Kramp-Karrenbauer’s Gamble, and Washington’s Opportunity

Ursula von der Leyen left the German defense ministry behind this week when she was confirmed as President of the European Commission by a narrow vote of the European Parliament.  The nail-biting final stages before the vote on her candidacy consumed media attention across Europe, and especially in her home country.  Von der Leyen’s promotion, however, may not be the most consequential decision this week for German politics.  The chain reaction of her election as Commission president may resonate longer in Germany:  the ascent of CDU Chairperson Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer as new Minister of Defense.  Kramp-Karrenbauer’s move is the most recent indication of the turbulence in German politics and suggests that the CDU is accelerating its preparations for a possible change at the head of government, including possibly through early elections.

The position as Germany’s 18th defense minister is a new stage in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s accelerated rise.  Eighteen months ago, she was the Minister-President of Saarland, one of Germany’s smallest states, when Chancellor Merkel selected her as the Secretary General of their CDU party.  From that moment, Kramp-Karrenbauer became an heir-apparent to Merkel.  After the chancellor decided late in 2018 to stand down as Chairperson of the CDU, Kramp-Karrenbauer won a narrow election to the party leadership, giving her the inside track to be the next chancellor.  Now she has joined the cabinet and gained the opportunity to prove herself in government at the federal level.  But there is a difference between setting the table and serving the meal:  with rivals still lurking, with poll numbers well below those of Merkel, and after a few recent missteps, Kramp-Karrenbauer cannot count on an easy path to the chancellorship.  How will this move affect German politics, defense policy, and the German-American relationship?

Carrying out affairs of state, especially the international role of the defense minister, could strengthen voters’ perceptions of her as a national leader.

Joining the cabinet provides Kramp-Karrenbauer with a platform and public visibility beyond her party function.  Carrying out affairs of state, especially the international role of the defense minister, could strengthen voters’ perceptions of her as a national leader and ease some of the doubts inside the CDU that have arisen after a lackluster showing in the May European Parliament elections and after opinion polls showed the Green party drawing even with the CDU nationally.  But unlike in the United States and many other Western countries, the defense ministry is a notoriously thankless portfolio in Germany and does not automatically enhance the minister’s standing.  It is a tough job that brings scrutiny and criticism.  Few of her predecessors in recent decades profited politically:  von der Leyen (2013-2019) was the rare exception.

Some might argue that the deck is stacked against any defense minister.  The German public displays an extreme skepticism about the use of force in international relations; initiatives that might look like leadership by a defense minister in another European country are likely to spark extensive national soul-searching, amplified by the self-doubt that still pervades German politics 74 years after the end of World War II.  Additionally, the Bundeswehr has been plagued for years by problems with cost overruns, questionable procurement decisions, and changing mission focus.  More recently, scandals involving payments to outside consultants have led to a formal Bundestag investigation of the ministry—one of Kramp-Karrenbauer’s early public engagements as minister likely will be testimony before the Investigative Committee, which will associate her with the scandal even if it pre-dates her tenure.

It will be harder to tack away from the Grand Coalition’s policies when Kramp-Karrenbauer is a party to decisions made in cabinet meetings.

There is another downside to her move into government:  Kramp-Karrenbauer will have less flexibility to separate herself from unpopular policies.  Early in her leadership of the party, she effectively led a high-profile party dialogue on migration policy that helped the CDU distance itself from Merkel’s asylum policy at the peak of the 2015 migration crisis.  Kramp-Karrenbauer demonstrated in those first months a capacity for setting strategic direction and leading the party in a disciplined fashion: an effort that won her respect from many internal critics.  It will be harder to tack away from the Grand Coalition’s policies when Kramp-Karrenbauer is a party to decisions made in cabinet meetings.

If Germany is headed toward early elections, that may have little to do with Kramp-Karrenbauer and the CDU and more to do with the weakness of the SPD.  The Social Democrats’ discontent with their plummeting public support could spark a coalition breakdown toward the end of 2019, when the SPD has a “mid-term review” of the Grand Coalition.  In that scenario, Kramp-Karrenbauer’s time as defense minister could prove an effective launching pad.  If instead, inertia keeps the Grand Coalition going until the end of the legislative term in late 2021, Kramp-Karrenbauer could find herself bogged down by defense ministry minutiae and captive of coalition politics.  That she decided to embark on this strategy in light of these factors is an indication she may see the situation of the CDU and of her authority inside the party as precarious enough to warrant taking the risk.

