Jeremi, Zachary, and Dr. Garret J. Martin discuss the recent German election of chancellor Olaf Scholz last November. What could Germany’s new, center-left government mean for global democracy?
Zachary sets the scene with his poem, “Not Just Us”.
Dr. Garret J. Martin is a Senior Professorial Lecturer and the Co-Director of the Transatlantic Policy Center in the School of International Service at American University. He has written widely on transatlantic relations and Europe. He focuses on security, US foreign policy, NATO, European politics, European foreign policy and defense, and the European Union. He is a frequent media commentator, providing analysis and interviews, among others, to NPR, the BBC, CNN, Voice of America, USA Today, WUSA, ABC News Australia and France 24.
- Dr. Garret J. MartinSenior Professorial Lecturer and the Co-Director of the Transatlantic Policy Center in the School of International Service at American University
This is Democracy – Episode 176: German Democracy and Lessons for the US
This is democracy, a podcast about the people of the United States, a podcast about citizenship, about engaging with politics and the world around you. A podcast about educating yourself on today’s important issues and how to have a voice in what happens next. Welcome to our new episode of this is democracy.
This week. We’re going to talk about the extraordinary changes in the government of Germany, which is the largest democracy in Europe. One of the largest and most influential democracies in the world. We’re going to talk about what the changes in German government mean for the future of democracy. Our theme on this podcast, uh, around the world and in the United States in particular, um, Americans have not been paying very much attention to these changes in Germany.
We’ve had other things on our minds, but it might turn out that when a historians write about this year, about the year 2021, that the change in government, the end of the 16 year chancellorship of Angola. And the rise of a new government under Olaf Scholz, including three parties, the SPD, the socialist party, the socialist social democratic party, the free democratic party and the green party that, that coalition and the change in governance in Germany, it turns out to be one of the historical headlines, uh, from this.
We’re joined, uh, by a friend and extraordinary scholar, uh, Garrett Martin, who is an expert on transatlantic relations and France, Germany, and European politics in general. Uh, Garrett, thanks for joining us. My pleasant Garrett is a senior professor, Ariel lecturer and the co-director of the transatlantic policy center and the school of international service at American unit.
He’s written widely on transatlantic issues on us foreign policy on French politics on European politics. And he is frequently on various media commenting on these issues, including NPR, BBC, CNN, voice of America. ABC news Australia and France 24, he covers the gamut of countries, uh, talking about these issues, uh, and most important for us today.
Garrett has been writing quite a bit about the changes in the German government. And so we’ll be able to draw on his, uh, immediate analysis of these issues. Before we turn to our discussion with Garrett, uh, we have our scene setting. Poem is always from Mr. Zachary Siri, uh, Zachary, what’s the title of your poem?
Not just us, not just us. All right. Let’s let’s hear it. I would like to turn on the television one of these days and see a bank teller has given a homeless man, a hug in a supermarket that instead of a blank stare the man in the fancy car, handed him his coat. I know what will be said. We have all forgotten what it means to be together, to wash our hands and take a seat at a shared table.
We have all forgotten what it means to hold another person in a handshake in there, hoping hating heartache. We have all forgotten how sweet it would feel. Her victory over a plague, maybe her new beginning in a parliament. Not just us, but sometimes it feels like a uniquely American problem that maybe other people don’t wake up each morning, wondering how they can be great or great again.
But sometimes it feels like our own special pathology are interminable period piece satire of an empire that we see ourselves through the bars of our own cage. And think we are looking at the world in this. I for one, think it’s a shame because I know I have in fact seen it on the six o’clock news, that somewhere on the other side, one of those people staring at us and expecting an apology, hold something of an understanding of all this, a pressure sort of secret resting in the Palm of their hands.
I love all the imagery in that poem is Zachary the zoo and the evening news. Uh, what is your. Uh, my poem is really about the ways in which the past two years have really brought out the insecurities of our societies globally. Uh, but also the ways in which societies like Germany have been able to react to those changes largely in a positive, constructive manner.
