Foreign Policy Implications of a New German Government

As the outcome of Sunday’s elections in Germany remains uncertain, so does the direction of German foreign policy under the next government. Contrary to the 2002 election – when foreign policy, particularly a looming war in Iraq, dominated the discussion – the candidates in this election raised few foreign policy issues in policy debates, televised speeches and public appearances. However, with Christian Democratic leader Angela Merkel poised to become the new chancellor, Germany’s foreign policy will likely undergo subtle changes, especially vis-à-vis the United States, Turkey, and Eastern Europe. None of these changes will be quick or even reflect a dramatic departure from past practice.

When it comes to direct relations between the United States and Germany, a new conservative-led government would differ from the current government simply because “Angela Merkel is not Gerhard Schroeder,” as a foreign correspondent at a major German newspaper put it. That is, the relationship between the United States and Germany is seen as strained not because of the German government’s opposition to the war in Iraq, but because of Mr. Schroeder’s efforts to couch his opposition against the war in what many perceived as anti-American tones. In the same vein, a government led by Angela Merkel would not change its stance on Iraq – as conservative politicians have made clear – but would work hard at improving the atmosphere between Germany and the United States, possibly offering support for the war in Iraq other than troops.

Support for the efforts in Iraq seems crucial for a conservative-led government since it opposes the Bush administration’s support for the membership of Turkey in the European Union (EU). The Turkish government has long desired membership in the EU, but to reach this goal, it will need support from Germany, the largest EU member. Germany’s leading conservatives oppose Turkey’s membership and will potentially close the door to such a possibility for the foreseeable future. The governing coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, in comparison, favors positive engagement with Turkey on the issue with the possibility of evaluating Turkey’s progress and potential for full membership in 10 to 15 years. If the secular government in Ankara is seen as unable to move Turkey closer to the heart of the EU, Islamic fundamentalism could rise.

In other foreign relations, though, a new government led by Angela Merkel could prove a valuable partner. Angela Merkel grew up in Eastern Germany, speaks Russian and is seen as more sensitive to the countries of the former Soviet bloc= This is not the case with Gerhard Schroeder, who recently struck a deal with the Russian government for a natural gas pipeline without consulting with the Eastern European member countries of the EU. Generally, it is assumed that a conservative-led government with Angela Merkel at the helm would be more likely to engage the new Eastern European member countries of the EU and thus help to strengthen the EU and its appeal over time. This has, however, less to do with her being a conservative – in fact, many West German politicians have shown a tin ear to the sensitivities of East Germany’s citizens – but more with her being from the East of the country.

For the United States, a German government led by the Christian Democrats and their candidate for chancellor, Angela Merkel, may mean an easing of strained relations, but it may also raise new challenges, especially in the consideration of closer political and economic integration of Turkey into Europe.

Christian E. Weller is senior economist at the Center for American Progress.