For all those who hope for a decisive break with the strategic ambiguity of the Angela Merkel era, the election of Armin Laschet last weekend to lead their party in the next German elections was a disappointment.
Laschet, leader of the most populous federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia and now front runner in place of Merkel as Chancellor at the end of 2021, was the candidate for continuity in a race against two political rivals – the conservative old-school Friedrich Merz and the modernizer Norbert Rottgen – the promised to steer the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Germany in a new direction.
In his speech to party delegates before the vote, he portrayed himself as the person who unites the party and protects the trust that Merkel has won from voters in over 15 years of constant leadership. "Maybe I'm not the man who puts on the best show, but I'm Armin Laschet," he said in a speech full of popular allusions to his miner father.
As a cautious moderator who has ruled North Rhine-Westphalia since 2017, Laschet has shown a tendency to feel comfortable with authoritarians and to place close business interests above broader strategic goals. When I wrote on foreign policy last year, I explained how Laschet had warned in the past against demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea, criticizing Washington for supporting rebels who tried to defeat the strong Syrian President Bashar overthrow al-Assad, and spoke out in favor of deepening Germany's relationship with Beijing.
He has also questioned whether Germany should bear a heavier military burden, advocated the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and opposed the exclusion of Chinese telecommunications company Huawei from the German next-generation 5G network. In 2019, he received an embarrassing confirmation from Gerhard Schroder, the politically poisonous former chancellor known for his personal relationships with Putin and lobbying for Russian energy interests. All of this is cause for concern.
After decades of cosiness or comfort, the world has taken an unsettling turn for Germany. The United States, its guarantor of security for decades, is no longer the dependable ally it once was. Germany's largest corporations have become worryingly dependent on an authoritarian China that has gone from being a win-win trade and investment partner to a formidable industrial competitor and systemic rival. Meanwhile, the foundations of Germany's prosperity – an open, mostly peaceful, rules-based world order – are breaking as an era of unrestricted free trade comes to an end amid a public backlash against globalization and a worsening conflict between the US and China.
This changing geopolitical landscape will force Germany to make some nasty strategic decisions. Merkel stifled rather than encouraged the debate about Germany's direction. It has often given its citizens the impression that they can carry on as they always have. Her quest to land an investment deal with China last month, weeks before President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House, is the latest example of her geopolitical blind spot. While it was the main political force behind the deal, it has yet to publicly acknowledge its disruptive nature and unfortunate timing and leave it to EU trade negotiators to defend it.
There is a risk that Laschet, should he become Chancellor, will take a similar non-binding approach. Some in Berlin fear that without his own clear agenda, Laschet could hand over the reins of Europe to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose vision of strategic autonomy risks alienating Washington and playing into the hands of China. However, it would be wrong to take this as a foregone conclusion. While Merkel continues to protect herself, there is increasing pressure at home and abroad for Germany to change its foreign policy direction.
Norbert Rottgen, Laschet's rival for the CDU chairmanship, exemplified the changing tide. He led an internal party uprising against Merkel's Huawei-friendly 5G policies, pushing for a tougher line on China and a relaunch of transatlantic ties, while at the same time supporting Europe's drive for independence. And he's not alone. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing CDU chairwoman and defense minister, has also decidedly in favor of a more strategic orientation.
This view is increasingly shared by the mainstream parties in the Bundestag and by Germany's national security and diplomatic apparatus. The German U.N. ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Munich Security Conference next year, and Michael Clauss, Berlin's man in Brussels, are two examples of the harder line.
Last month, Heusgen used Germany's last meeting as a member of the UN Security Council to excavate Russia for poisoning opposition leader Alexei Navalny and to urge Beijing to release the imprisoned Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, his Chinese counterpart. And while Clauss dutifully executed Merkel's desire to seal the investment deal with China last month, he is also pushing behind the scenes of a more muscular EU approach to issues such as connectivity and engagement in the Indo-Pacific.
Like Merkel, Laschet could defend himself against this fundamental wave. The December news that she will appoint her loyal foreign policy advisor Jan Hecker as the next German ambassador to Beijing suggests that she would like to maintain her conciliatory stance on China for the time after her death – the opposite of what the Trump did -Government is doing by hastening the decoupling spurt in the past few days.
Laschet could also be tempted to put his own stamp on German China policy and to show that he is not a Merkel clone or Beijing's poodle. If he becomes chancellor, there will likely be a coalition with a Green party that is increasingly open in its criticism of China. The China falcon Rottgen could also be an outstanding foreign policy voice in the next government.
"Regardless of who replaces Merkel, German policy towards China will change," said a high-ranking German diplomat. “She and her team at the firm were the driving force behind the softer approach. As soon as they go you will see the shift. "
When faced with Laschet's conciliatory remarks to Russia and China over the past few years, people in his entourage downplay them, saying that his approach would change if he was in the firm in Berlin. A person who works with him told me that Laschet was not a fan of how the EU-China investment agreement was carried out in the last weeks of December. He also didn't expect Huawei to play a long-term role in the German 5G network.
In the last few months his team has been organizing private meetings on the major foreign policy challenges for Germany. Unlike some politicians, he is open to hearing outside views and adapting his approach.
"There is less space between Laschet and Rottgen in foreign policy than you might think," said the colleague.
If so, it's time for Laschet to show it off. Before the CDU decides in the coming months whether it will be its candidate for chancellor in the federal elections on September 26th, he has to clarify how he would position Germany in a time of great power competition.
Is it the tactical business-first approach that Merkel and, to a greater extent, Schroder pursued as the world moved towards Germany? Or will he adapt German politics to a new age in which democracies are threatened by authoritarianism, allies desperately strive for Berlin to bear a greater military burden, and China as a threat to German interests grows ever greater? The answer will be of crucial importance for Germany, Europe and the future of transatlantic relations.