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German Foreign and Security Policy in Flux: The 2021 General Elections in a Changing International and Domestic Context

15 Sep 2021

German Foreign and Security Policy in Flux: The 2021 General Elections in a Changing International and Domestic Context

15 Sep 2021

The domestic and international context of German foreign and security policy is shifting. On the international level, the demands on Germany have been increasing. At the same time, the domestic environment of German foreign and security policy has become more constraining. The scope for tensions and contradictions between the two is growing. Charting a foreign policy course that lives up to the expectations on both levels has become more challenging for German decision-makers. Moreover, Germany’s traditional role as a civilian power[1] that is skeptical towards the use of military force and that instinctively works towards strengthening multilateral cooperation and international law has become less useful to this task, making the role ever less prescriptive. German foreign and security policy has therefore become less predictable.[2] Against this longer-term backdrop, the upcoming general elections on 26 September 2021 further add to the sense of uncertainty about the future direction of Germany’s foreign policy and security policy. This is because the elections will bring in a new and untested German Chancellor after Angela Merkel’s 16 years in office. Who this will be and which parties will form the next German coalition government is still open, fueling domestic and international debate about Germany’s foreign policy trajectory under the next government. The purpose of this paper is to map the changing international and domestic parameters of German foreign and security policy and to sketch the role of foreign and security policy in the general elections.

The Changing International and Domestic Context of German Foreign and Security Policy

German foreign and security policy can usefully be analyzed through the lens of the two-level game approach,[3] which focuses on how governments need to devise policies that meet both international and domestic political requirements. Since German reunification, the two-level context has become progressively more difficult for German governments to navigate, pitching a more demanding international environment against increasing domestic contestation around how to engage with this environment.

On the international level, Germany faces growing demands from its Western allies on both sides of the Atlantic to make stronger contributions to international stability and security. Not least, this takes the form of requests to support its partners by participating in multilateral military operations, such as, for example, in the context of ongoing EU- and UN-led missions in Mali. This comes against the backdrop of longstanding reproaches, not least from the US, that Germany is a ‘free rider’ on the international scene, taking advantage of the liberal international order which its partners uphold without taking on a fair share of the burden itself.[4] In the European context, in particular, Germany’s standing as the EU’s strongest economy seemed to cast it into a more active leadership role,[5] for example in managing the Eurozone or refugee crises.[6] In addition, Germany’s perceived political stability, its diplomatic credentials and positive image as a responsible international citizen as well as the fact that most of Germany’s international partners no longer see Germany’s history as a compelling reason for German restraint in international politics all combine to reinforce international calls for Germany to shoulder more international responsibilities (Oppermann 2019).

Such calls have gained urgency due to a perceived leadership vacuum which Germany is expected to fill. In Europe, this can be seen, above all, in the context of the UK’s decision to leave the EU which put Germany, together with France, at the center of diplomatic efforts to maintain unity among the 27 remaining member states and to avoid a disintegration of the EU.[7] In the transatlantic arena, the Obama administration’s pivot towards the Asia-Pacific and, in particular, the Trump administration’s disengagement from international cooperation have further put the spotlight on Germany’s contributions to European security and crisis management. These shifts in the priorities of two of Germany’s most important international partners have led to a growing realization among German foreign policy decision-makers that Germany can rely less than before on its international partners and that securing the two main pillars of Germany’s international role – the transatlantic alliance and European integration – require more active and forceful contributions from German foreign and security policy.[8]

The challenges Germany faces in the context of its international partnerships go hand in hand with increasing demands on German foreign and security policy that originate in broader changes of the geopolitical climate. Specifically, Germany is deeply entwined in the growing systemic rivalry between liberal democracies and autocratic systems of government and faces ever stronger calls from its Western partners to take a clear and forceful stand against the latter. This can be seen in relations to Russia in which Germany has tried to find a balance between its unambiguous condemnation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its leading role in supporting economic sanctions against Russia on one side and its longstanding policy of keeping up a political dialogue with Moscow on the other. Along similar lines, Germany is often criticized by its Western partners for taking an overly soft and naïve approach to relations with China, seeing the relationship more in terms of economic opportunities than geopolitical threats. In any case, Germany’s approach to its bilateral relationships have come under increasing scrutiny in the international arena.

In the domestic arena, the growing international demands on Germany have contributed to an increasing politicization of German foreign and security policy. On the level public opinion, controversial foreign policy decisions, in particular related to the use of military force and European integration, have mobilized public attention for foreign affairs, turning foreign policy into a potentially relevant electoral issue. In the party political arena, foreign and security policy has become a touchstone of contestation, both within and between political parties. Consequently, domestic political considerations have moved higher up the agenda of German foreign policy decision-makers, and how Germany responds to international demands and expectations is increasingly domestic politics-driven. Specifically, domestic constraints on German foreign and security policy emanate both from a vertical divide between foreign policy elites and the general public and a horizontal divide between mainstream government parties and their challengers at the extremes of the German party system.

