The Upcoming German Elections: Continuity or Chaos?

In ten days, German voters head to the polls for parliamentary elections. This particular election is a watershed moment as Germany’s long-serving chancellor, Angela Merkel, is not running for re-election. After 16 years in power, the center-right chancellor is stepping down. Currently, the election is too close to call. As a result, the United States is intently watching the German election. Now, the questions become, how will Germany’s new government conduct its foreign policy and how will this impact the United States’ relationship with Germany?

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How Do German Elections Work?

German elections work differently than those in the United States. German parliamentary elections utilize a combination of proportional representation and single-district constituency processes Each German voter submits two votes; the first vote is used to elect a local member of Parliament (MP) using the first-past-the-post system. In this vote, each candidate that wins the most votes (or is the first to move past the post) in the individual districts wins a seat in the Bundestag, Germany’s lower house of parliament.

The second vote is choosing a party and is key as it “determines the overall proportion of seats that each party holds” in the Bundestag. Then, the seats are allocated in accordance with how the parties fared in the election. Typically, no one party wins the majority of votes; the party with the most votes forms a coalition with another party (or parties) in order to govern. The Economist recently announced a poll to predict the winner of the German election. While there are several combinations of potential governing coalitions that may lead the next German government, the poll indicates that the combinations most likely to form a majority include the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), the Greens, and the centrist Free Democrats (FDP); the Greens, the FDP, and the center-left Social Democrats (SPD); or, the least likely coalition, the CDU/CSU and the Greens.  

Who are the CDU/CSU Parties?

The CDU/CSU, the current conservative governing bloc, is expected to perform well in the upcoming election on September 26. Led by Armin Laschet, the party’s foreign policy platform calls for continuity, aligned with Chancellor Merkel’s stances. For one, the CDU/CSU governing coalition are staunch supporters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a central part of regional and global security. The transatlantic alliance with the United States also centers prominently in the party’s foreign policy worldview, viewing the United States as a “central partner.” Additionally, the CDU/CSU, while noting that China’s rise must be countered, seeks close cooperation with China while coordinating with the United States and Europe. On Russia, the CDU/CSU promises to take a firm stance, striving to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine and Crimea.

Who are the Greens?

Overall, the Green party, led by Annalena Baerbock, wants to adopt a firmer position on both Russia and China and support further European unity. The Greens view NATO as a key “collective defense mechanism.” They are also deeply committed to European cooperation, Germany’s membership in NATO, and a strong transatlantic alliance with the United States. Should the Greens come to power, they would offer a shift toward a more aggressive foreign policy on China and Russia as they view the showdown in global politics to be between authoritarian and democratic ideals. Specifically, the Greens strongly oppose the Nordstream 2 pipeline with Russia and the European Union’s investment deal with China.

Who is the SPD?

The SPD foreign policy platform varies little from the other parties. Led by Olaf Scholz, the SPD supports NATO military deployments for peacekeeping mission, crisis prevention, and conflict management under the “framework of international order and its institutions.” The SPD is also a strong proponent of the transatlantic alliance and views the United States as a key ally. Similarly, the SPD advocates for deeper European integration. In short, the SPD maintains a deep commitment to the European and transatlantic alliances, seeing the European Union, the United States, and NATO as integral to Germany’s foreign policy. Moreover, the SPD looks to strike a balance between engaging and containing Russia and, while not considering China to be an adversary, advocates for the development of a Europe-wide strategy towards China.

The German Election and the United States

The United States and Germany have a long history of close relations. Today, as the State Department notes, “Germany is one of the United States’ closest and strongest allies.” While relations between the two countries declined under the Trump administration, U.S.-German relations remain strong. Yet, the U.S.-German relationship is entering unchartered territory as Ms. Merkel has decided not to pursue another term. However, no matter which party wins or who becomes chancellor, the U.S. and German relationship will remain close. As Secretary of Blinken noted in Berlin on his June trip to Germany, “I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany.”

The foreign policy platforms of each of the major parties projected to form a possible governing coalition align well with those of the Biden administration. For one, all parties in contention support Germany’s positions within the European Union and NATO. All parties concede that Germany and Europe need to recalibrate the relationship with China. While there are minor agreements on the fate of the Nordstream 2 pipeline, all parties seek to take a hard line against Russia. Perhaps most importantly, at least to the Biden administration, none of the countries challenge the importance of the transatlantic alliance. While Germany’s upcoming promises to cause a little bit of chaos, continuity looks to be the order of the day.