And maybe our, our society in the United States. Hasn’t managed to do that. Interesting. Maybe we could learn from other societies, um, Garrett, that seems like a great place to, uh, shift over to you. Um, first of all, just explain for us what this new German government looks like. It’s different from what we’re accustomed to seeing with a government dominated by the Christian Democrats and Angola.
Well, first of all, let me commend Zach on the poem. And I think the theme of, of, of memory, uh, is always particularly appropriate when we’re talking about Germany. Uh, I think we struggle to remember a Germany before Angela Merkel, because she’s been such a towering figure in German politics chancellor for 16 years, and remarkably decided to step down of her own accord.
If she had run for a fifth term, I think there’s a strong likelihood that she would. So I think that’s something I think quite remarkable when we thinking about the degree to which this election marked a change. The other elements I think to, to keep in mind is that the election that brought this new coalition was quite a tightly fought election.
I mean, the aspect is the social Democrats narrowly won a parality of votes, but it wasn’t necessarily a ringing mandate windows meant to either. Uh, so it was quite close in terms of the results. The other element, I think, which is important when we’re thinking about this selection. Uh, w when we talk about change with Merkel being no longer in the scene, but keep in mind that, although we now have a chancellor in the left Schultz from the SPD, the SPD was in government for 12 of those 16 years.
So that’s also one of the remarkable elements of German politics, the degree to which, uh, there is deep consensus between the mainstream parties and that coalitions are really deeply in bread in the DNA of gem. So I think that’s one element to keep in mind when we think maybe about the future and about the element of continuity and change and what we can expect from this new government.
So the expedite has been a part, I mean, all I’ve shorts hit himself was minister of finance, uh, in the last four years of the Merkle government. So I think that’s the element there that that’s, that’s, that’s important. Uh, the, the other, I think issue that’s. Interesting about this new government is that yes, coalition politics, coalition governments are entirely normal in German politics, but it’s quite unusual to have three parties.
Right? Most of German politics have been soft coalitions of two parties that are probably more ideologically compatible this coalition. It’s the first time that we have this constant. Of the Democrats free Democrats, uh, the SPD and the greens. So there’s a lot of questions about how is that soul mixture?
How is that going to work? And they’re quite different in some respects. So that’s going to be, I think one of the interesting stories to follow up in the next few months, next few years, um, they were able to reconcile those differences because they have a very ambitious. Right. And I think it’s, it’s worth spending a little time on this Garrett.
They actually have an agreement, right? A written agreement. I think it’s 166 pages if I’m not mistaken between the three parties. Correct? Absolutely. That is also a tradition of, uh, of German coalitions that they have these very extensive, detailed coalition agreements. They’re not legally binding, but I think they still are important in signaling what the coalition wants to try and.
And what do you take away from what’s in that document? This time there’s a couple of important things. I think it’s quite an ambitious, uh, coalition agreement, both domestically. And I would say also in the international stage, on the domestic stage, I think it’s particularly ambitious and so far.
Improving infrastructure and digitization for Germany. I think that’s particularly important. A very ambitious climate goals, trying to essentially phase out of coal power by 2030, having 80% of all renewable energy be provided by. Um, uh, I’ve all energy, sorry to be provided by renewable energy. By the end of this decade, that’s incredibly ambitious.
Uh, there’s some other elements that are also quite progressive extending the right of vote to sixteen-year-old, uh, legalizing cannabis. So these are quite progressive, uh, bold, uh, agenda domestically on the foreign policy and on the international stage, I think there’s very much a focus on a more values driven farm.
Uh, of moving away from what was derided as the mercantilism of Merkel. And so at least rhetorically, at least in that front, that’s quite an, that would be quite an ambitious change from what we’ve seen in the past 60. And this document right. Also lays out, uh, who will be, who will be filling the, uh, positions in government, like foreign minister.
Um, talk to us a little bit about who’s going to be in government now and in any coalition that some jockey and so division of, you know, sharing of the sport. So, and that’s, I think also particularly important if, when we’re thinking about that question of how that coalition is going to blend, because left Schultz, obviously since yesterday was the largest party, has the chance to relate and a couple of other important positions.