As for the vertical divide, the domestic context of German foreign and security is marked by a disconnect between foreign policy elites who increasingly accept the need for Germany to live up to international demands for a more active role of Germany in international affairs and the general public which remains skeptical. On one hand, the elite discourse on German foreign and security shows a growing consensus among decision-makers that Germany must indeed accept more international responsibilities.[9] On the other hand, the lack of public support has been identified as a major obstacle to such a course.[10] For example, majorities in German public opinion disagree that Germany should take on more responsibilities in international politics, and public opposition to foreign deployments of the German armed forces is particularly entrenched.[11] Germany’s ‘culture of antimilitarism’[12] thus remains strong in public opinion, constraining decisions on German participation in multilateral military missions. Similarly, a German leadership role in the European Union is complicated by more ambivalent public attitudes towards European integration since the 1990s.

The emerging gulf between the foreign policy views of the general public and among foreign policy elites feeds into a horizontal divide between mainstream and anti-mainstream parties in the German party system. This divide reflects a more fragmented and heterogeneous German party system and drives the increasing party political contentiousness of German foreign and security policy.[13] While it was originally the Greens who challenged the mainstream consensus about German foreign and security policy, it is now the far right populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Left Party who voice the most radical opposition against established thinking in German foreign and security policy. For example, the AfD calls for Germany to leave the EU, demands an end to EU sanctions against Russia, wants closer cooperation with China and objects to the direction of German development policy. The Left Party, in turn, opposes any foreign deployments of the German Bundeswehr as a matter of principle, demands to stop all German arms exports and is highly critical of German European policy, in particular in the context of the Eurocrisis. Thus, relevant parties at both ends of the German party system seek to mobilize, in different ways, public reservations against an emerging elite consensus in German foreign and security policy. This can be seen, in particular, at times of crisis when debates in the German Bundestag become high-profile public focal points of the increasing politicization of foreign and security policy in German domestic politics.

German Foreign and Security Policy in the 2021 General Elections

The 2021 elections to the German Bundestag take place against the backdrop of far-ranging and ongoing changes in the international and domestic environment of German foreign and security policy. Simply put, international expectations and pressures demand more from Germany, while domestic constraints loom ever larger in how German governments can engage with their international environment. This shapes the role of foreign and security in the 2021 general elections, just as the outcome of the elections may affect the future trajectory of German foreign and security policy. The following discussion will sketch out how foreign and security policy impacts the elections and give some pointers to possible consequences of the elections for German foreign and security policy.

According to opinion polls, voters consider Covid-19 and climate change as Germany’s most important problems. While these issues have an international dimension, the election campaign, as is usually the case, remains dominated by domestic issues, including the economy and social justice. Still, foreign and security policy issues are never far from the surface, as can be seen, for example, in public controversies about the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Germany’s relationship with Russia and the future of the transatlantic alliance. Broadly speaking, the relevance of foreign and security policy for the elections comes in two shapes: as a valence issue and as a position issue.

As a valence issue, foreign and security policy affects how voters judge the competence of the three leading candidates for the Chancellorship – Armin Laschet (CDU), Olaf Scholz (SPD) and Annalena Baerbock (Greens). The upcoming elections stand out in that no candidate can rely on an incumbency bonus which sitting Chancellors usually enjoy. Of the three candidates, however, the outgoing finance minister, Olaf Scholz, is the only one who can point to executive experience in the federal government. Moreover, his past involvement in foreign affairs, for example in the context of EU negotiations, gives him something of a ‘statesman-like’ image. This translates into a narrow lead for Scholz in public views of which candidate has the greatest foreign policy competence: 29% of respondents to an opinion poll considered Scholz as most competent in foreign affairs, followed by Laschet (23%) and Baerbock (13%).[14] Moreover, Scholz’s perceived foreign policy stature in the international arena may contribute to a strong public impression of him as the most competent potential Chancellor overall: in opinion polls, 55% of respondents see him as the most competent of the three candidates, far ahead of Laschet (14%) and Baerbock (7%).[15]

