Is Armin Laschet Too Gemütlich?

Angela Merkel’s most likely successor is promising continuity with her style of politics—but that may not be up to him.

Armin Laschet, North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier and state chairman of the CDU, speaks in a studio in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 9, 2021.
Armin Laschet, North Rhine-Westphalia's State Premier and state chairman of the CDU, speaks in a studio in Cologne, Germany, on Jan. 9, 2021. FEDERICO GAMBARINI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

For anyone hoping for a decisive break from the strategic ambiguity of the Angela Merkel era, the election of Armin Laschet this past weekend to lead her party into the next German election was a disappointment.

Laschet, leader of Germany’s most populous state, North-Rhine Westphalia, and now the frontrunner to replace Merkel as chancellor in late 2021, was the candidate of continuity in a race against two political rivals—old-school conservative Friedrich Merz and modernizer Norbert Rottgen—who were promising to take the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and Germany in a new direction.

In his speech to party delegates before the vote, he painted himself as the person to unite the party and safeguard the trust that Merkel has earned from voters in over 15 years of steady leadership. “Perhaps I am not the man who puts on the best show, but I am Armin Laschet,” he said, in a speech littered with folksy allusions to his coal miner father.

A cautious moderate who has governed North-Rhine Westphalia since 2017, Laschet has shown a tendency to cozy up to authoritarians and put narrow business interests over broader strategic aims. Writing in Foreign Policy last year, I detailed how in the past Laschet had warned against demonizing Russian President Vladimir Putin for his annexation of Crimea, criticized Washington for backing rebels trying to overthrow Syrian strongman President Bashar al-Assad, and voiced support for deepening Germany’s relationship with Beijing.

He has also questioned whether Germany should shoulder a heavier military burden, voiced support for the controversial Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, and came out against an exclusion of Chinese telecommunications group Huawei from Germany’s next generation 5G network. In 2019, he received an embarrassing endorsement from Gerhard Schroder, the politically toxic former chancellor known for his personal ties to Putin and lobbying work on behalf of Russian energy interests. All of this is reason for concern.

After decades of gemütlichkeit, or comfort, the world has taken an unsettling turn for Germany. The United States, its security guarantor for decades, is no longer the reliable ally it once was. Germany’s biggest companies have become worryingly dependent on an authoritarian China, which has morphed from a win-win trade and investment partner into a formidable industrial competitor and systemic rival. Meanwhile, the foundations of Germany’s prosperity—an open, mostly peaceful, rules-based global order—are cracking as an era of unmitigated free trade comes to an end amid a public backlash against globalization and a deepening U.S.-China conflict.

This shifting geopolitical landscape will force Germany to make some uncomfortable strategic choices. Merkel has stifled rather than encouraged debate over Germany’s direction. She has often given her citizens the impression that they can carry on as they always have. Her push to seal an investment deal with China last month, weeks before President-elect Joe Biden enters the White House, is the latest example of her geopolitical blind spot. Although she was the driving political force behind the deal, she has yet to publicly acknowledge its disruptive nature and unfortunate timing, leaving it to EU trade negotiators to defend.

There is a risk that Laschet, should he become chancellor, would adopt a similar non-committal approach. Some in Berlin are concerned that without his own clear agenda, Laschet could hand the European reins to French President Emmanuel Macron, whose vision of strategic autonomy may risk alienating Washington and playing into China’s hands. But it would be wrong to see this as a foregone conclusion. While Merkel continues to hedge, pressures are building, both domestically and internationally, for Germany to change its foreign policy direction.

Norbert Rottgen, Laschet’s rival for the CDU chairmanship, has exemplified the shifting tide. He led an internal party rebellion against Merkel’s Huawei-friendly 5G policy and has pushed for a tougher line on China and a relaunch of the transatlantic relationship, while also supporting Europe’s push for more independence. And he is not alone. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the outgoing CDU leader and defense minister, has also come out strongly in favor of a more strategic orientation.

This view is increasingly shared across the mainstream parties in the Bundestag and by Germany’s national security and diplomatic apparatus. Germany’s U.N. Ambassador Christoph Heusgen, who is expected to take over the chairmanship of the Munich Security Conference next year, and Michael Clauss, Berlin’s man in Brussels, are two examples of the tougher line.

Last month, Heusgen used Germany’s last meeting as a member of the U.N. Security Council to take a dig at Russia for its poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny and urge Beijing to free detained Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, earning a “good riddance” from his Chinese counterpart. And while Clauss dutifully executed Merkel’s wish to seal the investment deal with China last month, he is also pushing behind the scenes for a more muscular approach from the EU on issues like connectivity and engagement in the Indo-Pacific.

Laschet may push back against this groundswell as Merkel did. News in December that she will name her loyal foreign-policy adviser Jan Hecker as Germany’s next ambassador to Beijing suggests that she wants to lock in her conciliatory approach to China for the time after she is gone—the opposite of what the Trump administration is doing by accelerating its decoupling push in its final days.

But Laschet may also be tempted to put his own stamp on Germany’s China policy, demonstrating that he is not a Merkel clone or Beijing’s poodle. If he does become chancellor, it will likely be in coalition with a Greens party that has become increasingly outspoken in its criticism of China. China hawk Rottgen could also be a prominent foreign-policy voice in the next government.

“Regardless of who replaces Merkel, German policy towards China is going to change,” said one senior German diplomat. “She and her team in the chancellery have been the driving force behind the softer approach. As soon as they leave, you will see the shift.”

When confronted with Laschet’s conciliatory remarks of past years towards Russia and China, people in his entourage play them down and say his approach would change if he were sitting in the chancellery in Berlin. One person who works with him told me that Laschet was not a fan of how the EU-China investment deal was rushed through in the final weeks of December. Nor did he expect Huawei to end up playing a long-term role in the German 5G network.

In recent months, his team has been arranging private sessions on the big foreign-policy challenges facing Germany. Unlike some politicians, they say, he is open to hearing outside views and to adapting his approach.

“There is less space between Laschet and Rottgen on foreign policy than you might think,” the colleague said.

If that is the case, it is time for Laschet to show it. In the coming months, before the CDU decides whether he will be their candidate for chancellor in the federal election on Sept. 26, he needs to clarify how he would position Germany in an era of great power competition.

Is it the tactical, business-first approach that Merkel, and to a greater extent Schroder, pursued when the world was moving in Germany’s direction? Or will he adapt German policy to a new age in which democracies are under threat from authoritarianism, allies are desperate for Berlin to shoulder a greater military burden, and China looms ever larger as a threat to German interests? The answer will be critically important for Germany, Europe, and the future of transatlantic relations.

Noah Barkin is a managing editor at the Rhodium Group and senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.