Uh, the greens have the minister of the economy, as well as the foreign minister in Anna-Lena Babak, who is also a co-leader of the greens, a younger she’s only 40 years old. Uh, has been particularly vocal and taking a more hawkish line towards Russia and China in particular. And then Krista , who’s a leader of the free Democrats has the important finance ministry.
So that I think is normal in the coalition agreement. But I think it also showcases what could be some of the difficulties. Uh, the free Democrats, all let’s say more fiscally prudent, whereas the SPD and the greens suddenly believe that there is need for greater investment to relax some of the stringent debt rules that you have in Germany in order to be able to finance these important domestic changes.
I referred to it. But this is also yes, a historically diverse, uh, group of leaders that, uh, Germany will have in the next few years. In terms of gender, race, place of birth. Yes. Yes. It’s certainly more diverse than, than, than some of the previous governments, for sure. Uh, I think that’s, that’s particularly in.
So, so what changes do you think from the coalition agreement and from the makeup of the personnel, what changes do you think are going to be most, uh, most rapid and most significant in the next year from this government? I certainly think where you, you will see the biggest change. On the foreign policy stage, maybe to start there is in terms of the rhetorical and the, the commitment to human rights and the commitment to values, uh, especially when it comes to, as I mentioned, dealing with Russia and China, uh, I think that’s for a variety of reasons.
One is because I think you have in the, in the foreign ministry, um, the greens who have maybe have been the most vocal about the need for change, but also because I think the ground has changed. I also think because the international system. Significantly, uh, public opinion I think is taking a more and more pessimistic line towards China as is to a certain degree German businesses.
So I think for that reason, I think it will be easier to see a clearer change from the Merkel approach, which was essentially an idea of change through trade. Uh, very much in line with a long legacy of German foreign policy, going back to the cold war that. You have to continue talking to adversaries that it was important to have to be a bridge.
Uh, we sold that during the period of the cold war and Merkel’s approach was very much in line with that. I don’t see such appetite or necessarily such a commitment to optimism about the possibility of change through trade, uh, in this new coalition. Uh, it’s fascinating if you use example of China, Uh, the coalition of agreement of 2013 spoke of China being a very important strategic partner of Germany.
And even four years ago, the language was still optimistic. This latest iteration of the coalition agreement, uh, speaks very openly and clearly about some of the human rights violations that China commits in Jan or elsewhere. It speaks very clearly about the importance of preserving and abetting Taiwan.
Uh, and so I think that really is significant because the coalition has put itself on record as valuing these issues. So I think that’s where I would anticipate. Major change. And what about for the European union and Germany’s neighbors? Do you see this as a, as a positive step forward for the European union?
Or do you see more trouble ahead? That’s a good question. I do think. You know, all that Schultz is it’s quite inline of the mainstream of German politicians when it comes to emphasizing the importance of the European pillar and, and viewing German foreign policy as realizing itself within that European anchor.
So that I don’t see anything significantly different. Whereas I think if there’s going to be a couple of important dossiers or a couple of very important topics where we will see the degree of continuity will change vis-a-vis Merkel one. And which really, I think speaks to the themes of the podcast is on issues of rule of law and democratic backsliding in Europe itself.
Um, Poland and Hungary have long been on the radar as being the most, the worst offenders. And I think it was fair to say that at times, Merkel with maybe, uh, too lenient towards the all bands and you know, this world. And so that’s where I think that the big litmus test is going to be whether this new German coalition government is going to support taking more punitive measures towards backsliding in Europe, in particular, one important act example is the degree to which they might support withholding.
Two states that run a foul, uh, when it comes to the rule of law. So I think that’s going to be an area where that’s going to be a significant test and where, and if Germany puts its weight behind this, that could be, I think, an important game changer. What about Ukraine? I mean, that’s the crisis of the day now, right?
Uh, will this government take a tougher stand on a Russian aggression in Ukraine? It depends what you mean by toughest standard, Jeremy, I mean, you know, keep in mind, Merkel took a leading role of the 2014, so far as, as implementing major sanctions against Russia. So if we’re talking about a toughest stand in that perspective, in that framework, I think you can certainly imagine that to be the case.
