The famous motto behind the founding of NATO was to “keep the Soviet Union out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” While 70 years have passed since the establishment of NATO, the organization still acts as a deterrent against Russia on Europe’s easten border. The United States remains as the organization’s top financial contributor, and with 39,000 of its troops stationed in Germany alone, the US also serves as the continent’s security guarantor. Meanwhile, Europe’s most powerful economic player, Germany, is still deprived of a modern military force and a seat at the UN Security Council.
However, the emerging international order is gradually upending this post-war arrangement. US President Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete”, having repeatedly called on its member-states, including Germany, to increase their military spending in accordance with NATO obligations. Coupled with the administration’s backing of Brexit, the US has begun abandoning its post-war commitment to integrate Europe and maintain long-term military presence in the region. In parallel, the Trump administration has pursued its engagement with Russia on a bilateral level, excluding European allies’ from the process; in one recent example, the Trump administration imposed sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, implicating Russia’s gas exports to Germany. This decision angered Berlin, prompting it to reject “such extraterritorial sanctions” and protest US’ interference in Germany’s internal affairs. While Germany decided not to retaliate, this latest example of US unilateralism fueled calls for a more assertive and independent German foreign policy.
Angela Merkel’s successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (or more famously known by her initials as AKK), will be the likely candidate to spearhead this strategic shift. In 2018, she was elected as the Chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union. The centre-left Chairwoman also currently serves as the Minister of Defence. Though she is closely aligned with Merkel, AKK will be expected to pursue a more assertive foreign policy if elected as Chancellor.
Since becoming the Minister of Defence in July, she has proposed an expansion of Germany’s foreign military presence in Africa and the Middle East. AKK has embraced calls to increase Germany’s military spending, in accordance with its NATO commitment to spend %2 of GDP on defence.
In line with Merkel’s proposal of a European army, Kramp-Karrenbauer has backed the formation of European Security Council. Such council can help Europeans better navigate and coordinate their interests in international affairs amid the fragmented state of NATO. From a German perspective, diverging interests among key NATO member-states have hindered the organization’s capability to showcase solidarity on the global stage. The United States’ pivot to Asia during the Obama administration and its unilateralist approach under the Trump administration demonstrate a broader long-term trend, where the United States sees the transatlantic security partnership as less relevant and critical to its interests. On the other hand, NATO’s key eastern partner, Turkey, has aligned its interests with Asian powers, including Russia, China, and Iran, while defying western interests. Turkey’s recent testing of Russian military hardware and its regional coordination with Russia and Iran are clear cases in point.
In this environment, Kramp-Karrenbauer has also lobbied for the EU to gain a seat at the UN Security Council. This allows for Europe to more effectively influence council decisions, given its increased strategic disagreements with the US, Russia, and China. More importantly, an EU seat can empower German influence in the council vis-à-vis its powerful political and economic presence in Brussels.
On the domestic front, she has proposed the establishment of a National Security Council, where the fragmented coalition government in Berlin can adapt a cohesive security policy. Following Kramp-Karrenbauer’s proposal for an “international security zone” in northern Syria, foreign minister Heiko Josef Maas criticized her move as a meddling factor in German foreign policy. The foreign minister argued that the defence minister was interfering in the affairs of the foreign ministry. Such public disagreements have undermined Germany’s credibility abroad. Henceforth, from AKK’s perspective, a National Security Council can help the government build domestic consensus within its national security and foreign policy apparatus, enabling Germany to display a united front in pursuit of its foreign initiatives.
However, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s plans for increasing Germany’s foreign presence have also been met with international resistance. NATO member-states, including the United States, politely rejected her Syria plan. In addition, there were other global and domestic factors that undermined the plan’s implementation; the United Nations was unlikely to permit this operation, Germany’s allies had little interest to provide ground troops, and there was no guarantee that the coalition government in Berlin would agree on deploying soldiers in Syria.
In spite of her Syria plan falling flat, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s appetite for interventionism displayed her strong determination to instigate a strategic shift in German foreign policy. In fact, the lack of support among western allies for AKK’s proposal further demonstrated to her and other hawkish elements within the government that Germany has become increasingly alone amid the emerging volatile international order. Thuswise, it is likely that under a Kramp-Karrenbauer leadership, Germany will try to take a different and assertive approach to secure its national interests abroad, while seeing the United States and NATO as unreliable security guarantors.
This article was first published by The Institute for Peace and Diplomacy.