Americas

Germany's Angela Merkel remains anchor of stability for US

The rise of the far-right AfD and losses for two major parties in Germany's election may have shaken up the country's political landscape in a dramatic fashion. But the key takeaway in the US is more mundane.

G20 in Hamburg | Trump & Merkel (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Kappeler)

For foreign policy observers in the United States, the main message from the German election may be an unexpected one: continuity. That's notwithstanding the historic surge of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) to become the third-largest party in Germany's new parliament and the simultaneous drubbing Chancellor Merkel's conservative CDU-CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) received from the country's voters.

And the guarantor of German continuity for the country's international role generally, and trans-Atlantic relations in particular, bears the name of Angela Merkel, who despite heavy losses for her party, was re-elected chancellor for a fourth consecutive time.

Read more: Opinion: Germany wants to battle again

"My view is that Merkel is a pillar of stability in the trans-Atlantic relationship and her re-election is an important signal that that will continue," said Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama who now heads the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. 

2009 NATO Summit with Barack Obama and Angela Merkel (picture-alliance/dpa/J. Koch)

Merkel enjoyed a particularly friendly relationship with Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama

No dramatic shift in foreign policy

"Even though we don't know the complexion of the coalition that will emerge, I don't expect there to be a dramatic shift in German foreign policy," said Charles Kupchan, who served as Obama's top adviser on Europe and is now a senior fellow with the Council on Foreign Relations. 

"I don't think it's going to impact German-US relations all that much," said James Carafano, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation who advised Donald Trump on foreign policy during the presidential campaign.

While the historic result for the AfD, the first far-right party to be elected to the German parliament in over half a century, is concerning and should be taken seriously, it also reflects a broader international phenomenon, noted American observers.

"You can look at this as a historic development for Germany in that you now have a far-right party in the legislature or as an adjustment to a wider European trend," said Jeff Rathke, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies' Europe Program. 

Pull to the right

AfD - Weidel & Gauland (Reuters/W. Rattay)

Will the AfD's entry into the Bundestag impact US-German relations?

But since all other German parties elected to parliament had rejected working or entering a coalition with the AfD, the party is likely to play a pariah role in the new Bundestag. Still, said Rathke, the AfD "has the potential to pull the main stream parties, especially the CDU, the CSU and the [Free Democrats] further to the right."

Such a potential shift to the right, he added, coupled with holding together a so-called Jamaica coalition consisting of those three center-right parties plus the Greens could make it more difficult for Merkel to govern at home and abroad.

Merkel's previous partner in the so-called grand coalition, the center-left SPD, has indicated that it will not become part of a new government.  

Read more: What is the role of Germany's parliamentary opposition?

Despite these potential issues, said Rathke, the German election will lead to a coalition that will want to establish a good working relationship with Washington as far as this is possible under a president who has repeatedly lashed out against Germany and Merkel on issues such as trade and migration.  

While the governing process in Berlin will therefore likely become more complex, under Merkel's leadership the foreign policy of the new German government is likely not to differ drastically from what it has been up to now, especially vis-a-vis the US. 

Leader of the free world by default

"I think in some ways Merkel will remain what some people call the leader of the free world by default," said Kupchan. "Even though she has been weakened by this result, in light of President Trump's erratic foreign policy and the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving the EU, there is no one else to step up to the plate."

Watch video 01:16

Party members react to the results

"There may be issues that come up because of the need to have a coalition government that will complicate the relationship with the US," said Daalder, who added that most of the complications in US-German relations come from "the United States rather than Germany."

Read more: Comparing German and American political parties

A first crucial test case for the new German government's foreign policy with global implications could come soon: the future of the Iran nuclear deal, which Berlin wants to preserve. Trump, however, has indicated several times that he may be ready to pull the US out of the accord, which he called an embarrassment for his country. He has until October 15 to notify Congress whether he thinks Iran is in compliance with the agreement or not.

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