On defense policy, Kramp-Karrenbauer has stood out among German political leaders in her advocacy of increased defense spending, including with regard to the NATO target of devoting 2 percent of GDP to defense.

On defense policy, Kramp-Karrenbauer has stood out among German political leaders in her advocacy of increased defense spending, including with regard to the NATO target of devoting 2 percent of GDP to defense.  She has stuck to this view despite criticism and has argued persuasively that increased defense spending is in Germany’s interest, not a concession to President Trump.  On the face of it, this position should gain Kramp-Karrenbauer some traction in dealing with the U.S. government, which has an almost monomaniacal focus on burdensharing as its top transatlantic security priority.  The problem that she will face is the coalition politics in Berlin: the Social Democrats are unwilling to agree even to the long-term goal of spending 1.5 percent of GDP by the year 2024.  Merkel has been unwilling to go to the mat on the issue, preferring instead to use salami tactics that have yielded increases every year since 2014, but without being able to provide the longer-term budgetary assurances that would enable expanded procurement and faster progress toward the capability commitments Germany has made to NATO.

With a meeting of NATO leaders looming in December, Washington’s pressure is unlikely to abate.  It will take bold new proposals to close the gap or defuse the issue.  A decision on purchasing F-18 fighter aircraft to replace Germany’s aging Tornados, which are nearing the end of their service life, could dampen U.S. criticism because the Boeing aircraft would ensure Berlin’s continued role in NATO’s nuclear mission and because the purchase could satisfy President Trump’s mercantile instincts.  Another option would be to pursue strengthened commitments inside the European Union on defense—an area in which new EC president von der Leyen would be eager to help and which would be politically more palatable to the German public.  Structured properly, new capabilities or resources would simultaneously strengthen NATO.  But any initiative involving new resources could ignite a dispute inside her coalition, with the risk that it could provoke the collapse of the government.  Regardless of the path, Kramp-Karrenbauer will not be able to avoid the burdensharing issue for long.

She has strong transatlantic instincts, the fortitude to articulate and defend them, and a level of authority in the CDU that few of her predecessors have enjoyed.

The United States for its part has an opportunity in Kramp-Karrenbauer’s move to the defense ministry.  She has strong transatlantic instincts, the fortitude to articulate and defend them, and a level of authority in the CDU that few of her predecessors have enjoyed.  She also brings fresh eyes to the international situation and Germany’s role in it.  Investments by Washington in a pragmatic relationship with Kramp-Karrenbauer could pay significant dividends.  This could include efforts to reset with Berlin, to shape the future direction of European Union defense efforts, and to define a path to greater burdensharing that is viable and durable.  The chance to forge a productive relationship with the woman who stands a good chance of being Germany’s next chancellor is one that Washington should seize.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Jeffrey Rathke

Jeff Rathke

President of AICGS

Jeffrey Rathke is the President of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Prior to joining AICGS, Jeff was a senior fellow and deputy director of the Europe Program at CSIS, where his work focused on transatlantic relations and U.S. security and defense policy. Jeff joined CSIS in 2015 from the State Department, after a 24-year career as a Foreign Service Officer, dedicated primarily to U.S. relations with Europe. He was director of the State Department Press Office from 2014 to 2015, briefing the State Department press corps and managing the Department's engagement with U.S. print and electronic media. Jeff led the political section of the U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur from 2011 to 2014. Prior to that, he was deputy chief of staff to the NATO Secretary General in Brussels. He also served in Berlin as minister-counselor for political affairs (2006–2009), his second tour of duty in Germany. His Washington assignments have included deputy director of the Office of European Security and Political Affairs and duty officer in the White House Situation Room and State Department Operations Center.

Mr. Rathke was a Weinberg Fellow at Princeton University (2003–2004), winning the Master’s in Public Policy Prize. He also served at U.S. Embassies in Dublin, Moscow, and Riga, which he helped open after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Mr. Rathke has been awarded national honors by Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, as well as several State Department awards. He holds an M.P.P. degree from Princeton University and B.A. and B.S. degrees from Cornell University. He speaks German, Russian, and Latvian.