Germany’s new government is promising a tougher stance toward Russia and China, a change in mood music that will affect the rest of Europe, where Berlin has traditionally been the moderating voice and defined the center ground.
For the moment these are just promises, soothing words for the members of the coalition’s three unusually divergent political parties. But the government’s commitments to Europe, NATO and the trans-Atlantic relationship are solid, part of postwar Germany’s DNA. And based on tradition and the importance for Europe of the Berlin-Paris relationship, Chancellor Olaf Scholz will visit France almost immediately after being sworn in.
In a modest but important shift in tone, the coalition is promising a more robust and practical military positioning, backing the notion that the European Union must become better able to defend its interests as the United States focuses more on China and the Indo-Pacific. Mr. Scholz speaks regularly of “European sovereignty,” a softer version of the “strategic autonomy” favored by President Emmanuel Macron of France.
Veering from a traditional demand for a “European army,” the governing agreement instead calls for “increased cooperation between national armies of E.U. members willing to integrate, especially in training, capabilities, operations and equipment” — a position that will please Mr. Macron, whose country takes over the rotating European presidency on Jan. 1 and is himself running for re-election in April.
The agreement also promises to improve the woeful state of Germany’s armed forces, though it is silent on the country’s 2014 pledge to increase military spending to the 2 percent of economic output promised to NATO by 2024. Instead, there is a fuzzy promise to spend, “in the long run,” 3 percent on diplomacy, international development and defense.
Jana Puglierin of the European Council on Foreign Relations assessed the plan’s defense and foreign policy planks as “carefully balanced” and “stronger than I expected.” She pointed in particular to a commitment to continue “nuclear sharing” with NATO, whereby German airplanes would drop U.S.-owned nuclear bombs in the case of all-out war and replace aging aircraft.
On China, said Janka Oertel, the same research institute’s Asia director, talk of the country as “a strategic partner is definitely gone,” with much more emphasis on Beijing as “a systemic rival” and economic competitor. There are explicit mentions of Taiwan, abuses in Hong Kong and rights violations in Xinjiang, which will not please Beijing, she said.
There is a promise, however vague, to at least coordinate Germany’s policy on China with European policy. And the coalition is pulling back from Angela Merkel’s support for an E.U.-China investment treaty. But given the power of German industry and its reliance on an export model, it remains to be seen how confrontational the new government will be with China.
The language on Russia, too, is “very sober,” Ms. Puglierin said, and takes account of the concerns of Central European and Baltic nations. “Germany is no longer looking for good relations with Russia,” she said, “but for stable relations and constructive dialogue.”