Change is Coming to Berlin: What Will Germany’s New Foreign Policy Look Like?

Incoming German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has tapped Green Party co-leader Annalena Baerbock as foreign minister.

Baerbock, a 40-year-old diplomatic novice, has consistently espoused liberal interventionist views that one left-wing American news site has described as a combination of “aloof complacency, ignorance and aggressiveness.”

To help understand the implications of this appointment, I interviewed Douglas Macgregor, a retired U.S. Army colonel and an expert on U.S.-German relations, about what he thought of the incoming German foreign minister. Macgregor, a fluent German speaker who holds a doctorate from the University of Virginia, was former President Donald Trump’s choice to become U.S. ambassador to Germany. Ultimately, he served as senior adviser to acting Secretary of Defense Christopher Miller in the last months of that administration.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

James Carden: Does the incoming German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock represent a kind of break with the more traditional, more cautious German foreign policy we saw under outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel and her predecessors?

Douglas Macgregor: Very much so. I think at least insofar as the things Baerbock has said, she’s likely to be a profound break from the past. It might be useful to go back a little bit to talk about Merkel, because Merkel represented a certain amount of continuity. And I would argue that the Germans are not alone in this. All the Germanic countries [in Europe] are very similar in the sense that the populations are conservative. They like continuity, stability and order. Austrians, Germans, Swiss, Dutch, Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, everyone largely falls into the same category. “What do we want? Well, we want stability. We want prosperity. We want order.” And Merkel, even though I didn’t necessarily sign on for all of her thinking, represented all that, much like her predecessors.

And this has been true in the history of the German-speaking peoples and in the Germanic countries for centuries. This is nothing new. So what is new about Baerbock? First of all, she is unusually young. She has a different kind of background in education. She spent a year as an exchange student in Florida, much as I spent a year as an exchange student in Germany. She was born into a Germany that wasn’t quite united yet, but a Germany that was extraordinarily prosperous; in 1980, West Germany had a very high standard of living. So she grows up in this environment without strife, without struggle, without conflict, without poverty, without any of the things that her predecessors knew.

In other words, there’s no history of experience with the things that Germany went through during and after World War II. And as a result, she sees the world very differently. She is more American in her outlook, quite willing to moralize.

JC: She seems like she would fit right in with ‘humanitarian’ war hawks like Samantha Power, Susan Rice and, above all, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to whom Baerbock has compared herself. To me she sounds alarmingly like the liberal interventionists in the United States who, along with their neoconservative allies, dominate the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

DM: She’s a crusader of the type you see in Washington, D.C., all the time. But this is a big break from the past for the German foreign office. Even after World War II and into the ’70s and ’80s, we had people whose families were involved in foreign affairs in Germany as diplomats during the interwar period and even before World War I.

In the old foreign offices of Germany, people spent a great deal of time trying to understand the interests that shaped behavior in the international environment. In other words: What are Russia’s interests? What are the interests in Prague? What are the interests in Paris or in London? That’s a very different approach to foreign affairs than we’ve heard from Baerbock.

She seems to have no sense of the interests that drive things around the world in all of these major capitals. No sense of that at all. [Her perspective seems to be,] “Our interest is in making the world a better place.” [For Baerbock and similar-minded politicians,] everything is about reshaping the world to conform to some sort of ideologically pure and good and morally upright picture that always fails in the end, frankly.

Baerbock is a crusader looking for a reason to crusade. And that’s a problem.

JC: And it becomes an even more dangerous problem given the current tensions now involving Russia and Ukraine. What is concerning is that Merkel’s caution may now give way to a kind of Atlanticist recklessness embodied by Baerbock. So I’m wondering, as you are a career military officer who—unlike a lot of our military leaders, including the current Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley—has actually been under fire [Macgregor was awarded a Bronze Star with a V device for valor as a tank commander in the first Gulf War], why do we seem so close to a war between Russia and the West?

DM: Well, a couple of quick points. First of all, Baerbock, along with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the other so-called luminaries that we currently have running the State Department, are now dealing with Sergey Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. I’ve met him. I had the good fortune to spend almost an hour with him and listening to him. He’s one of the most exceptionally talented and intelligent men I’ve ever met. And he is very much in the traditional mold of great European statesmen. This is someone who understands [Russia’s and other countries’] interests, and he is infinitely more gifted in pursuing those [interests] than anyone… [the U.S. has]. And… [in Russia, President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Lavrov] are at a loss to understand… [the U.S.] because we don’t seem to be interested in our own interests. We tend to embrace other… [countries’] interests and then force them down the throats of the Russians and others. They [Putin and Lavrov] really don’t understand us.

But what’s worse is that we’re busy pursuing the same sort of illusory policies inside the military that Baerbock and others want to pursue internationally.

And the Russians know this, so they are now telling Washington and Brussels, “Look, we’ve gone about as far as we can go with you and we’ve made it very clear what we will not tolerate on our borders. We will not tolerate it if Ukraine becomes a platform for the projection of armed hostility toward Russia. And otherwise, we’re not interested in having someone on our borders who is committed to subverting our government and our social order.”

…[The Russians are] telling us that unless… [the U.S. is] willing to sit down and come to arrangements that recognize the limits of our interests and theirs, which essentially means no more expansion of NATO, then they are going to take military action.

This article was produced by Globetrotter in partnership with the American Committee for U.S.-Russia Accord.

James W. Carden writes about foreign affairs from Washington, DC. His work has appeared in The American Conservative, American Affairs, The National Interest, and The Nation where he is a contributing writer.