“I think it’s fair to say that the United States has no better partner, no better friend in the world than Germany,” declared U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, standing alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin. Blinken’s remarks were in June 2021 – at the apex of Merkel’s flurry of diplomatic goodbyes to German allies given the conclusion of her chancellorship – but forward to the leadership of Olaf Scholz, the mood couldn’t be any more different. For Scholz, the vacuum that followed the departure of Merkel offers him considerable room in establishing his own style of leadership. However, Merkel’s leadership within the European Union, Germany’s commitment to the Trans-Atlantic alliance, and Berlin’s ‘special-relationship’ with Moscow was distinguishable amongst Western states. Scholz may opt to diverge from his predecessor’s style of leadership, but the precedent of her leadership makes his absence from diplomatic circles even more noticeable.
Merkel’s legacy on policy making must be highlighted. Noticeably, her appearance as the “leader of the free world” was in some part true, though this was relative to the populist strongmen of the U.S. President Donald Trump, Brazilian President Jair Bolsanaro, and even British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. She navigated the bailout-programme for southern European states during the Eurozone crisis, she co-led the Minsk agreements during the annexation of Crimea by Moscow in 2014, and she showed humanity – at considerable cost – given the refugee crisis of 2015. In an age of backlash to wider trends in globalisation – where the resurgence of populism in the United Kingdom, Italy, and even in the former Soviet space of Poland has challenged the status-quo – Merkel can largely be accounted for her avid defence of the wider liberal-international order. The coherence of the European Union given subsequent crises, and Washington’s continuing role within NATO is evidence of that.
However, to understand Scholz’s absence in recent days, it is important to appreciate that Merkel wasn’t as ‘liberal’ as the contours of her chancellorship may suggest. Firstly, the role of China. In light of the rise of China, under Xi Jinping since 2000, Berlin has pursued a purely realist foreign-policy given Germany’s export-oriented economy. Despite the mounting pressure by the wider western-world given the abuses of human rights in Xinjiang – Merkel prioritised geo-economic interests over the wider liberal sentiment that seemingly captured her actions on the eurozone and refugee crisis – and the term ‘Merkelism’ has been coined to depict her liberal but purely realist pursuit of German interests across bilateral relations. Taking this idea further, where realism has trumped liberalism, and we can see this given the nature of German-Russian relations. Unlike other Western states, noticeably Washington and London with the Baltic republics, Berlin has adopted a less combative and more cordial tone when dealing with the Kremlin. According to the Judy Dempsey at the Carnegie Europe, Germany’s policy towards Russia has been one of “ambiguity”. Dempsey goes further – given the historical reasoning concerning Germany’s part in the massacre of Soviet Russians during WWII coupled with the economic ties that make Berlin dependent upon Russian natural gas – thus making clear the unique ties Berlin-Moscow share that have been anomalous to a broader ‘western standard’.
Merkel’s foreign policy legacies therefore influenced Scholz’s foreign-policy expectations. Without detailing the Ukraine crisis just yet – where Russian troops are currently stationed in Belarus, Western Russia, Moldova, and the Black Sea – realism with the admittance of constructivist values of historical legacies shapes German foreign policy towards Moscow. Merkel’s decision to ban nuclear energy production – given the Fukushima disaster – has only entrenched German dependency on Russia for energy, thus making it increasingly dependent on Russia. However – where energy costs in Germany are the highest in Europe – Merkel alluded to the slower-than-expected role of energy transition given the banning of nuclear energy and continuance of natural gas provision. According to Merkel, “We cannot — as some have demanded — get out of nuclear power and coal and then withdraw from natural gas as fast as possible,” she said. “That’s not going to be possible.”
However, given the Ukrainian Crisis, the role of Nord Stream 2 has come under fire again. Not for the reasons for its construction, since that is history, but for its potential role as a key bargaining tool against Moscow’s actions in Eastern Ukraine should it decide to initiate a “false flag event”. It seems probable that cutting the supply, and thus future viability of natural gas transfers from Russia to Germany, would undermine the profits for Russian-gas monopoly Gazprom. Yet Scholz’s continuation of Merkel’s ambiguous foreign policy on Moscow has sustained hysteria regarding Berlin’s commitment to cutting-off gas supplies in the event of Russian intervention.
Economic, and historical factors permeate German foreign policy on Russia. According to the Financial Times, reporting from Washington, Scholz’s inability to categorically mention by name ‘Nord Stream 2’ and its relevance as a hard-power tool in the event of Russian invasion exposed “lingering differences” on the use of Nord-Stream 2 as a bargaining tool. It seems that Scholz is at a cross-roads – either continue a path of ‘Merkelism’ that towed a ambiguous tone on Russia – or shift towards a strategy of active engagement with Moscow.
With days looming – on the what-is-expected to include the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia – Scholz must decide between following a pattern of ‘Merkelism’ on Russia or defining his own style of leadership on Russia. German ambiguity on Russia – and Ukraine – only weakens the effectiveness of any potential series of sanctions imposed by Western states.