The Uighurs, Allies, and China

Since 2017, China has clamped down on the Uighurs, a predominantly Muslim ethnic group living in the Xinjiang region of China. Beijing justifies such actions as concerns about terrorism, extremism, and the Uighur independence movement. In what many in the United States and Europe have labeled as genocide, China rejects the notion that that the Uighurs are subject to any human rights abuses.

However, estimates predict that more than 1 million Uighurs were detained in Chinese re-education camps. Some former Uighur detainees reported that, during their time in detention, they were forced to learn Mandarin Chinese and to be loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Others have shared that China is using torture as well as “forced sterilization…and family separations to destroy Uighur identity.” These unspeakable state-sanctioned actions certainly constitute genocide.

The U.S. and Its Allies Act

On March 22, in response to the genocidal conditions that the Uighur ethnic group and others are suffering at the hands of the Chinese government in the Xinjiang province, the United States, in concert some of its closest allies – the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada – imposed sanctions on China for its human right violations. What is the significance about the United States and its allies’ recent imposition of sanctions against China? It fits in neatly with what President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. announced as the fundamental features of his administration’s foreign policy..

On February 4, Biden delivered the first foreign policy speech of his new presidency. In this speech, Biden spoke of several themes that would guide his foreign policy, including placing re-establishing diplomacy at the core of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, repairing U.S. alliances, and returning to multilateralism. The imposition of sanctions on China for its human right abuses against the Uighurs embodies almost every facet of Biden’s vision for his foreign policy.

Diplomacy and American Democratic Values

In his February 4 speech, Biden remarked, “America is back. Diplomacy is back at the center of our foreign policy.” He further asserted that the United States’ return to diplomacy must be “rooted in American’s most cherished democratic values: defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity.” By announcing the imposition of new sanctions against China for its human rights abuses against the Uighurs, the United States has done exactly what Biden promised: placed diplomacy at the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal treatment of the Uighurs also secures Biden’s pledge that American democratic values are central to U.S. foreign policy. By taking a stand against Beijing for these human right abuses, the United States is making clear not just to China, but to the world, that its foreign policy will be driven by its democratic values, including human rights, and that the United States will call out those who are violating its values.

Coordination with U.S. Allies and A Return to Multilateralism

On February 4, Biden emphatically stated that “America’s alliances are our greatest assets, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again.” After several years of angering and alienating America’s allies under the Trump administration’s America First motto, Biden noted the importance of rebuilding relationships with the United States’ key allies to counter global challenges. “We can’t do it alone,” Biden further emphasized, signaling the importance of rebuilding the United States’ alliances in order to recalibrate U.S. foreign policy.

And this is exactly what the Biden administration accomplished when coordinating with the United Kingdom, Canada, and the European Union to impose sanctions on China. Not only did the United States pursue this action through diplomatic channels, but the United States also coordinated with some of its closest allies in order to address a mutual threat to their security and values. By imposing sanctions on China for its genocidal behavior toward the Uighurs, the United States capitalized on what the Biden administration recognizes as its greatest assets – its alliances – and this will only help in his quest of restoring those relationships.

The United States’ imposition of sanctions on China in concert with some of its closest, like-minded allies also indicates how important multilateralism is to the Biden administration’s foreign policy. Though the United States did not work directly through an international organization, like the United Nations, the Biden administration pursued a course of diplomacy through the imposition of sanctions, using a well-deliberated and well-orchestrated action in concert with its closest allies instead of acting impulsively, ineffectively, or unliterally. This action was the epitome of multilateral cooperation.

Conclusion

The horrendous treatment of the Uighurs in the Xinjiang province at the hands of the Chinse government is undoubtedly a massive violation of the Uighurs’ human rights. By imposing sanctions on the Chinese government in coordination with the United Kingdom, the European Union, and Canada, the Biden administration is fulfilling its promises of returning diplomacy and American values at the center of U.S. foreign policy, restoring American leadership, recalibrating its strained relationships with its closest allies, and resuming its commitment to multilateralism.

