Public Affairs & Government Relations

Foreign Policy – Germany’s Future Role Between Washington and Beijing

With the era Merkel ending and come September 26, German citizens will not only decide on the political course within their country but will also lay the long-term groundwork for Germany’s future role in the international arena. Usually, the political rule of thumb “foreign policy does not decide elections” holds as true for German elections as it does in most other countries. Over the past days, however, the rushed evacuation of Western embassies in Kabul and the failure to rescue many local employees have put Afghanistan and foreign policy at the center of the political debate. In Germany, this triggered a political reevaluation of foreign military deployments in general and of the future relationship to the United States in particular. The four parties most likely to govern after the elections – CDU/CSU, SPD, FDP, and Greens – largely agree on the principles of foreign military deployments. However, with respect to the United States and especially Germany’s role in the dawning Chinese American superpower rivalry, subtle differences remain between the potential coalition partners.

CDU/CSU – Between Huawei and the Connectivity Strategy

For the two conservative parties (the so-called Union), foreign policy takes the top spot – at least within their election program.[1] The Conservatives continue to view the United States as Germany’s most important partner on the global stage and they put great stock in their shared values. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) thus enjoys unequivocal Union support, even on controversial matters such as the nuclear sharing arrangement and more investments into German armament.

The CDU/CSU’s position towards China remains more ambiguous. Chancellor Merkel has intensified German Chinese economic cooperation substantially and she has been reluctant to criticize China on human rights violations during her sixteen years in office. Her designated successor Armin Laschet seems to follow in her footsteps by advocating for cooperation and a “EU-Asia Connectivity Strategy”. However, some Conservative politicians, such as the foreign policy expert Röttgen have taken a more confrontational stance towards China, especially on the issue of the Huawei 5-G network expansion in Germany. Until now, their initiative has failed to fundamentally change the Union’s foreign policy course towards China.

SPD – A New Partnership and a New Détente

The SPD’s claim to continuity in foreign policy matters is nearly as strong as the Union’s, since the last three German foreign ministers were all Social Democrats. With only a few lines of their election program devoted to foreign policy,[2] SPD chancellor candidate Olaf Scholz elaborated elsewhere that the United States remains the central international partner for the Federal Republic. However, leading SPD foreign policy experts have called attention to issues such as the Iraq War and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, where German and American interests diverged even before Donald Trump won the presidency. To address these differences and with pacifist tendencies in the SPD remaining strong, the Social Democrats propose a restart of the transatlantic relationship on equal footing and with new topics such as climate change, disarmament, trade, and health issues at their heart.

China, meanwhile, receives less public discussion from the Social Democrats. Both, the current SPD foreign minister Maas and the SPD’s chancellor candidate Scholz emphasize the need to strengthen the international rules-based order and incorporate China in it. To this end, they call for continued dialogue with the People’s Republic and Scholz explicitly made reference to the success of the “policy of détente” during the Cold War.

FDP – When Elephants Fight

The FDP election program[3] and their foreign policy expert’s recent book “When Elephants Fight” leave little doubt where the Liberals envision Germany’s future role between Washington and Beijing. Throughout their publications and their candidate Christian Lindner’s public statements, the Liberals present themselves as staunch supporters of transatlanticism and NATO. Moreover, they see the Biden presidency as an opportunity to further deepen ties across the Atlantic and propose the creation of a transatlantic economic sphere modeled after the CETA agreement with Canada.

The FDP also devotes more space to China in their election program than any of the other three parties. In it, they condemn the treatment of minorities in China, propose stronger support for Taiwan, call for the restoration of political freedoms in Hong Kong and even consider targeted sanctions against selected Chinese officials. At the same time, the FDP also wants to intensify civic and economic relations with mainland China and further work on the EU-China Investment Agreement currently on hold due to the latest round of sanctions.

Greens – Dialogue and Toughness

Last but certainly not least likely to occupy the foreign ministry in the coming four years, the Greens call for a more active German foreign policy that is not confined to moderation. Over the past months, multiple party representatives have travelled to the United States and found substantial overlap on issues such as foreign and climate policy in Washington. While the Greens appreciate the importance of the transatlantic relationship like all major parties, they remain critical on some issues, especially with regards to Germany´s financial contribution within NATO and the nuclear sharing arrangement.[4] Furthermore, they announced that they will only agree to major economic agreements such as a new TTIP and the Mercosur agreement if strong climate protection provisions are included.

The Greens’ chancellor candidate Annalena Baerbock captured her party’s position towards authoritarian regimes like China with the slogan “Dialogue and Toughness”. She and her party plan to make values and human rights the hallmark of Green foreign policy and repeatedly criticized China on its policies with regards to Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan. To back up their stance, many Greens propose a stricter European and German trade policy and higher tariffs for Chinese goods. Party representatives closer to the business world, however, emphasize the need for economic cooperation and dialogue to address the climate crisis.

Forcing Consensus in a New Coalition Government

Conservatives, Social Democrats, Liberals, and Greens all view China as a “partner, competitor, and systemic rival” at the same time and they all agree that the United States is Germany’s most important partner on the global stage. These positions seem to be in close alignment, especially when compared to the foreign policy position of the two German fringe parties. Underneath these formulas, however, disagreements linger within and among the parties. Since no single party will take an absolute majority after the elections and polls indicate that a three-party government is very likely, coalition negotiations will force the parties to compromise on these differences. While the overall consensus among the four parties tends towards a more critical stance with regards to China, no structural breaks in foreign policy should be expected from the coming post-Merkel government.


The views expressed herein are those of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of FTI Consulting, Inc., its management, its subsidiaries, its affiliates, or its other professionals.

[1] See Election Manifesto of the CDU/CSU: Link (last accessed 26.08.2021).

[2] See Election Manifesto of the SPD: Link (last accessed 26.08.2021).

[3] See Election Manifesto of the FDP: Link (last accessed 26.08.2021).

[4] See Election Manifesto of the Green Party: Link (last accessed 26.08.2021).

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