Is Germany’s foreign minister having a Chrystia Freeland moment

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OP-ED

by Heidi Tworek

The Conversation
January 9, 2018

Last month, Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, gave a big speech in Berlin on how to change foreign policy in the age of Donald Trump.

Canadians might ask themselves what took Germany so long. After all, Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland gave a similar type of speech in June 2017, more than six months ago.

Freeland argued that Canada had to take on more responsibility for upholding “a global order based on rules” that had greatly benefited Canadians. This order had “at its heart the core notions of territorial integrity, human rights, democracy, respect for the rule of law and an aspiration to free and friendly trade.”

These values, Freeland implied, were now threatened by American actions, and Canada needed to react. The next day, minister of defence Harjit Sajjan announced plans to increase Canada’s military budget by 73 per cent over the next 10 years.

Will Gabriel’s speech mean similar changes in Germany? It seems unlikely if we understand why Gabriel gave the speech in the first place.

Gabriel spoke just after returning from visiting U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Washington as rumours swirled about Tillerson’s possible dismissal.

The visit seemed to illustrate to Gabriel that the United States was not the partner it once had been.

According to Gabriel, the U.S. had retreated from international responsibility “not due to the policies of only one president. It will not change fundamentally after the next elections.”

He argued against ending the nuclear deal with Iran and for integrating Germany more with Europe, particularly in partnership with France.

It was time, Gabriel concluded, for Germany to stand more on its own two feet after 70 years of partnership and protection from the United States.

“Germany cannot afford to wait for decisions from Washington, or to merely react to them,” he said. “We must lay out our own position and make clear to our allies where the limits of our solidarity are reached.”

Positioning his party

So far, so Freeland.

But, as an expert in international history, I believe Gabriel’s speech was not meant to herald new policy. It was meant to position his party, the Social Democrats, at a delicate time in German domestic politics.

After the German election in October, Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) failed to negotiate a coalition with two smaller parties, the Greens and liberal FDP.

Although Gabriel’s party, the Social Democrats (SPD), had initially ruled out entering into another coalition with Merkel, it relented and is starting coalition negotiations this week. Gabriel’s speech, then, was more about laying the groundwork for coalition talks. It was mainly pitched at a domestic audience and advocated the SPD’s foreign policy positions.

But if Gabriel’s foreign policy rethink is to gain ground in a new coalition, Germany will have to do more than posture. It will have to put its money where its mouth is by spending more on defence, which was only 1.2 per cent of the country’s GDP in 2015.

During the German election campaign, the SPD spoke out loud and clear against hiking Germany’s defence budget. To fulfil the expectations outlined in Gabriel’s speech, that position will have to change.

Germany and Russian pipelines

The SPD might also rethink its stance on Russia and energy.

One of Gabriel’s key examples of divergent interests between Germany and the U.S. were the sanctions against Russia initiated by U.S. Congress a few months ago.

Gabriel noted that the sanctions could hurt Germany’s energy supply because they affect Russian pipelines. Gabriel might do well to reconsider that position and the SPD’s commitment to Nord Stream 2, a planned pipeline to bring Russian gas to Germany. Instead of increasing German dependence on Russian gas, the SPD might shift to support alternative energy sources or energy suppliers.

Some German commentators wrote that, when it comes to discussing how Germany might take more responsibility for the world order, Gabriel’s speech was devoid of substance.

That’s going a little far. But if the SPD does enter a new coalition government with Angela Merkel’s CDU, politicians like Gabriel should start planning policies to match their words.

Gabriel’s Chrystia Freeland moment may be yet to come.

Heidi J. S. Tworek receives funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council in Canada. She is a non-resident fellow at the German-Marshall Fund of the United States and the Canadian Global Affairs Institute.

Image credit: AP Photo/Martin Meissner

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