East to West should be complemented by Germany with an initiative from West to East.  
External relations – what do they say?

Military and defence – what role for the Bundeswehr?

Military and defence policy is a famously difficult topic for Germany. So, it may come as a surprise that – at least at first glance – the parties (other than Die Linke) appear to agree that the Bundeswehr needs more funding. The Greens note that “the Bundeswehr must be equipped, in terms of personnel and materiel, in a way that is consistent with its mandate and tasks, and organised in the best possible way.” They want “optimal equipment” for Bundeswehr soldiers. The SPD argues that only a well-equipped and modern Bundeswehr can fulfil its tasks, promising that “our soldiers can rely on us”. The CDU/CSU regard themselves as “the parties of the Bundeswehr”. They want to equip the Bundeswehr fully – and to increase the number of active German soldiers from 185,000 to 203,000 (in accordance with the current planning of the Federal Ministry of Defence). The AfD wants to reinstate conscription (which the government paused in 2011).

Looking beyond the rhetoric, however, only the CDU/CSU explicitly support – and only the FDP implicitly supports – the NATO goal of spending 2 per cent of GDP on defence, a target that Germany has fallen short of for years. The Greens criticise the method of calculating the goal and reject it. While they call for “a new definition of the goal that is not abstract”, they do not say how much they would be willing to spend on Germany’s defence – thereby leaving its NATO allies to guess.

View of the BundeswehrWe see ourselves as the parties of the Bundeswehr. ... We will fulfil all our military obligations and fully equip the Bundeswehr. We must be more prepared than before to use, together with our allies, all the instruments of our foreign, defence and development policy – including military ones, if necessary […].  It is clear to us that only with a well-equipped and modern Bundeswehr can we fulfil our tasks as a reliable partner in Europe and NATO.Germany should be able to rely on its allies and, in the same way, the allies should be able to rely on Germany.
This also means that the Bundeswehr must be equipped in terms of personnel and materiel, in a way that is consistent with its mandate and tasks, and organised in the best possible way.
We Free Democrats want to increase the operational readiness of the German Armed Forces, and propose to begin a modernisation course to achieve this … [This] process must be financially secured in the long term.We will end foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr and prevent new ones. We will not participate in a government that wages wars and allows the Bundeswehr to fight abroad – that promotes rearmament and militarisation.    To once again fulfil its main mission of national and alliance defence, our Bundeswehr must not only be well equipped financially; it must be given back its independence especially in terms of material and personnel ... The Bundeswehr should once again have a strong esprit de corps, and cultivate its traditions and German values. The virtues of the soldier are honour, loyalty, comradeship and bravery. The Bundeswehr must live up to the best traditions of German military history.   The AfD also wants to reinstate compulsory military service.  
NATO 2 per cent goalIn favour  
We explicitly commit to NATO's 2 per cent target.
Not explicit  
It is clear to us that only with a well-equipped and modern Bundeswehr we can fulfil our tasks as a reliable partner in Europe and NATO.
The NATO 2 per cent target is not an answer [to the debate over burden sharing] and we therefore reject it. We advocate a new definition of the goal that is not abstract, national, and static, but instead based on common tasks, and we will seek dialogue with NATO partners on this.
In favour  
We fully support the alliance decisions of Wales and Warsaw: the strengthening of NATO’s deterrence and defence capabilities through financial resources, capabilities, and contributions.  
Away from the NATO 2 per cent target; towards a policy of détente. Arms expenditure must be reduced, arms exports stopped and the Bundeswehr’s foreign missions ended.   Die Linke wants the dissolution of NATO.  
Not explicit
In line with US demands for a fair distribution of burden-sharing, and European aspirations for a greater say in NATO, it is only logical and in the German interest to strengthen the European pillar of NATO.
Nuclear sharingIn favour – long term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons
NATO is the backbone of Euro-Atlantic security. This security is guaranteed through nuclear sharing, the mutual assistance clause and the presence of American soldiers in Europe.  
Undecidedlong term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons
Before a decision is taken on a successor system to the Tornado fighter aircraft, we advocate a conscientious, objective and careful discussion of technical nuclear sharing. A world without nuclear weapons is and remains the goal of social democratic foreign policy … Germany should constructively support the intentions of [the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons].
Undecidedlong term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons
We want a Germany free of nuclear weapons, and Germany’s accession to the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons ... as a first step, as an observer. ... In addition, we want to an international initiative to reduce the number of nuclear weapons, a renunciation by NATO of any first strike, and a broad public debate on the outdated deterrence doctrines of the Cold War.
No clear stated position –
long term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons
We Free Democrats are committed to the long-term goal of a world free of nuclear weapons and are committed to overcome the ongoing crisis of nuclear disarmament and arms control.
Against –
want nuclear weapons to be abolished immediately
Nuclear sharing within NATO must be ended.
US nuclear weapons
[in Germany] must be withdrawn and destroyed immediately.   
The goal must be the withdrawal of all nuclear weapons from Germany, but also of all the short-range nuclear weapons aimed at Germany. This would make the participation of Germany in nuclear sharing obsolete.  
Acquisition of armed dronesIn favour    More discussion neededMore discussion neededNot mentionedAgainst    Not mentioned
Defence policy

