An Anniversary for the Ampel Coalition

Jackson Janes

President Emeritus of AGI

Jackson Janes is the President Emeritus of the American-German Institute at the Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC, where he has been affiliated since 1989.

Dr. Janes has been engaged in German-American affairs in numerous capacities over many years. He has studied and taught in German universities in Freiburg, Giessen and Tübingen. He was the Director of the German-American Institute in Tübingen (1977-1980) and then directed the European office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States in Bonn (1980-1985). Before joining AICGS, he served as Director of Program Development at the University Center for International Studies at the University of Pittsburgh (1986-1988). He was also Chair of the German Speaking Areas in Europe Program at the Foreign Service Institute in Washington, DC, from 1999-2000 and is Honorary President of the International Association for the Study of German Politics .

Dr. Janes is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Atlantic Council of the United States, and American Purpose. He serves on the advisory boards of the Berlin office of the American Jewish Committee, and the Beirat der Zeitschrift für Außen- und Sicherheitspolitik (ZfAS). He serves on the Selection Committee for the Bundeskanzler Fellowships for the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Dr. Janes has lectured throughout Europe and the United States and has published extensively on issues dealing with Germany, German-American relations, and transatlantic affairs. In addition to regular commentary given to European and American news radio, he has appeared on CBS, CNN, C-SPAN, PBS, CBC, and is a frequent commentator on German television. Dr. Janes is listed in Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in Education.

In 2005, Dr. Janes was awarded the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany, Germany’s highest civilian award.

Ph.D., International Relations, Claremont Graduate School, Claremont, California
M.A., Divinity School, University of Chicago
B.A., Sociology, Colgate University

Transatlantic relations, German-American relations, domestic German politics, German-EU relations, transatlantic affairs.


The End of the Beginning

Tradition holds that the first anniversary in marriage is symbolized by paper on which the future will be written. The governing coalition in Berlin is not a marriage, but it just marked its first anniversary, and they already had a paper—perhaps comparable to a prenuptial agreement—to dedicate themselves to shared goals. It was called a coalition agreement. Yet in December of 2021, the agreement in Berlin did not expect a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops which would dominate its agenda for the entire year, rearranging priorities and demanding responses which were to be labeled under the slogan of a Zeitenwende (turning point) in Germany—a word that appeared nowhere in the coalition agreement.

The so-called traffic light coalition (red, green, yellow) was a unique and first-time experiment at the national level in the political geometry of these three parties that came with several long-standing frictions. Forging a coalition was difficult, but all three parties had a strong interest in securing an opportunity to govern a country that was dealing with multiple challenges. After sixteen years of Angela Merkel as chancellor, the message of the coalition was that there was now going to be a new, energized agenda focused on combining social justice with environmental initiatives and fiscal discipline. Their slogan would be “dare more progress” (mehr Fortschritt wagen). The emphases were primarily aimed at domestic programs, be it digitalization, climate protection, immigration reform, or construction and housing. The foreign policy priorities stressed support for Ukraine, pushing for a stronger European Union, and intensification of transatlantic relations.

But within three months after that agreement was signed, the war in Ukraine reset the priorities of that agenda. Since February, the coalition has had to redirect its energy and resources in efforts to support Ukraine and manage the domestic consequences of the war as well.

What kind of a record has the government been able to present on its first anniversary?

Basically, it has been an exercise in crisis management. Chancellor Scholz’s speech to the parliament on February 27 was designed to signal that Germany was changing course in multiple directions: helping Ukraine to defend itself against Putin’s war of aggression, rebuilding Germany’s defense capacities, and dealing with the spike in energy prices, public spending increases, the implementation of sanctions against Russia, the influx of refugees, and generally trying to keep the country calm amidst a lot of anxiety about the future. Now, the ambitious goals set out in the coalition agreement were put on hold.

The synergy between the three parties was also severely tested as they clashed over priorities involving each of their prize objectives. The chancellor’s harsh tones toward Moscow did not sit well with all ranks of the Social Democrats, particularly those who also were uncomfortable with the increased emphasis on sanctions and military budgets. The decision to extend the expiration date of the three remaining nuclear power plants to help cope with energy shortages was anathema to many in the Green Party. The liberal FDP, which has had to deal with its role as the weakest party in the coalition was confronted with its greatest concern—spiraling government debt increases. And the coalition had come together under a chancellor whose party had received only 26 percent of the vote, hardly the mandate that previous chancellors were used to starting with.

Crisis management is the method of simply sustaining government. Management that dares to accomplish progress is more ambitious.

Amidst all these challenges, the coalition was also dealing with a changing global environment. The government confronted questions about the foundations of Germany’s economic stability, be it the end of cheap gas and oil from Russia or the serious dependence on trade relations with another country that was acting aggressively on the world stage: China. Then there were also additional arguments breaking out with other European partners over the slow pace of Germany’s arms deliveries to Ukraine, clashes with France over the future of European defense policies, and accusations of Berlin acting in a “Germany First” mode in dealing with its energy subsidies.

