Germany’s Greens Go Government: Winds of Change for Germany’s Foreign and Security Policy?

The co-chairs of the Greens, Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock, at the party's digital federal party conference, Berlin, Germany, 21 Nov 2020. Courtesy of dpa picture alliance/Alamy Stock Photo.

While the German Greens’ path to government is almost certain, achieving their foreign and security policy agenda could prove trickier.

‘Germany: everything is possible’ – that is the title of the Greens’ newly published draft electoral programme. Indeed, everything does seem possible: the Greens are riding on a wave of popularity. Meanwhile, the centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) are losing voters as a result of a sluggish vaccination campaign, a botched handling of the pandemic and political scandals over mask procurement. The other governing coalition party, the Social Democrats (SPD), seems to have fully parted with its status as a Volkspartei – or mass political movement – for now. Thus, although recent gains by the Greens in state elections have fuelled speculation about other potential coalition groupings – with current polls putting the Greens at 22% and the CDU/CSU at 27% – a governing coalition between the two parties seems most likely. Yet, just like the enemy gets a vote in combat, the coalition partner gets a say on the Greens’ ambitious foreign and security policy agenda.

Between Idealism and Pragmatism: The Greens and Security Policy

Overall, the party’s foreign and security policy platform holds few surprises for anyone familiar with the Greens’ history. Staying true to their roots in the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970s, the Greens repeat their call for global zero, which obviously includes the withdrawal of US B61 nuclear bombs that are stationed in Germany as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing arrangement. Furthermore, while the Greens call NATO an ‘indispensable’ actor and underline the need for an active German foreign policy with a modern Bundeswehr, the target to boost Germany’s defence spending to 2% of GDP – as NATO states have pledged – is not reasonable in the Greens’ view. Instead, they prefer a more task-based approach to NATO and want to establish an ‘EU security union’. Moreover, the party’s critical stance on the military use of emerging technologies and autonomy in weapons systems is nothing new. Beyond this, the Greens take a strong stance on Russia and China, underlining that the ‘systemic rivalry with authoritarian states and dictatorships is real’, and they propose a reform of the UN Security Council.

Putting ideas into words is one thing; putting them into action will be another matter. The Greens are familiar with this, though. As part of a coalition with the SPD between 1998 and 2005, the party backtracked on its pacifist roots by backing German participation in NATO airstrikes on Serbia. Although it has evolved since then – with the current leadership duo composed of Robert Habeck and Annalena Baerbock from the party’s more pragmatic ‘realo’ wing – entering government this time could still require painful compromises. After all, the CDU/CSU, with whom the Greens will probably form a black-green coalition, could not be more at odds with the party’s foreign and security policy agenda. Three policy issues in particular point to possible conflict between the two parties: China, Nord Stream 2 and disarmament.

China: Human Rights Versus the Economy

Under Merkel’s government, Germany has followed a policy of ‘Wandel durch Handel’ (change through trade) with China. The idea was that stronger economic ties would eventually convince China to become less authoritarian. Even though this approach has not borne fruit, the CDU/CSU have traditionally avoided politicising economic questions where possible. The Greens, however, take a decidedly different stance: while the party sees a need to work with China on climate issues, it does not shy away from connecting trade with human rights. For example, in their draft programme, the Greens advocate preventing goods made using forced labour in Xinjiang from entering the internal market. They are prepared to walk the talk on this issue. Last month, for instance, the well-known Green MEP, Reinhard Bütikofer, was part of a group of parliamentarians and academics blacklisted over support for EU sanctions on China over its treatment of the Uighurs. While the CDU/CSU condemned the Chinese sanctions, they also called out the Greens for blocking alternative trade agreements such as Mercosur and CETA, which could act as counterweights to trade with China.

