Germany has voted, and the big remaining questions are what the makeup of the next governing coalition will be and who will succeed Angela Merkel. As chancellor for a record 16 years, Merkel helped guide Germany and the European Union through the financial crisis, the influx of migrants in 2015, Brexit and four years of transatlantic estrangement under Donald Trump.
Merkel’s successor remains unknown, though the Social Democrats’ Olaf Scholz appears the likeliest bet right now. But even with the chancellorship and the coalition up for grabs, the results provide some important clues about the future of Germany’s foreign policy. The transatlantic defense alliance is likely to encounter some trouble in the coming years, but more cooperation on new challenges like China might be on the menu.
In the United States, supporters of the traditional transatlantic relationship, centered on NATO, may be disappointed by the coalition that is likely to emerge. But for those interested in a new transatlantic alliance, focused on the United States and Europe countering China together, the outcome could be good news. The two smaller parties that will make or break any German coalition — the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) — are inclined toward a stronger stance against China, which Germany under Merkel’s “Grand Coalition” of Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SDP) was more hesitant to take. Whatever the makeup of the new coalition, expect a livelier debate in post-Merkel Germany about taking a tougher line on China.
The coalition will most likely be made up of three parties — something Germany hasn’t seen since the 1950s. With the Greens and the FDP definitely included thanks to strong performances on Sunday, what’s unclear is which party will lead the government. The most likely outcome is a “traffic-light” coalition (so named because of the signature colors of the three parties that would comprise it) led by Scholz’s SPD, Sunday’s narrow winner, with the Greens and the FDP as partners. The “Jamaica” coalition (whose three parties’ colors resemble the black, green and yellow Jamaican flag) would be the same, except led by the CDU; this combination is less likely because of the CDU’s poor showing. The Greens and the FDP, therefore, have significant maneuvering room as the SPD and CDU jostle to get them on their side.
Merkel’s CDU left last night’s elections with its worst result ever, coming in second with only 24.1 percent of the votes. This makes it unlikely to lead the next government, which is bad news for supporters of the traditional transatlantic alliance. A CDU-led government would have largely guaranteed the continuation of the old-style U.S.-European relationship, centered around NATO and relying on German participation in collective defense and political arrangements. The CDU sees itself as the party of the Bundeswehr (Germany’s military) and supports NATO’s goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
The SPD, on the other hand, is much less explicit on this, noting more cryptically in its election manifesto that “only with a well-equipped and modern Bundeswehr can we fulfil our tasks as a reliable partner in Europe and NATO.” The Greens, even more outspoken, reject the 2 percent goal completely. Germany has long presented difficulties for traditional defenders of NATO because of its struggles to meet military spending targets — something that will likely continue under a center-left coalition.
Most notably, an SPD-led “traffic-light” coalition would be more skeptical of the longstanding nuclear-sharing arrangement between the United States and Germany. The next German government will be tasked with a critical decision: whether to replace the country’s aging Tornado aircraft, which are certified to carry U,S. nuclear bombs and ensure Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear-sharing program. The U.S., unsurprisingly, has long been pushing for Germany to replace the Tornados, and a failure to do so would be a major blow to the traditional transatlantic setup. But nuclear weapons are extremely unpopular in Germany. With the aircraft scheduled to be retired in 2024, there is little time to find a replacement. If none is procured, there is a real danger that Germany sleepwalks out of nuclear sharing. This would call into question NATO’s backbone — its nuclear umbrella.
The CDU is the only party in the upcoming coalition talks that explicitly supports nuclear sharing. The SPD, FDP and Greens instead emphasize the long-term goal of abolishing nuclear weapons. A CDU-led Jamaica government would likely move to acquire new aircraft, but an SPD-led government might not.
On China, however, a traffic-light government could be more outspoken in a way that aligns with the tougher stance the United States has been taking. All German parties have over the last few years readjusted their view of China, and this process is ongoing. But under Merkel, much to the U.S.’s dismay, Germany did not take especially strong positions on China, partly due to economic concerns and partly due to a lack of urgency on the matter.
The SPD itself is not considerably more hawkish on China than the CDU. However, the two smaller parties that performed historically well Sunday — the Greens and FDP — take a more critical stance towards China, as well as Russia. Both parties emphasize human rights and international law, and support grassroot democracy movements. And while they seem to guaranteed to be part of either coalition, they could get more of a voice if the SPD runs the government: The CDU, at least under Merkel, had a reputation for subduing its coalition partners.
It still won’t be easy for any German coalition to work more closely with the U.S. against China. Although a clear majority of Germans believes the U.S. is in a new Cold War with China, only 18 percent believe their country is part of that conflict. And in a 2019 poll, a large majority of respondents said they would prefer to remain neutral rather than align with Washington in a hypothetical Sino-American conflict.
Is the future of the U.S.-German relationship about Europe, and the traditional arrangements by which the U.S. has helped to guarantee European security? Or is it about China, and creating a more unified transatlantic position towards it?
For President Joe Biden, the ideal answer is probably “both.” But “both” may not be on offer this time round, because the transatlantic alliance is changing, and so are Germany’s politics. For those eager to see the pivot to Asia continue, the almost guaranteed inclusion of the Greens and FDP in a future government is likely good news. Although a Germany that’s more critical of China will not automatically align with the U.S. and might aim for independent European positions on the matter, it makes the discussion easier. On the other hand, the likely exclusion of the CDU from government will make it harder to maintain the longstanding defense arrangements in Germany that the transatlantic relationship has relied on.
The Biden administration, for its part, should welcome a more China-skeptic turn in Germany’s governance. But the U.S. will also need to be prepared for more difficult discussions about whether Germany wants to keep playing a strong role in NATO’s collective defense apparatus — as well as about what, exactly, a common U.S.-German approach to China will look like.