And I know that, um, you know, the Biden administration certainly coordinated. Uh, with their Western counterparts, that they would be willing to take that step. Anything that it would be a more significant military. Uh, action to bolster Ukraine, uh, sending more weapons, uh, any measures of that kind. I’m most skeptical that we’re going to see a major difference because that’s still very difficult for Germany, uh, to take those steps.
It’s still very difficult for Germany to view itself in this old, um, to taking these, you know, hot power, powerful. And speaking of cooperation with the Biden administration, how do you think the new German government, uh, will, will change, uh, German American relations and European-American relations? Well, you know, German governments have, have generally always been profoundly transatlanticists.
Okay. I think that’s very much in shrine in the DNA of German foreign policy after 1945. So in that context, I very much assume that we will see a, a German government committed to working with the ministration. Also believing and relieved that the Biden administration is more committed to defending and bolstering multi-lateralism.
I think, you know, whether the German coalition, government and Merkel also delighted to see. Uh, the administration rejoined, who are we joined WTO and so forth. So I think in that sense, yes, I expect that they will be designed and very committed to improving relations and to working with the administration.
The challenge, I think, is the degree to which, and this is true for Germany as it is. I think for other major European powers is the degree to which. They can sort of trust that American politics. I’m not going to be significantly volatile as they have been in last. That’s the big question is can they trust that any engagement, any promises, any agreements that they make with the Biden administration will not be completely undone by the stroke of a pen, whether three or seven years from now.
I think that’s still a concern. It’s a concern. That’s also very much shared within the German public and European publics about the reliability of the United States. Uh, that’s, you know, the events of the last four years on top of the events of January six, I think I’ve left deep scars amongst European leaders on the European public that will not heal that easily.
So I think that’s, that’s one thing. It’s such an important point. I mean, we, we, we don’t think about the international implications of these, these events. What does, uh, and this just builds on your, your comments, uh, Garrett, what does, uh, the German, the change in German government? What, what, what does it do as a mirror holding it up to the U S uh, government?
What do you see that we learn in the United States about ourselves and about the state of democracy? At home and abroad from the changes in Germany. For me, I, you know, they all obviously significant differences, but I am also struck by the similarity of the, of the challenge. That there is significant fragmentation in German politics as there are in many other parts of, of, of Europe.
And as the alter degree in the United States, yes, we have the big, the two big policies, but within the two policies, they’re quite significantly fragmented as well. I think we’re seeing that in, in German politics as a, we are seeing in other parts of the continent where the traditional mainstream policies of government, the Christian Democrats will, the aspirated.
On now rarely call it. They’re only really holding the loyalty of a small and smaller share of the German electorate. Okay. And so these bigger coalitions that we’re seeing now are probably going to become far more than known for German politics. Okay. And I think that’s both, I think that’s both a blessing in terms of bringing new faces and new people to government.
But it does create challenges of governance because you’re going to have to find ways to reconcile very different viewpoints. You’re going to have to find ways to, uh, be able to have a harmonious approach, to very major challenges. Uh, just to give you an example of, of climate change. I think all the three parties in Germany care deeply about.
Combating climate change. The problem is how, how to do so. Right. Uh, you know, the free Democrats will probably have much more of a market approach where they want to try to use tax incentives. Whereas for the greens, they believe that government has to lead the way by providing, spending to encourage, um, you know, major changes.
Uh, I would also suggest, and sorry if I’m rambling a bit here. You know, the similarity too, is, is the extent to which we talk a lot about the left behinds, whether in Europe or the United States, the extent to which certain groups, certain segments of the population have struggled greatly by the significant economic dislocation and economic changes of the last few decades, the greens and the, and the free Democrats represent these more well-to-do educated voters.
And. And so then we’ll radical thought of, uh, hopes for change in Germany will have to be balanced by the consideration that you still have a big divide between the Eastern and the Western parts in Germany, even 30, 30, 2 years removed from the joyous spectacle of the Wolf falling. There is still a significant gap between the five states, the five Landers in east Germany and the other states in terms of.
Prosperity employment. It’s such a good point. And we are seeing political fragmentation clearly in multiple democracies and also a disillusionment with traditional parties and traditional institutions. It does appear to me though, Garrett, that one of the interesting things about this recent German election and the new government is that the far right has been excluded that the off day, the far right party, um, did not do very well.
