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BERLIN — Germany’s Olaf Scholz isn’t one to just let it go.
At least not when it comes to foreign policy.
The power shift in Berlin this week sparked hopes around Europe and across the Atlantic that the new chancellor’s government would unfreeze Germany’s stance on everything from pipelines to Poland, reversing Angela Merkel’s why-can’t-we-all-be-friends approach to the world.
Instead, they’re likely to get more of the same.
For Germany’s international partners, that shouldn’t be reassuring. With serious tensions on Europe’s eastern flank, not to mention challenges the EU faces on its southern doorstep and its dealings with China and even the U.S., a divided Continent could use some leadership from its most populous country.
It’s unlikely to get any.
While it’s still early days, Scholz, a Social Democrat, appears intent on sticking with his predecessor’s playbook, avoiding confrontation in order to preserve Germany’s economic interests.
Asked repeatedly this week whether Germany would join the U.S.’s diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics in China, Scholz would only say the following:
“We believe that international cooperation is important. … In a world that must work together, it’s important to seize opportunities to signal cooperation.”
In other words: No.
Merkel, who managed to criticize China’s human rights abuses even as she worked behind the scenes to woo Beijing into closer economic cooperation, couldn’t have said it any better.
The trouble for Scholz, however, is that sitting on the fence while playing both sides of every flashpoint, from Iran to Russia to China, is unlikely to be an option for much longer.
Take Ukraine. If Russia invades Ukraine, as Washington fears, what happens to Nord Stream 2, the recently completed Baltic pipeline between Russia and Germany that is waiting for final regulatory approval? Drop it altogether? Given Germany’s reliance on Russian natural gas, that wouldn’t be easy, especially if the other main pipeline connection — via Ukraine — was disrupted.
Remember too, that Scholz’s party is full of so-called Russlandversteher (Russia apologists), including his ex-boss, former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, who is now the chairman of Nord Stream, the Russian-owned, Swiss-based firm that owns the pipelines.
Germany faces a similar dynamic in the Indo-Pacific. If China tries to seize Taiwan, a move some international security experts believe has recently become more likely, Berlin would inevitably be forced to choose sides between the U.S. and its largest trading partner.
Whatever happens on those fronts, Scholz will need to respond to U.S. pressure for Berlin to line up behind Washington in facing China — and soon. In an effort to win over Merkel, President Joe Biden agreed in May to suspend planned U.S. sanctions on Nord Stream 2, a move that drew howls from both sides of the political divide in Washington and that continues to weigh on his foreign policy agenda. Merkel, however, refused to shift course on China, opting to leave further strategic moves to her successor.
While Scholz, who met with Biden confidant Sen. Chris Coons last month, has tried to reassure Washington that Germany remains a reliable ally — for example by agreeing to maintain Germany’s longstanding nuclear defense arrangements with the U.S. — the new chancellor has not shown his cards on China policy. Scholz’s comments this week on the Olympics suggest he’s in no hurry to do so.
In Washington, some officials in the Biden administration have argued that Scholz’s Green party coalition partners, who advocate a harder line on China in the face of the Communist Party’s human rights abuses, are Washington’s best hope of nudging Berlin on Beijing. Greens’ co-leader Annalena Baerbock joined Scholz’s Cabinet as foreign minister on Wednesday.
Yet the early evidence suggests that like Merkel before him, Scholz will use his executive purview to keep control of foreign policy in the chancellery. Rolf Mützenich, the leader of Scholz’s Social Democrats (SPD) in the German parliament, told German radio on Wednesday that the coalition would pursue “a smart foreign policy that above all will be driven by and conceived in the chancellery.”
The comment drew swift protest from the Greens.
Nonetheless, the chances that Baerbock, a 40-year-old greenhorn minister with no background in international security, will be able to stand up to Scholz on foreign policy are slim.
Germany’s new coalition promises to be a difficult partner for Washington on issues beyond China policy, as well, including in the Middle East.
The left-wings of both the Greens and the Social Democrats take a more ambivalent view of Israel than Merkel’s government, for example. Even Baerbock, who is seen as a pragmatist, has a record of opposing the sale of German-made submarines to Israel.
Another potential point of tension is defense. While the new coalition has signaled it will continue to honor its nuclear obligations, it’s less certain Berlin will meet the NATO goal of spending at least 2 percent of GDP on defense. Instead, the coalition agreement sets a spending goal of 3 percent of GDP for “international engagement,” including diplomacy and development aid along with defense, a formulation so vague it could mean anything.
Scholz’s choice of defense minister — former Justice Minister Christine Lambrecht, a member of the SPD’s leftist wing — did little to suggest his government was placing a premium on fixing Germany’s dysfunctional military.
Virtually unknown outside government circles in Germany, Lambrecht, who planned to retire from politics altogether until the SPD’s dramatic reversal of fortune in this year’s election campaign, has neither military nor foreign policy experience nor an international profile. In her new role, she will oversee a ministry of 260,000 military and civilian employees.
A lawyer by training, Lambrecht said her first priority in office would be to reevaluate all of the German army’s foreign engagements, which primarily consist of peacekeeping missions around the world involving about 3,000 troops. She stressed the importance of devising an “exit strategy.”
What that means for Germany’s future engagement with the world isn’t clear. It doesn’t suggest, however, that Germany — which many allies want to be more, not less, active — is eager to play a central role.
Yet to defend its own interests on the international stage, Germany needs to be more than a bystander when it comes to international security.
Scholz may have campaigned as the candidate of continuity (“the new Merkel variant” as a Berlin newspaper quipped this week), but to succeed he’ll have to show that he’s his own man.
If he fails to act quickly, his international standing will melt long before summer.