Foreign and security policy can also be expected to impact coalition formation after the elections. Opinion polls consistently suggest that the fragmentation of the vote will require three parties to come together in a coalition government, as opposed to the usual two-party coalitions, and point to five more or less plausible three-party constellations which will likely enjoy majority support in the next German Bundestag, involving different combinations of CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, FDP and the Left Party. The most controversial of these combinations is a coalition between SPD, Greens and the Left Party, largely because of the inclusion of the far-left. More than anything, it is the radical positions of the Left Party in foreign and security policy – most notably its demand for Germany to leave NATO – that stand out as the greatest obstacle in forming such a coalition. While the SPD and Greens have not formally ruled out a coalition with the Left Party mainly for intra-party reasons and to strengthen their bargaining position in post-election coalition negotiations – even though this makes them vulnerable to political attacks from the center-right playing on public fears of a far-left coalition – they have insisted on clear commitments of the Left Party to the twin foundations of German foreign policy – the transatlantic alliance and European integration – as non-negotiable preconditions for such a coalition. Given the deeply held views on these issues within the Left Party, however, it seems unlikely that the party will be willing and able to make this commitment or that such a commitment will be sufficiently credible to dispel widespread doubts within the SPD and Greens. It is therefore largely down to foreign and security policy that a coalition government involving the Left Party continues to look like an unrealistic prospect in German politics, denying in particular the SPD a valuable path to power.

As a position issue, foreign and security policy matters in the election because the parties differ markedly in their foreign policy standpoints. Foreign and security policy is thus a possible determinant of issue voting, enabling voters to take foreign policy into consideration when deciding who to vote for. This goes beyond the divide between the anti-mainstream parties, the AfD and the Left Party (see above), on one side and the parties at the center of the German party system on the other, but extends to different priorities and perspectives among the mainstream parties – CDU/CSU, SPD, Greens, and FDP. While these parties all subscribe to a broad consensus about the main cornerstones of German foreign and security policy – European integration, transatlantic cooperation, multilateralism –, they still take different angles on a range of important foreign policy issues. These differences clearly shine through in the election campaign and are discernible for voters. The following three areas stand out in particular.

The CDU/CSU portrays itself as the “party of the Bundeswehr” and puts the highest emphasis on defense, suggesting, for example – like the FDP – a national security council to coordinate German security policy. It also makes the strongest commitment to the transatlantic alliance, describing the US as Germany’s “most important partner in world politics” and seeing NATO as “the backbone of euro-atlantic security”. In particular, the CDU/CSU election program stands out for explicitly supporting NATO’s 2%-target and nuclear sharing under the NATO umbrella. While the SPD agrees that “NATO is and remains a key pillar of the transatlantic partnership”, it’s program calls for a “new start in transatlantic relations” and pointedly fails to endorse either the 2%-target or nuclear sharing. The Greens, in turn, go a step further in that they explicitly reject the 2%-target and call for a “Germany free from nuclear weapons”. The FDP similarly commits to “the long-term goal of a world free from nuclear weapons”, but is close to the CDU/CSU in coming out in support of NATO strategy and in arguing for more financial contributions to NATO.

While all German mainstream parties are unequivocally pro-European, variously calling for “more Europe” (CDU/CSU) or demanding to “strengthen Europe” (SPD), the election programs still betray different visions of how they want the EU to develop. For example, the SPD emphasizes “European solidarity”, demands higher social standards in EU trade agreements, supports an end to unanimity in tax policy and wants to develop the EU into a “real fiscal, economic and social union”, including a reform of the European stability and growth pact to strengthen the EU’s fiscal capacity. In contrast, the CDU/CSU and the FDP warn against a “debt union”, describe the European borrowing during the Covis-19-crisis as a singular exception and demand a return to financial stability and a balanced budget. The CDU/CSU also put their weight behind a “security union” and demand, like the FDP, a strengthening of FRONTEX and a better protection of the EU’s external borders. A particularly notable point in the FDP program is the call for European “strategic sovereignty” and a stronger European foreign and security policy, including a European army. The Greens, in turn, foreground the central role of Franco-German cooperation, demand a paradigm shift in EU migration policy and put special emphasis on strengthening EU democracy and making the EU Charta of Fundamental Rights enforceable. As for further EU enlargement, the CDU/CSU and the FDP (as well as the AfD) explicitly rule out a future EU membership of Turkey, while SPD and Greens seem to leave this prospect on the table.

A third area of notable interparty differences concerns Germany’s relations to Russia. CDU/CSU and SPD can both be seen to balance calling out Russia for its violation of European values and international law against noting the need for dialogue and cooperation, with the SPD putting more emphasis on the latter and calling for a “new European Eastern policy”. The Greens and the FDP, in contrast, adopt a markedly more confrontational line, describing Russia as an increasingly “authoritarian state” that threatens peace and security in Europe (Greens) and demanding to take “a clear stand” against Russia (FDP). A specific point of contention is the controversial North Stream II pipeline which only the Greens want to stop outright while the FDP suggests a moratorium. At the other extreme, the two parties outside the mainstream of the German party system espouse a fundamental critique of the Western approach to Russia. Warning of a “new Cold War”, the Left Party accuses NATO and EU of adopting an enemy stereotype of Russia (and China), vowing to stand “against all forms of imperialism”, while the AfD wants closer political and economic relations with Russia and demands an end to EU sanctions.