Coalitions and nuclear sharing

The parties’ popularity has fluctuated a great deal recently, but a ‘Black-Green’ government – a coalition between the CDU/CSU, and the Greens, or a government that includes both of these parties – is still a distinct possibility. A little while ago, I wrote an optimist’s take on how a Black-Green government might finally create a coherent defence policy. My underlying argument still stands, but the parties’ manifestos reveal some fundamental differences between them, particularly when it comes to their approach to the military. The manifesto of the CDU/CSU includes a sentence that would not make anyone outside Germany bat an eye but that, by German standards, is rather remarkable: “we must be more prepared than before to use, together with our allies, all the instruments of our foreign, defence and development policy – including military ones, if necessary” (emphasis added).

Several governments have avoided choosing whether and how to replace the Tornado fleet, which can carry US nuclear warheads. But the aircraft are scheduled to be retired in 2024, leaving little time to find a replacement.

It is unusual in the German debate to so openly name the military as a tool of foreign policy. The Greens take a different view. The party – which has roots partly in the pacifist movement – no longer completely rejects the military or military interventions, but its manifesto goes a long way to emphasise that military force is “an ultima ratio, in cases when all other possibilities like sanctions or embargoes have been used”. The Greens’ manifesto suggests that military force might be needed “to avert genocide”, thereby setting a high standard for the use of force. Naturally, such fundamental approaches do not necessarily need to be mentioned in a coalition agreement, but they point towards different understandings of foreign and defence policy that could be hard to bridge.

Beyond these conceptual points, there are several defence policy decisions that the post-election coalition government will have to take over the next four years. One of those decisions pertains to the acquisition of armed drones, a topic that has been discussed in Germany for more than ten years. But even though a decision on this is expected, in theory, it could be postponed indefinitely – although it would be inadvisable to do so. In contrast, the NATO nuclear sharing programme will demand a more crucial, directional, and immediate decision for German policymakers. Several governments have avoided choosing whether and how to replace the Tornado fleet, which can carry US nuclear warheads. But the aircraft are scheduled to be retired in 2024, leaving little time to find a replacement. There is a real danger that Germany might sleepwalk out of nuclear sharing.

Interestingly, all parties keep their cards close to their chests on this challenge and avoid writing down too definite pronouncements (even though they include foreign policy experts who are well aware of it). They agree that,in the long term, nuclear weapons should be abandoned altogether. Die Linke wants to get rid of them immediately and end the stationing of US nuclear weapons in Germany. But only the CDU/CSU explicitly note their support for nuclear sharing, commenting that Euro-Atlantic security “is guaranteed through nuclear sharing.” The SPD, as on the drone discussion, calls for “a conscientious, objective and careful discussion of technical nuclear sharing” before the government decides on a successor system to the Tornado. The Greens hint at their opposition to nuclear sharing, speaking of “outdated deterrence doctrines of the Cold War” but leave the door open to a debate on the issue. Therefore, the manifestos remain somewhat silent on one of the most important foreign and defence policy questions Germany faces.

For German-speakers who would like to know more about these issues, listen to the author discuss the manifestos on episode #46 of the ‘Sicherheitshalber’ podcast.

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


Senior Policy Fellow

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