In any case, one challenge will remain for whichever party governs Germany from September: the extreme dependency and entanglement of the German export-based economy with China makes dialogue on human rights difficult. China is now Germany’s biggest trading partner – even outpacing the US – and the major growth market for many of its companies, especially Germany’s critically important car industry. In a coalition with the industry-focused CDU/CSU, the Greens will have to walk a tightrope between economic and human rights concerns – without giving voters the impression that they are selling the party’s values.

Nord Stream 2: Pipe Dream?

In a similar vein, from the Greens’ point of view, the CDU/CSU have privileged economic interests connected with the contentious Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Germany and Russia, to the detriment of climate and geostrategic concerns. The Greens advocate scrapping the infrastructure project immediately due to its harmful impact on the climate and its potentially destabilising effects on Ukraine’s position vis-a-vis Russia. In contrast, the CDU/CSU are staunch supporters of the project, arguing that the pipeline is a private economic project. So far they seem to remain undeterred by recent US threats of sanctions and pressure to cease the project. CDU MP Johann Wadephul recently stated that selective cooperation with Russia – which includes completing the pipeline – is not naive but ‘sober realism’. Yet the Greens remain unimpressed by such an approach and see no reason to budge on Nord Stream 2, with the recent idea of an emergency brake mechanism gaining little approval within the party’s ranks. After all, the pipeline has featured too prominently in the party’s campaign and remains close to the heart of its climate and energy policy agenda. If the current German government does not bow to US demands before September – and should the situation at Ukraine’s border not escalate to a point where the government’s last red line is finally crossed – the issue of the pipeline could drive a wedge between the two parties in coalition talks.

Remaining Explosive: The Greens’ Disarmament Agenda

The biggest potential for black-green friction in the realm of foreign and security policy, however, is Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear sharing. Here, the gulf between the parties’ positions could not be wider. Anti-nuclear sentiments form part of the Greens’ DNA. Therefore, a call for Germany’s exit from NATO’s nuclear sharing and accession to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons forms an integral part of their draft programme. The CDU/CSU, meanwhile, continue to stress the importance of the nuclear sharing arrangement. A black-green coalition would therefore require compromises. Compared to their 2017 electoral programme, the Greens’ new document does at least acknowledge that a withdrawal will require numerous discussions within NATO and especially with Germany’s eastern neighbours – echoing previous statements by Green MPs that such a policy change cannot happen overnight. But even if the party were to surrender its demand for an immediate exit, clear positioning on the issue could be required soon, as a decision over replacing Germany's decades-old Tornado fighters – whose mission is to deliver US B61s – looms on the horizon. Despite a current modernisation programme, these fighters will not remain 'forever young'.

What is more, any decision taken will most likely only centre on an interim solution. From 2040 onward, the French–German–Spanish Future Combat Air System (FCAS) project is supposed to provide a next-generation fighter that will replace not only France’s Rafale fighter aircraft but potentially also Germany’s nuclear-capable Tornadoes. While the nuclear role of FCAS is already a cause of concern for the Greens, the project will include not only new fighters but also UAVs intended to serve as ‘loyal wingmen’ to the aircraft. For a party that already opposes armed drones for the Bundeswehr and that is sceptical about autonomous functions in weapons systems, joining ranks with the CDU/CSU in supporting FCAS and releasing further funds for the continent’s most expensive weapons programme would be nearly impossible to explain to its own electorate. At the same time, scrapping the programme could undermine the Greens’ desired image as champions of a strong, united Europe. Indeed, French politicians have already voiced concerns over possible Green participation in the German government and the future of FCAS.

Squaring the Circle

In any case, coalition talks with the CDU/CSU will be a difficult balancing act between the Greens’ determination to enter government and the demands of their voter base. Black-green negotiations would be riddled with friction and compromises on both sides in the field of foreign and security policy. While a lot may change before the election in September, one thing is already certain: entering government means that not everything will be possible.

Lydia Wachs is a Research Assistant at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. Prior to this, she worked as a Research Assistant in the Proliferation and Nuclear Policy Programme at RUSI.

Paula Köhler is a Research Assistant at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the authors', and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.


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