They, they still scored about 9% if I’m not mistaken, but they didn’t rise as some had feared, they would. Uh, is that a good sign for us? I think it’s a good sign. And so far as the, the story of the narrative of populism being constantly on the rise and this. Yeah, on a saleable, very large threats to, uh, politics in Europe and elsewhere, I think is maybe a little bit overblown.
I think that’s one element. I think it also speaks to the fact that the, the weakening of support for the mainstream parties has not just been captured by populist parties on the right. I think the greens and the rise of the greens are a sign that you have of. Insurgent parties that are not necessarily antidemocratic or autocratic or have authoritarian tendencies.
I think we lose that sometimes. You know, where I grew up in France, uh, my colon and all that. Everybody come off. She’s an example of a party that has emerged from the weakening of these, uh, traditional mainstream of policies of government. So I think that’s, that’s one element here. I think that the strengths and the weakness of the German example.
Is that you have such a tradition of the mainstream panties being coalition together. And I think that’s a very good example. It’s a very good model. I think for other parts of the world. The other risk though, is that those two parts, those mainstream parties become viewed as entertaining. That, uh, you don’t have necessarily a clear sense of an alternative or clear sense of a choice when it comes to voting.
If all the parties are essentially, always in government, always working together and their policies don’t change drastically, that can breed cynicism. Uh, I think that’s, you know, the, the IFD may have weakened this time, but four years from now, if a German voters believed. Okay. They had Merkel for 16 years and now they have a left Schultz and it’s pretty much the same.
You could easily see disaffected voters once again, move towards the there. And then we’re back to sort of the situation we had a few years. Right. That makes a lot of sense. That makes a lot of sense. So, so Garrett, we always like to close our podcast with, uh, a discussion, a short discussion of how this, uh, background knowledge that you bring an expertise that you and all of our guests bring how that historical and political perspective can inform current decisions.
Uh, our hypothesis. Of course is that it can. So how do you, as an expert on these issues, how do you think about, uh, democratic decision-making going forward? What have you learned from the German case? The German recent German election and the formation of this new government that can be useful for democracy, activists in the U S what can they take from this?
So it’s a very, it’s a very broad question. Very important question. Uh, I think one element, and this is something that. Uh, a student of mine wrote a paper about, and I thought that was very interesting is the extent to which in, in Germany, you still have a fairly high audience for public broadcasting services.
Okay. You have a couple of key public broadcasting services that I think have helped create. At least a sense that there are certain facts that are listened, heard and shared across the German population. You know, of course, with the rise of cable and other sort of new sources, uh, those public broadcasting services don’t command the same kind of audience that they did 20, 30 years ago.
But I think that that has played a role in, in limiting the degree of debilitating polarization that we’ve seen here in the U S but also in other parts. So I think there’s something to be said about having trusted, uh, shared sources of information, um, across democratic societies, because it allows us at least to start our debates along a certain shared foundation.
And I think Germany, there’s something to be learned about that model. I don’t think it can be as easily replicated. I don’t think it can be as easily emulated, but I think it’s an important sort of lesson that we, we should try to. It’s a great, uh, example. And as I understand it, Deutsche Chavela, which is the, the main German public, uh, news broadcasting services, very well-funded.
Um, and it has a tradition of being supported by, by all parties in Germany. And so that might be a model for us to think about. Yes, absolutely. And you know, when I think one of the historical ironies is. I need to double check this to take this with a pinch of salt, but I think some of these models of public broadcasting, uh, were also set up by, you know, the American occupation.
Yeah. So it’s one of the ironies that essentially the Germans learned from the United States in the post-war. Perfected it to a degree and maybe they could teach us some lessons again. I think that would be, that would be a nice historical supplier in the w we like historical cycles. Don’t we? And, and it’s true.
I think, I think one of the concerns after world war II, that American occupation forces and French and British occupation forces has had was to make sure there was a standard respected factual news source. To limit, uh, fascist rumors and things in communist rumors and things of that sort. So I think it’s, it’s interesting how we’ve come full circle to those issues.