In the transatlantic arena, relations between Washington and Berlin have kept stable with President Biden and Chancellor Scholz echoing each other in support for Ukraine. Nevertheless, frictions remain regarding trade relations with China, as demonstrated by Chancellor Scholz’s trip to Beijing with leading German corporate executives just as Washington was ramping up its clashes with Beijing. Furthermore, there were German complaints about the impact of the Inflation Reduction Act on its industries being disadvantaged and perhaps seduced into moving their operations to the United States to benefit from the American subsidies—an issue on the minds of many other EU member states and emphasized by French President Macron during his recent visit to Washington.

But in the larger framework of U.S.-European relations, Germany’s weight and influence in the European Union remains of paramount importance to Washington in terms of its economic impact, its central position in Europe, and its influence on the European Union. The coalition agreement signed in Berlin a year ago stressed the strategic importance of the United States to Europe’s security, something Scholz repeatedly emphasizes. And in both the United States and Germany, there is increasing recognition that the United States—regardless of who is president—will be turning its attention to the challenges China represents and therefore raising its expectations that Europe—with Germany in the lead—take on more responsibilities for the security of the alliance. Meeting those expectations remains a large step for not only, but especially Berlin.

Crisis management is the method of simply sustaining government. Management that dares to accomplish progress is more ambitious. That requires confidence, competence, and good communication skills. This unique coalition aspired to the latter a year ago. But no strategy survives perfectly intact after the first challenge from an opponent. The challenge for this coalition is the unpredictability ahead. Managing crises to get through crises was characteristic of Angela Merkel’s era. Her style was not to herald change or announce grand strategies but rather to simply and consistently guide Germany through challenges, and she accomplished that in four consecutive coalitions over sixteen years.

Olaf Scholz might have set out to follow some of Merkel’s style in the early part of his tenure. His low-key public image and communication were anything but charismatic. It was designed to convey a cool, calm, and confident leader, not given to dramatic gestures or rhetorical flourishes. But the speed of the multiple crises facing the chancellor and his coalition partners opened up a gap between the race to adapt strategies to realizing actual policies. A plan or pronouncement, however articulated or well-intended, will fail if there is no means for implementation. The gap was particularly evident in dealing with the war in Ukraine.

Germany’s responses to the war have involved a serious amount of policy change, beginning with the idea of supplying strategic arms to countries in a conflict zone. The result has been that, while a significant amount of aid has been given to Ukraine over the past year, it has been a sluggish process held up by decision-making within the government bureaucracies as well as by an abiding concern in the Chancellery that Germany should move in strict coordination with its allies, particularly the United States. It has also been guided by a concern to avoid what might be perceived as an escalation of the war in the eyes of Putin. Scholz has often referred to that concern as something he shares with President Biden. But it is also a widespread concern in the German public.

Germany has also responded to the energy crisis by beginning to make which might have been seen as unrealistic a few months ago. Securing energy supplies was an example of the coalition’s trial-and-error approach to dealing with a crisis as it struggled to assure the public that their home heaters would not run out of supplies as energy prices skyrocketed. But then a platform for offloading LNG gas was built in Wilhelmshaven in less than half a year while Germany continues to draw on nuclear power.

Germany’s ability to “dare more progress” is going to be measured by its steps to not only seek security for its own future but to enlarge its role as a leader in the efforts to secure the future of Europe, most urgently in Ukraine.

Germany’s Zeitenwende was never going to be quickly implemented. It involves a slow-moving recognition of the need to make difficult adjustments and find new solutions to large-scale changes. Yet this is not something completely new to Germans. They have faced serious challenges at several points in the past. One might start with the end of World War II, then the division of the country. Then came another Zeitenwende in 1990 with unification, followed by a period of hubris jolted by wars in Europe, the impact of 9/11, and then a wave of asylum seekers pouring into the country.

The responses to these challenges were always shaped by a desire to sustain the stability and security Germans had wanted after a turbulent history. They yearned for a period of peace, affluence, and above all to be surrounded by friends. It was also important to be seen as a guarantor for the peaceful settling of conflicts and a witness to the scourge of war. That was exemplified by a unified Germany that was no longer a threat but rather a leader of a unified Europe.

The war in Ukraine has become a rude reminder that the world would not follow Germany’s visions. Chancellor Scholz and his coalition partners now face the task of guiding the Germans through this uncertain period. Germany’s ability to “dare more progress” is going to be measured by its steps to not only seek security for its own future but to enlarge its role as a leader in the efforts to secure the future of Europe, most urgently in Ukraine.

That will be another chapter in Germany’s many Zeitenwenden. In the past seventy-plus years, the record of meeting the moment has been a good one, even if it requires a period of adjustment. There will be uncomfortable questions raised about what must change if Germany is to now assume more responsibility, more capability, and indeed demonstrate more reliability in meeting its challenges and expectations. Coming to grips with these demands will require forging a narrative that draws on key components of Germany’s identity: the need for stability, peace, and trust. In his Zeitenwende speech, Olaf Scholz offered a bridge to deal with the challenges he outlined. He stated, “If we want the last thirty years to be more than a historical exception, then we must do everything we can to maintain the cohesion of the European Union, the strength of NATO, to forge even closer relations with our friends, our partners, and all those who share our convictions worldwide.” This combination of maintaining security and stability by enhancing the capacity to preserve it is the path he offers. Sharing that strategy with friends and partners will not be simple. But the lessons of previous turning points are that Germans can manage to absorb changes if they see that bridge. The coalition government in Berlin has a historic opportunity to help Germans cross it.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.