Rarely has a country’s leader come into office bearing so many of the wider world’s hopes, and so few of its specific expectations.
Olaf Scholz will become Germany’s ninth postwar chancellor in the next few days through a vote of the Bundestag to accept his three-party coalition government. But while he is a well-known figure in Germany, as the current finance minister and former mayor-premier of the city-state of Hamburg, his approach to international matters remains a bit of a mystery.
He might – and many foreign observers hope he will – become the most important and influential leader in the democratic world.
Or he could – and others suspect he might – follow the path of his predecessor and boss Angela Merkel, and focus his energies on maintaining the prosperity of Germany and the popularity of his party, avoiding painful decisions on problems beyond his country’s borders.
Many of those problems have festered because Berlin has faced them as a passive voice or even an enabler: Vladimir Putin menacing his western neighbours; Hungary and Poland drifting out of the democratic world; Chinese intrusion into Western affairs; Belarusian and Turkish strongmen weaponizing migration and destabilizing their regions.
When I try to gauge Mr. Scholz’s world view, I think back to a meeting I had with him eight years ago, when he was still leading Hamburg. He’d invited me to his office in the ornate city hall for lunch, ostensibly to talk about urban immigration policy. But during our hour, I found him deeply focused on two very non-municipal matters.
First was his goal, which he did not hesitate to say aloud, of becoming leader of his party and therefore a candidate to be chancellor. The second, which he outlined at length, was a decidedly international matter: the euro crisis that had crippled Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland. He felt Germany had failed in its understanding of the crisis, and that the only solution would be tighter integration of European Union countries through the creation of a fiscal mechanism that would transfer funds from “have” to “have-not” countries, thus redressing the inevitable imbalances created by a shared currency.
Like a billiards champ, he called both those shots years in advance, lined them up, and sunk them. He became a candidate for chancellor in 2020 and then, as finance minister, and amidst the economic devastation of the novel coronavirus pandemic, he teamed up with France to create exactly such a fiscal mechanism. (That transfer policy remains temporary, but his coalition has pledged to integrate Europe further.)
Here in Europe, that is considered not foreign policy, but “neighbourhood policy.” On matters beyond the EU, both then and today, he has shown little interest. What he does say, in campaign debates and even in his coalition’s manifesto, is vague and non-committal.
But when he has talked directly about those outside threats, Mr. Scholz has repeatedly invoked the concept made famous in the 1970s by Willy Brandt, (West) Germany’s first postwar Social-Democratic chancellor: Ostpolitik.
Literally meaning “east-facing politics,” it was a policy of fighting the Cold War through engagement with the Soviet Union and its satellites rather than confrontation or containment – for example, paying Communist East Germany large sums for the release of political prisoners. It was a sensible and prescient strategy then, because it recognized the fundamental weakness that did eventually bring about the collapse of the socialist bloc – its economic bankruptcy and dependency on Western finance.
It’s a lot less clear how an Ostpolitik 2.0 would apply to today’s spectrum of threats. To many, it looks much like the policy that has led to Ms. Merkel’s unfortunate tendency to reward the worst behaviour of rogue states such as Russia, Hungary and Turkey with business and political deals that served Germany’s short-term interests.
Fortunately, this is where Mr. Scholz may be rescued by coalition politics. Germany’s next foreign minister is going to be Green Party Leader Annalena Baerbock, a hard-nosed pragmatist who has vowed to end this politics of mercantile deal-making. Even during the coalition talks, she said Germany should cancel Russia’s licence to build the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline – a project that allows Mr. Putin to economically damage Ukraine and Poland by bypassing them, and happens to enrich German corporations that are part of the project. “We can’t allow ourselves to be blackmailed” by Mr. Putin, Ms. Baerbock declared in October.
It so happens that Germany’s Greens – created through the merger of ecological and anti-communist parties – are the most hawkish party in the coalition. And the last time a Social-Democratic chancellor joined forces with a Green foreign minister, between 1998 and 2005, it marked the first time since 1945 the country chose to go to war (to stop Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic).
By bringing Europe together fiscally, Mr. Scholz has already demonstrated a knack for solving big, difficult problems abroad. Ms. Baerbock might be exactly the accompaniment he needs to clarify his thinking and become a leading voice in the democratic world.
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