Germany’s new top diplomat emphasizes a “values-guided” foreign policy. But what inspired those values, and can the Green co-leader back them up in one of the most high-profile offices?
Annalena Baerbock gave a series of feather-ruffling interviews following her nomination to the Foreign Ministry last month. She emphasized the “value-guided foreign policy” she intends to implement and followed that up with what many have seen as assertive statements about China, Belarus, Hungary, and Russia.
“In the long run, eloquent silence is no kind of diplomacy, even if the last few years it has been seen as such by some,” she told the taz newspaper in early December. Beijing responded by saying the world needs “bridge builders instead of wall builders.”
On the campaign trail ahead of September’s general election, Baerbock lamented Germany’s passiveness, especially on the EU and Hungary’s increasing restrictions. “For far too long, the German government has been silent on the dismantling of basic rights in Hungary,” she told the news agency AFP in June.
Green Party tradition
That a Green foreign minister should seek to emphasize human rights is not surprising. The party’s foreign policy specialist parliamentarians, such as Omid Nouripour, the Green Party’s foreign affairs spokesman in the Bundestag and Reinhard Bütikofer, the Greens’ leader in the European Parliament, are known as outspoken critics of regimes they deem to be abusing human rights.
“It has always been part of the Green tradition that ethics and human rights aspects are emphasized more strongly,” Hubert Kleinert told DW. He is a political scientist at the Hesse University of Applied Sciences and himself a former Green Party Bundestag member.
After all, the Greens have a little tradition of troublesome foreign ministers. Baerbock’s predecessor as Green Party foreign minister is Joschka Fischer, a former left-wing firebrand who rose to become former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s top diplomat in the late 1990s. Famously, Fischer openly questioned the US’ evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and ensured that Germany took no part in the US-led invasion in 2003.
But Kleinert also predicted that Baerbock will struggle at first, especially in view of what some saw as a disappointing election campaign that saw the Greens leave their early promise unfulfilled. “I think she will have the problem of getting the appropriate public respect,” he told DW. “She’s not exactly starting from the best position, and if you look beyond the Green milieu I’m certain she’ll face all kinds of skepticism.”
Gustav Gressel of the Berlin-based European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) has welcomed Baerbock’s more forceful tone. “I have been criticizing the German government for a long time that they are too silent and too intimidated, punching much below their weight,” he told DW. “It’s a huge consumer market — they have a lot of leverage both regarding Russia and China as well as in the EU, especially on Hungary. It’s not a foreign policy that Germany has been doing — it can only get better.”
Twitter critics have dismissed Baerbock as too young (born in 1980) and too inexperienced, as she has never held a government post. But Gressel does not see any particular weakness in Baerbock’s relative youth and inexperience. “I think much of this criticism as misguided because that’s simply not how electoral democracy works,” he said. “Ministers are not technocrats. They need to find and identify the people they can rely on in specific areas to work for them and with them.”
“Anyone who has risen that far in politics has to have a certain amount of toughness,” he said. “As for the age thing: even among German bureaucrats, I am much more confident about the younger generation than a lot of the representatives of the elder generation.”
Baerbock’s tone and her interest in international politics are not new. In the biography on her personal website, she describes being “touched by worldwide injustice” since her teenage years, which apparently fired early ambitions to be a journalist. She studied political science and public law in Hamburg, earned a Master’s Degree in international law at the London School of Economics, and then began a doctorate at Berlin’s Free University, which she broke off in 2013 on being elected to the Bundestag.
Her academic career ran in parallel to a steep political ascent. Having joined the Green Party at the age of 25, she became leader of the party’s branch in the state of Brandenburg only four years later, while simultaneously acting as spokesperson of the party’s working group on European affairs and serving as a member of the board of the European Green Party.
She continued this focus on European affairs in her first term in the Bundestag, when she claims to have “worked hard on making the German government finally acknowledge its international responsibility as one of the largest economies in the world and to lead the German ‘energy transition’.”
Nevertheless, her attention shifted to domestic affairs in her second term in the Bundestag, from 2017, when she focused on child poverty and single parents.
Tasks for a Green foreign minister
Perhaps mindful of criticism of the Greens from environmentalist pressure groups like Fridays for Future, Baerbock has been at pains to sell her new brief as essential to fighting the climate crisis: “We can only solve the big domestic policy questions like climate neutrality with a globalized world,” she told public broadcaster ARD in November. “That’s why, for a strong climate policy, we need an active European and German international foreign policy.”
When faced with countries such as China that have generally blocked global climate agreements, Baerbock has argued that the key is not to work endlessly for unlikely global agreements, like a universal carbon tax, but to cooperate bilaterally with countries prepared to retool their industries to be carbon neutral.
Gressel believes that Baerbock’s success will not only be measured in what she says about “values” in foreign policy. “How willing is Germany to create means to that end?” he asked. “For example, she asked for a new fund for strategic infrastructure. That’s a start to counter the Chinese takeover of infrastructure, especially in the neighborhood of the EU. You have to stand for your values not just in words but also in money.”