These areas of disagreement between Germany’s main political parties, while not exhaustive, serve to show that the general elections give voters a choice between different priorities and positions on important questions in German foreign and security policy. The outcome of the elections will therefore matter for Germany’s role in the world. Compared to recent German elections, this is even more the case for the upcoming elections because we will see a new Chancellor taking office who is by far the most important decision-maker in German foreign and security policy. The new office holder will bring in her or his own world views and will have the authority to set the guidelines for German foreign and security policy. At the same time, the new Chancellor will, at least initially, be a largely unknown quantity in world politics and lack the standing and influence Angela Merkel has taken for granted. Moreover, it will matter which parties will form the next coalition government and how the offices in the foreign and security policy executive will be divided between the parties, not least because the norm in German coalition negotiations is that the foreign minister comes from a different coalition partner than the Chancellor.[16] The expectation also is that coalition formation will turn into a fraught and drawn out process, possibly extending over several months, leaving German foreign and security policy in limbo over this interim period.

At the same time, it is important not to overstate the consequences of the 2021 general elections for the longer-term trajectory of German foreign and security policy. After all, the new Chancellor will come from a party that endorses the main pillars of Germany’s role in the world, and the new government will in all likelihood be made up of parties that share a broad consensus about Germany’s overall foreign policy orientation, despite their differences in emphasis and on specific issues. Any new government will also experience a strong pull from Germany’s changing two-level context, having to navigate similar material and non-material incentives and pressures on both levels. In other words, the upcoming general elections will not become a dramatic turning point in German foreign and policy, but they are part and parcel of ongoing and gradual changes in Germany’s international role in a shifting international and domestic context.


[1] Sebastian Harnisch and Hanns W. Maull, eds. 2001. Germany as a Civilian Power? The Foreign Policy of the Berlin Republic. Manchester.

[2] Klaus Brummer and Kai Oppermann 2016. ‘Germany’s Foreign Policy after the End of the Cold War: ‘Becoming Normal’?’, Oxford Handbooks Online, doi: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199935307.013.1.

[3] Robert D. Putnam .1988. ‘Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games’, International Organization 42 (3): 427-460.

[4] Adrian G.V. Hyde-Price. 2015. ‘The ‘Sleep-Walking Giant’ Awakes: Resetting German Foreign and Security Policy’, European Security 24 (4): 600-616.

[5] William E. Paterson. 2011. ‘The Reluctant Hegemon? Germany Moves Centre Stage in the European Union’, Journal of Common Market Studies 49 (Annual Review): 57-75.

[6] Simon Bulmer and William Paterson. 2016. ‘Deutschlands Rolle bei der Bewältigung der europäischen Währungs- und Migrationskrisen’, in Jahrbuch der europäischen Integration 2016, edited by Werner Weidenfeld and Wolfgang Wessels, 43-54. Baden-Baden.

[7] Paul Taggart, Kai Oppermann, Neil Dooley, Sue Collard, Adrian Treacher and Aleks Szczerbiak. 2017. ‘Responses to Brexit: Elite Perceptions in Germany, France, Poland and Ireland’, UK in a Changing Europe, 30 October,

[8] Niklas Helwig. 2020. ‘Out of Order? The US Alliance in Germany’s Foreign and Security Policy’, Contemporary Politics 26 (4): 439-457.

[9] Jamie Gaskarth and Kai Oppermann. 2021. ‘Clashing Traditions: German Foreign Policy in a New Era’, International Studies Perspectives 22 (1): 84-105.

[10] Federal Foreign Office. 2014. Review 2014 – A Fresh Look at Foreign Policy. Berlin.

[11] Körber-Stiftung, ed. 2015. Einmischen oder zurückhalten? Ergebnisse einer repräsentativen Umfrage von TNS Infratest Politikforschung zur Sicht der Deutschen auf die Außenpolitik, Aktualisierung 2015. Hamburg.

[12] Thomas U. Berger. 1998. Cultures of Antimilitarism: National Security in Germany and Japan. Baltimore.

[13] Kai Oppermann. 2019. ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place? Navigating Domestic and International Expectations on German Foreign Policy’, German Politics 28 (3): 482-498.

[14] Körber-Stiftung. 2021. Vor Bundestagswahl: Deutsche ohne Kanzlerfavoriten in puncto Außenpolitik, 24 June 2021,

[15] Infratest Dimap. 2021. ARD-Deutschlandtrend, September 2021,

[16] Kai Oppermann and Klaus Brummer. 2014. ‘Patterns of Junior Partner Influence on the Foreign Policy of Coalition Governments’, British Journal of Politics and International Relations 16 (4): 555-571.

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