Secretary Blinken on U.S. Allies

Secretary Blinken testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 19 for more than four hours, answering questions from both Republican and Democratic Senators on an array of issues, specifically U.S. allies and adversaries. What policies toward U.S. allies can we expect to see over the next four years with Secretary Blinken leading the State Department?

U.S. Allies

Secretary Blinken’s approach to foreign policy centers on close cooperation and coordination with the United States’ traditional allies in Europe and Asia. The Trump administration, through its America First tactics, disparaged U.S. alliances, particularly its European allies and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and effectively alienated the United States’ closest friends and partners. In contrast to a president who often openly preferred U.S. adversaries and strongmen, Secretary Blinken promised to recalibrate U.S. relationships with its allies for “the greater good.”

U.S. Leadership

One way in which the Biden administration plans to recalibrate the United States’ relationships with its key allies is by restoring U.S. global leadership. Secretary Blinken pledged to do just that. In his testimony, the Secretary reflected on the lack of U.S. leadership during the Trump administration, observing that the United States must have both humility and confidence in its leadership. “Humility and confidence should be the flip sides of the coin,” he declared.

Acknowledging that the United States has “a great deal of work to do at home” to repair its standing in the world, humility must play a key part in the restoration of global leadership. With humility, the United States is better able to recognize the importance of close allies and partners in its quest to provide leadership. Secretary Blinken rightly pointed this out by stating that “the United States cannot address the world’s problems alone,” signaling a need for strong and cooperative allies.

The Secretary also revealed why he believes the United States must have confidence, along with humility, in its leadership. “American leadership still matters,” he told the Committee. “The reality is, the world simply does not organize itself. When we are not engaged, when we’re not leading, then one of two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place, but not in a way that’s likely to advance our interests and values, or maybe just as bad, one does [try to lead] and then you have chaos.”

In short, U.S. leadership crucial to imposing some sort of order in the world and the United States must have confidence that it can lead. Renewed global leadership is also one of the first steps toward recalibrating relationships with its key allies.

International Institutions and Multilateralism

Another element to Secretary Blinken’s foreign policy is reengaging U.S. participation with international institutions and reemphasizing multilateralism. Secretary Blinken feels as though the United States should work closely with allies within international institutions and treaties.

In efforts to shore up and demonstrate the United States’ support for renewed participation in international institutions, President Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord on his first day in office, a move that was welcomed by its European allies. Shortly thereafter, President Biden canceled the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization.

Returning to a practice of multilateralism with U.S. foreign policy and working with allies within international institutions are, indeed, key to recalibrating the United States’ relationships with its allies. Relatedly, to return multilateralism to its foreign policy, the United States, under President Biden, has stated its intent on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.  

U.S. Core Values

Part of the Biden administration’s plan to reengage in international institutions and reemphasize multilateralism is through reinstating democracy, the rule of law, and human rights back to the center of U.S. foreign policy: “Our charge is to put democracy and human right back at the center of American foreign policy” Secretary Blinken commented. These values have long been cornerstones of U.S. foreign policy, for both Democrat and Republican administrations alike. Secretary Blinken indicated that the Biden administration will continue to follow that tradition.

Fundamental to this promise is President Biden’s plan to host a global summit of democracy, a concept which Secretary Blinken wholeheartedly supports. Aiming for the summit to take place later in 2021, the Secretary shared that it would be “an opportunity for democratic countries to think about the challenges they face at home due to rising populism and other challenges, and to work on a common agenda to defend democracy, combat corruption, and more effectively stand up for human rights.” The U.S. will be able to prove its trustworthiness to its allies by reinstating its core values of democracy, the rule of law, and human rights into its foreign policy.

Better Together

Moreover, Secretary Blinken shares President Biden’s belief that the United States’ allies are the most successful manner to “counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, North Korea, and to stand up for democracy and human rights.” Secretary Blinken will spend the next four years of his time as Secretary of State restoring trust with the United States’ allies, understanding that the United States must work with its allies to confront the common threats, including addressing the United States’ main adversaries.

Conclusion

Secretary Blinken and the entire Biden administration have a realistic outlook and approach to U.S. foreign policy, as he has emphasized the importance of recalibrating the United States’ relationships with its key allies in Europe and Asia by restoring U.S. global leadership, returning to a multilateral foreign policy style, reengaging in international institutions, and reinstating the United States’ core values in its foreign policy.