"These formulations on China are significant"

For a long time, German foreign policy with regard to Russia and China seemed rather undecided. In the USA, therefore, the new tone in the traffic light coalition agreement is very clearly perceived.

Jeffrey Rathke is the director of the Washington-based “American Institute for Contemporary German Studies” which is associated with the famous Johns Hopkins University. We reached the Germany experts shortly before Thanksgiving in Virginia, where he carefully studied the new traffic light coalition agreement.

t-online: Mr. Rathke, now we know the coalition agreement of the likely new German government. After 16 years of Angela Merkel, what do people in Washington think about this center-left alliance made up of the SPD, the Greens and the FDP?

Jeffrey Rathke: As far as the Biden government is concerned, it will clearly seek the path of close cooperation in the face of a government led by Social Democrats. A project like the global minimum tax promoted by German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and the Biden government would be an example of this.

What else do you hope for with the traffic light?

The socio-political aspects will be of great mutual importance. Likewise, climate policy, digital and economic regulations, investments in infrastructure and the strengthening of democratic structures. The US is striving for more international cooperation in all of these areas. The new German government will be an important partner.

Are the Americans surprised at the consensual transfer of government power?

For the USA it is important that Germany stands for continuity. That seems to be the case, and that’s not just because Angela Merkel introduced her Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz to Joe Biden at the G20 summit. During the election campaign, he and the SPD made it clear that they wanted continuity and stability. Even if that doesn’t mean they are one and the same policy.

Can you describe this continuity, which is so important for the USA, in a little more detail?

Angela Merkel’s strength has always been to forge compromises, whether in a European, transatlantic or global context. Olaf Scholz has now managed to bring these three very different parties together in a relatively conflict-free manner. The US sees Germany as an indispensable European power. Also in order to achieve the important compromises at the level of the European Union. This ability to reach a consensus is particularly important for the USA in times when the EU and NATO are confronted with major challenges on their eastern border and with the internal disputes with regard to Poland and Hungary.

But there is also dissent, for example on Nord Stream 2. US President Joe Biden and Chancellor Angela Merkel recently reached an agreement on this. But US sanctions are far from off the table.

That’s right. The Biden government is trying to achieve a broader, more reliable and consistent approach to Russia with Germany. Nord Stream 2 is only a small part of it, but it remains a dominant theme. The bigger challenge, however, will be to jointly answer the increasingly problematic behavior of Russia. However, the coalition agreement is remarkably sober when it comes to relations with Russia.

Jeffrey Rathke (Quelle: privat)How good is that for the US?

It becomes clear that the focus is not on a new era of cooperation with Russia. Obviously, it is about a clear stance, embedded in the European Union, when it comes to compliance with human rights and international law. Cooperation with Russia is sought, for example in the fight against climate change or the production of hydrogen. In terms of Russia and the security of Europe, the coalition agreement seems to be a document without any illusions. It is a good basis for stronger German-American cooperation.

Is that a real difference to the foreign policy under Angela Merkel or has the world simply changed?

I think both are correct. Our world has changed dramatically in the past four years. And this development will continue. So it is quite natural that the positions of German politics should also develop further. But, it is also clearly recognizable that two parties are now entering the government that have not been there for a long time. The Greens and the FDP bring in new perspectives. And, in my opinion, the SPD has also further developed its own positions in relation to Russia and China.

The Greens were once a party that called for NATO to leave. The first green foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, told the US Bush administration that the arguments in favor of a war in Iraq had not convinced him. What is the US impression of the possible new Green Secretary of State Annalena Baerbock?

In the period from 1998 to 2005 there were not only disagreements. Joint action was taken in Kosovo under a Green Foreign Minister to end ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The joint NATO mission in Afghanistan …

That’s right, so the Greens played a very constructive role early on. In this respect, this is not a new phenomenon. Still, I would say that in the opposition, and especially in recent years, the party has worked very hard to develop and modernize its political roots. There is a new generation of politicians who are very specialized in security policy. Many Greens are very well known in Washington and are well connected. You have invested a lot of time and energy building relationships here.

From the US perspective, are the Greens the most desirable occupation in the Federal Foreign Office?

Washington sees the Greens as a party that is actually ready to actually implement a foreign policy guided by democratic values. From an American perspective, they understood how great the challenges posed by authoritarian regimes really are. But of course, when it comes to nuclear weapons, for example, the green positions should be very different from the American positions.

China is referred to as a systemic rival for the first time in a German coalition agreement. Taiwan is mentioned twice and that its reintegration into China can only take place peacefully and with mutual consent. Here, too, the traffic light coalition now seems to fit the US position more clearly than under Angela Merkel.

This attitude is not in itself new, also because it has already been anchored in this way at European level. In Germany, concerns about China have been growing for some time. The People’s Republic is no longer perceived as just an economic opportunity. Nevertheless: The Biden government will take note that the prioritization has changed. These formulations on China are significant and show a far-reaching approach that brings both the opportunities and the challenges together and does not separate them from one another.

Democrats and Republicans alike should be happy with that, right?

Republicans and Democrats have different proposals about China. But they are, in fact, united in assumption as to the assessment of the dangers. The Biden government, on the one hand, and both parties in Congress, on the other hand, are very interested in starting work soon to find common answers, including with the Germans.

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