In the wake of the recent German federal elections, held in September 2021, the world is speculating as to how the change in leadership will affect Germany’s security, diplomacy, and economy. Dr. Peter Wittig, former German Ambassador to the United States, the United Kingdom, the United Nations (UN), Lebanon, and Cyprus, joins GJIA to discuss the implications of the recent German parliamentary elections and the country’s distinctive foreign policy strategy.
GJIA: Do you feel that the loss of Angela Merkel as Germany’s Chancellor will impact the influence of Germany in international bodies like the UN, European Union (EU), and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)?
PW: First of all, thank you for having me. To your question: in general, leaders have influence on the international stage according to the weight and the importance of their countries. But with Chancellor Merkel at the helm of Germany for sixteen years, she became a force on her own. She became a respected and influential leader on the world stage because of her accumulated knowledge on all major international issues and a rational, almost scientific, approach to politics. She was an enormously respected leader by her peers and often could act as a bridge builder to help forge compromises in international meetings. After sixteen years, she really became a world stateswoman. That is indeed a hard act to follow for any successor.
Recently, Germany has increased its defense budget, vowing to achieve NATO’s two percent goal by the 2030s. To what extent do you feel that this financial decision was a result of external pressure from allies, and will the new elected government continue similar defense goals?
Previous German governments have indeed pledged to “move towards” the two percent of GDP goal until 2024. That is the wording of the decision that leaders made at the NATO Summit in 2014. German governments acted accordingly: defense spending increased substantially – by thirty-five percent from 2014 to 2020, but has yet to reach the two percent goal (1.56 percent in 2021). Now, in German party politics, the two percent goal is not uncontested. The Green Party in particular, which will be part of the next government, wants to spend more money on development aid and conflict prevention instead of focusing exclusively on military defense. Others object to what they see as an exceedingly narrow approach of the two percent metric and prefer a more strategic emphasis on military capabilities and commitments, in other words: burden sharing in terms of effective participation in NATO missions. Here, Germany’s record is not bad at all. Whatever the Germans feel about the two percent goal, most would probably admit that Germany needs to do more for its own security and for the security of Europe.
Some Western nations view Germany’s strategy regarding affairs with China as overly lenient, as Germany has historically focused more on the economic opportunities of the relationship than security concerns. Do you feel that this is an accurate interpretation of German-Chinese diplomacy, and how do you think that this foreign policy will differ with the new government?
Germany is an export-oriented industrial economy. It has a huge economic stake in China, so it is a national economic interest to maintain close trade relations with China. That is a somewhat different position from the United States. German decision-makers fear that Europe could find itself in the crosshairs of an increasingly hostile U.S.-China relationship. Most Europeans do not want to be dragged into a new “Cold War 2.0.” They prefer to develop a nuanced relationship with China as a partner in tackling global challenges like climate change, as a competitor in industry and technology, and as an adversary when it comes to hard security issues—if China engages in coercive measures or violations of international law. Europe and the United States should set up a joint agenda on China and face challenges together: in technology, trade, standard-setting and multiple security issues. The Biden administration seems to be open to such a common approach, which makes both of us stronger.
Germany has had a history of denouncing and restricting Russian activities and employing economic sanctions while attempting to preserve diplomatic conversations with the Kremlin. During the recent election, significant distinctions between parties were evident regarding German-Russian relations, with some supporting increased cooperation and others advocating for a more extreme position challenging Russia. To what extent do you believe this issue influenced German voters, and how do you feel that the new government will approach this matter?
In general, foreign policy did not play much of a role in the recent elections—personally, I regret that. But yes, there are vibrant discussions about Germany’s policy on Russia. The construction of a gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, the so-called Nord Stream 2 pipeline, had many critics, from Germany’s center-right party to the Green Party. The Greens will probably be more vociferous on human rights violations in Russia when they are part of the government. Generally speaking, history and geography matter in the way Germans perceive Russia. Russia is our neighbor – that sometimes explains the difference of US and European perspectives.
With the United Kingdom’s decision to secede from the EU, do you feel that there is a leadership vacuum that Germany, being the EU’s strongest economy, is expected to fill? If so, how do you feel that Germany’s new government will view this call-to-action?
Since Brexit, the power configuration in the European Union has somewhat shifted. The French-German duo became even more important. The Italian voice became more important. But the EU cannot be run just by the big states. That is not the way the EU works. Decision-making is all about alliances and enlisting the support of medium and small-sized countries within the EU. Chancellor Merkel was extremely good at alliance building, and I believe Germany is and continues to be in a good position to play that role as a broker and a bridge builder within the European Union. Europe will be a top priority for the new government as well. Luckily, there is a broad pro-European policy consensus in Germany. Germans understand that their economic and political well-being is inextricably linked to the EU. The European Union needs to become more and more a geopolitical force in the international arena—a strong Europe is the best contribution to a vibrant transatlantic relationship, which continues to be the bedrock of our security.
Following World War II, Germany developed an aversion to the use of hard power. Do you feel that Germany’s public culture of anti-militarism may be restricting official German participation in multilateral armed operations?
It is true that our political culture is different because it is still somewhat rooted in the World War II experience. On top of that, there is also a pacifist streak in German political culture, emanating from the left side of the political spectrum. Furthermore, the German constitution imposes very strict conditions on any military engagement abroad. But let us put this into perspective: Germany is a leading military member of NATO and also actively contributes to strengthening the military capacities of the EU – complementary to NATO. And over the years, Germany has moved to be an active participant of international military missions, from Afghanistan (where it was the second largest troop contributor) to Kosovo and Mali. Could Germany do more? In my personal opinion: yes, it could. But in the end, it is the citizens, the voters, who have to be convinced.
Germany has discovered a string of far-right extremists amongst members of its security services. What should we make of this trend, and what might be its cause?
The discovery of networks of far-right extremists in security forces in Germany was indeed shocking. The public was outraged and thorough investigations followed. I also want to put this into perspective; yes, there are disconcerting activities coming from right-wing groups, particularly on the internet. But, as far as our recent elections are concerned, the performance of the right-wing party, the Alternative for Germany (AFD), was very poor. It garnered just about ten percent of the vote, and this is much less than in comparable European countries, where the far-right is much stronger. This is a piece of good news coming from the latest elections in Germany: the democratic resilience against the far right is solid. The far left also lost out substantially in the recent elections. The democratic political center in Germany remains strong.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Interview conducted by Anoushka Ramesh.
Dr. Peter Wittig was Germany’s Ambassador to the United States during the Obama and Trump administrations and Ambassador to the Court of St. James in the United Kingdom during Brexit. From 2009-2014, he was Germany’s Ambassador to the United Nations. During this time, he represented Germany in the UN Security Council and served as the President of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. Currently, he is a visiting Professor at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and a Fisher Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.