Zachary does, does this discussion as particularly the emphasis upon factual news source? Does it resonate with you? Is that something that young democracy, activists like yourself can get behind? Can we do more of that work in the U S I think we certainly can, but I also think what the German system teaches us is that we, we, we do need to seriously not just think about how we can improve our political discourse, but we do actually need to think about reforming the engines of government and how do we elect governments?
How do we choose governments? Because I think. Recent German elections show us is that there really is an alternative. Maybe it’s not a better alternative. Maybe it doesn’t work in our society, but I think we have to be willing to, to, to experiment with, with our political systems and not, not simply embrace what we’ve always done.
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, Garrett. That’s the last question I wanted to ask you, uh, you are an expert on, uh, at least three major democratic systems, right? Germany, France, which as you referred to before is your original home. And your first book is on France and of course the United States, uh, and there are three very different systems, um, which, which one works best?
Or what would you say about comparing the three of them? Oh, that’s like picking, you know, your favorite job. I mean, that’s a, yeah, that’s a hard question. That’s a hard question. I think the, and you know, to be fair, I think they they’ve all shown, you know, I think the pandemic has been the great equalizer in showing some of the limitation than some of the challenges that all of our, these countries have faced.
Okay. I think that for me has been particularly striking. I remember Germany being really low. Uh, as a major model in the early phase of the pandemic, in terms of not having the same sort of caseload per capita as the United States or France. Uh, but that narrative now has changed should decree because I think Germany is suffering from some of the effects of having an overly federalized system when it comes.
To healthcare. Uh, so some of the strengths that it had early on and also proving some of its limitations, I think, you know, in the French case, just use a pandemic as sort of the events that it’s all domineering for all of us, uh, you know, France. Slowly as well, in some of the way it managed the pandemic, but some of its overly centralized system was particularly effective in creating, uh, you know, mandates in, in fact, in implementing a sort of sanitary paths, which is essentially that you’ve got to show proof of vaccination to access most buildings, museums, all indoor activities.
I think that has. Being beneficial that has really, I think, been a major factor in elevating the rates of vaccination over the summertime. So it. It’s it’s hard. I think it’s really hard to find a clear answer to that question when comparing those, those different. Yeah, I think the important point and you’ve displayed it, uh, in, in your recent discussion about the different approaches to the, to the pandemic.
I think, um, what’s so important is to recognize. Each system can learn from the other that there’s, there really, isn’t a perfect system and democracy is a continual work in progress. That’s the core theme of our podcast, of course, but as a work in progress, it’s constantly different. Democratic systems are constantly learning from one another and also very much, uh, you know, we’re not talking about the, the nefarious aspect, you know, of course we want democracy to learn from each other.
I think. No, that we’re able to draw lessons from other examples, but we have to, because also the degree to which this, this information and some of the new Ferris sides that clearly copycat effects, some of the, you know, some of the narratives over the risks posed by the vaccines are essentially echoed, translated, and then apply to different local contexts.
So I think for that reason, we used to really have a burden on all of our democratic societies to learn how to counter. That’s dangerous. Uh, so narratives. Absolutely. And I think your insights today have really given us a comparative framework for thinking about precisely that, how can we make our democracies in the United States and elsewhere, stronger by examining and learning from others?
Uh, just as they’re examining. From us and the bad guys are already learning from one another. It’s important that those defending democracy are learning from one another, uh, isolation and the head in the sand approaches, uh, can only be a route to stagnation, not, not to positive change. Um, Garrett, thank you so much for joining us today and for sharing your, your insights on these, these very complex issues.
It was an absolute pleasure. Thank you, Jeremy. And thank exactly. And Zachary, thank you for your thoughtful poem and wonderful questions as always. And thank you most of all, to our loyal listeners for joining us for this episode. And this week of this is democracy.
This podcast is produced by the liberal arts, its development studio and the college of liberal arts at the university of Texas at Austin. The music in this episode was written and recorded by Harris. Codine stay tuned for a new episode every week. You can find this is democracy on apple podcasts, Spotify, and Stitcher.
See you next time.