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Post-Merkel Germany Likely to Balance Washington and Moscow

The new German government’s policy towards Russia deserves Turkey’s attention as it is likely to affect Ankara’s own balancing act between Washington, Moscow, and even Paris.
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Today, Olaf Scholz was sworn in as the fourth Social Democrat Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany after receiving 395 of the 736 valid parliamentary votes. He needed at least 369 to take office. It will no doubt be challenging for him to govern in this the first tri-party coalition since 1945, consisting of his social democratic SPD, the center-left environmentalist Greens, and the market-oriented center party FDP, each of which value different political traditions and espouse different ideologies.

Despite their differences they have all signed off on a unified agenda. They agreed upon contract, under the heading “Dare More Progress”, is an ambitious reform program. It promises greater climate protection, an exit from nuclear and coal power, economic restructuring, digitalization, an increased minimum wage, and the construction of 400,000 new appartements per year to ease the country’s housing squeeze.

Since a tax increase is out of the question for the FDP, only two measures remain debated in the coalition program: the significant expansion of the state budget and the question of assuming new national debt. Here, the coalition partners may clash, as the neoliberal FDP might block the SPD’s more social projects. After all, business-focused Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP-Chairman) rejects a tax increase and holds true to the Merkel government’s “debt brake” (Schuldenbremse) approach.

Nonetheless, Chancellor Scholz faces an even greater challenge in foreign policy. He needs to assume an efficient leadership role in the European Union (EU) in order to strengthen European cohesion and, at the same time, strike a balance between the divergent geopolitical interests of Washington and Brussels, Paris and Berlin, and Warsaw and Budapest. All of this must be accomplished at a time when the world order is undergoing structural change: Pax Americana is coming to an end and Washington possess neither the power nor the will to guarantee a unipolar order in the face of a shift towards multipolarity. Meanwhile, the economic giant China and the military power Russia push for a sovereignty-based world order.

Some experts suggest that the US, China, and Russia could agree upon a new concert of powers similar to that of the 19th century. This would probably guarantee world peace, albeit at the expense of embracing the outdated principle of non-interference within the exclusive “zones of influence” of major rival powers. This would be the end of the liberal world order which is based on liberal democracy, rule of law, and pluralist societies inside states and on free trade and rule-based relations in international politics. A departure from the liberal world order would indeed be detrimental for the German economic model as well as its social arrangements. Consequently, the EU must choose between either being a strong global actor or becoming a plaything for great powers.

Therefore, the question is: will post-Merkel Germany be an effective “leading global actor”, as John Kornblum, a retired American diplomat and US Ambassador to Germany from 1997 to 2001, puts it? Will Berlin succeed in strengthening political cohesion and in advancing the military capacities of the EU? France, for example, continues to push for a strong Europe and the establishment of a European security council; it is sympathetic to the concept of a United States of Europe (USE), the idea of which is also defined as a goal in the new German government’s coalition agreement. However, the states of the Visegrád Group (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia) are unwilling to sacrifice any further sovereignty to be part of this USE. They would rather seek military cooperation with the US, deferring to its security guarantees instead of looking to Brussels for their security affairs. Germany, too, is and will be dependent on the security guarantees of the US for a while – if not just to keep the Visegrád Group close.

Washington, however, will not renew its security guarantees for Europe unless Europeans take on more financial and military responsibility in return. A response to these expectations from the US could be the EU’s – including Germany’s – active participation in containing China in the Pacific. Or Europeans could provide the US with financial, political, and military relief by taking responsibility for the European neighborhood from the Baltic through the Middle East to the Sahel so that Washington can concentrate on the Pacific region.

Many decision makers and experts in the US speculate, with good reason, that Scholz’s chancellorship could support US policies to contain Russia and China. After all, the government program contains strong commitments to a normative-led and law-based world order, promotes a strong NATO and effective transatlantic partnership, and presents distinct criticism of China’s human rights violations. It also calls on Russia to end its illegal annexation of Crimea and its destabilization of Ukraine. The German foreign ministry will now be headed by a Green politician, Annalena Baerbock, who is transatlantic-oriented and Russia-sceptic. She also opposes the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Nevertheless, expectations that Scholz and Baerbock would cancel the Nord Stream 2 project and drive a tougher political line against Russia and China may be misguided.

Both scenarios pose a dilemma for German foreign policy. As for confronting China, economic relations with the country and thus German prosperity would be jeopardized – China has been Germany’s largest trading partner for years. As for Russia, a confrontation with the country would not only expose Germany to a security risk, but also put the German export economy at a disadvantage, especially if its Russian-sourced energy supply were to become more expensive, therefore making its industrial goods less competitive. Furthermore, these scenarios would necessitate the buildup of military capabilities and the development of diplomatic capacities on a scale that would far exceed the planned three percent of GDP. So, in both scenarios, American and German national interests collide, because Washington wants its allies to decouple from China and Russia, but this would bring Germany to the brink of economic collapse.

Cancelling Nord Stream 2 would make Germany dependent on American gas, which, extracted by way of fracking, is more expensive. This would increase costs for German private households and industry, leading to greater inflation and decreased competitiveness. It would also further destabilize Russia, which is not in Germany’s national interest.

All of this should matter to Turkey for at least two reasons. First, a one-sided transatlantic-oriented Germany would weaken Ankara’s negotiating power vis-à-vis Washington and expose it to the influence of Moscow. Second, an assertive Germany, in unison with France, vis-à-vis Russia, would weaken Turkey’s position against Russia as well as against France in the eastern Mediterranean, where both NATO partners’ interests collide. Ergo, a Germany that prioritizes the balancing of Washington and Moscow will increase Ankara’s own ability to balance these actors, plus France.

*Yaşar Aydın is an affiliated senior researcher at Foreign Policy Institute (METU) and lecturer at the Hamburg Protestant University for Social Work and Deaconry Hamburg. Aydın previously worked as a senior researcher at the HWWI – Hamburg Institute of International Economics and SWP – German Institute for International and Security Affairs and taught at the Turkish-German University Istanbul. He can be found on Twitter: @yasaraydin10