Despite its economic strength Germany remains a sideshow on the international stage. Germany’s active attempts to conduct diplomacy have been underwhelming and meaningful results are rarely delivered. The main parameters are set by the US. China and Russia set the second-tier, while the EU deals with internal conundrums and lack of vision. The year 2020 will likely be a continuation of Germany’s self-imposed identity crisis. Nonetheless, Germany will attempt to participate in solving issues that will keep the international community on its toes again so it is worth taking a look at the biggest challenges facing Germany politically in the coming year.
Germany’s European Problems
There is the EU for one. Germany continues to hold on to the idea that a united and strong Europe is necessary to counterbalance other world powers. Furthermore, Germany will have another chance in 2020 to set the direction on behalf of Brussels, as they will take over the EU presidency in the second half of the year. Germany’s presidency could mark the end of the seven-year EU budget and other essential and pioneering decisions, such as working out the relationship with the UK post-Brexit. It remains an issue, however, that mainly Germany’s left is not only reluctant but continues to oppose acceptance of the leadership role Germany has de facto had in the EU. The presidency will mark a litmus test that shows whether or not Germany can commit itself to guiding Europe forward.
Germany And NATO
Then there is NATO and the question about the alliance’s stability. Germany has continued to emphasize NATO’s relevance and, by doing so, responded to the destructive remark made by French President Emmanuel Macron, who described the alliance as “brain dead.” US President Trump went further, even questioning NATO’s crucial Article 5 which promises collective defense if any member is attacked. However, in order for Germany to become one of NATO’s true political leaders, it must also finally reach the two percent target in defense spending. This would provide allies with reassurance regarding Germany’s commitment in these uncertain times. However, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition partner, the SPD, is strictly against increasing the defense budget, which makes an increase inconceivable until the next general elections in 2021.
Speaking of NATO, since the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Germany has been working to prevent a further escalation and to keep the EU united. The Minsk agreement between Moscow and Kyiv has still not been implemented despite the recent Normandy format meeting in Paris. However, the initiation of peace talks and a temporary ceasefire are a welcoming occurrence. Nonetheless, Germany has decreased not only its pressure on Russia but also its tone, which can be seen by the transformation of Foreign Minister Heiko Maas’ approach towards Putin. Maas began his tenure by continuously and clearly calling out Russia. By now, however, he is almost wholly avoiding any confrontation. The notion that Berlin is becoming too dependent on Russia, via North Stream 2, for instance, carries certain connotations in this context.
Germany And Iran
However, Russia is not the only international scene that deserves Germany’s attention as Iran also remains a hot topic. Europe’s chief interlocutors of France, Germany, and the UK are still trying to save the nuclear agreement with Iran that the USA withdrew from. In order to counteract US sanctions against anyone doing business with Iran, the three countries have founded an independent payment processing institution with Iran. However, it seems unlikely that companies in any business relationship with the United States will resist the pressure of US sanctions and trade with Iran. Germany’s—and indeed the European’s efforts—to counteract US sanctions on Iran are thus meaningless. Most importantly, however, they seem misguided since Tehran continues to be the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism, has been destabilizing the region for decades. In their quest for peace, Germany must not forget who their allies are and that realpolitik was once invented in Germany.
Germany And The US
Then there are the increased tensions between Germany and the US. After at least a temporary end to “Pax America” has begun, Germany must reposition itself and become more self-sufficient on the international stage due to the Americans’ semi-retreat. However, Germany’s economic prosperity relies on conducting business with the US. This relationship that has benefited both nations since the end of World War II has been shaken up due to President Trump’s trade war threats. Germany’s foreign office (“Auswärtiges Amt”) also launched initiatives in arms control. However, without the US, this appears to be yet another example of Germany’s symbolic diplomacy. Germany’s reliance on multilateralism and France’s support cannot change this. Germany needs to realize that there will be a time after Trump and whether it is Iran, the economy, or disarmament policies, Berlin would do well not to burn too many bridges with Washington.
Germany And China
Just as much as Germany needs the US, it depends on China as its international and economic partner. The fact that China is a totalitarian state that secures its power with oppression and advanced digital technology while continuing to challenge the US for global hegemony seems acceptable for Berlin. Nonetheless, disputes remain, particularly in the South China Sea. China’s territorial claims are violating international law, and the international community has reacted by deploying warships in the region.
As an export nation, Germany—among the ten countries with the highest economic traffic in the area—should be interested in continuous freedom of sea routes. However, Germany is not participating. In fact, an attempt by Foreign Minister Maas to even deploy marine personnel onto allied ships was rejected by Chancellor Merkel herself. Furthermore, even a new and serious attempt is unlikely to ever achieve the required majority in the Bundestag, as the SPD, just as with the defense spending, continues to live in a world where conflicts are debated but never solved.
One should not expect a German paradigm shift away from diplomatic gestures towards realpolitik in 2020. The main actors in Germany, Merkel, as well as her coalition partners, are merely opposing the concept of the latter instead of backing it up with real policy. However, not all is lost, and there have been signs that Germany’s approach could change in 2021, under new leadership. The Western world would undoubtedly appreciate it.