On Tuesday, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made headlines with a surprise visit to the heavily damaged city of Kharkiv in northeast Ukraine. Though she didn’t address the controversy raging at home over whether to supply Kyiv with powerful German tanks, she did promise more weapons — which, she said, would help Ukraine “free its citizens who are still suffering under the terror of Russian occupation.” That was far more forceful than anything Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said in recent weeks. The war in Ukraine, it turns out, is Baerbock’s fight too — for the chance to become the next German chancellor.
The surprise visit to Kharkiv was Baerbock’s fifth to Ukraine since she took office at the end of 2021. She traveled there for the first time in January 2022. Scholz, by contrast, needed five more months to make it to Kyiv, and only in response to considerable internal and external pressure.
Baerbock has made her intentions clear. Where Scholz is all reluctance and realpolitik, she is positioning herself as a can-do politician with strong principles.
Tension between the two has been there from the start. Scholz’s Social Democratic Party (SPD) earned just 26 percent of the vote in the 2021 elections. That left him to seek a coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) and Baerbock’s Greens, giving both considerable leverage over policy in exchange for supporting his chancellorship. Scholz is said to have sent his team into the coalition negotiations with a brief to resist Green demands for a tougher course on Russia and China.
As soon as she became Scholz’s foreign minister, Baerbock immediately seized the initiative. She visited Washington, Brussels, Paris, Warsaw and Kyiv before Scholz did. She even put her mark on the building that houses her department. In a controversial move, she ordered that the main conference room be renamed. Known originally as the Bismarck Room, after the first German chancellor and founder of the foreign office, it is now the Hall of German Unity. Baerbock not only banished Germany’s first chancellor from the foreign office but also its most famous proponent of realpolitik.
Intent on restoring the prerogatives of the foreign office, Baerbock announced in March 2022 that her department would draft Germany’s first national security strategy, a vision for the country’s role and aims in the world. Days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Scholz announced, to great fanfare, a “turnaround” in Berlin’s foreign policy, including a dramatic boost in defense spending. But as Baerbock saw it, the vast funds Scholz had made available for the country’s military were not enough on their own. “Security policy is more than just the military plus diplomacy,” she declared. In another speech, she proclaimed the need for a government that would “boldly take action.”
Scholz put on the brakes. He and Finance Minister Christian Lindner (FDP) vetoed the draft of her security strategy, saying that it still needed work.
But if the chancellor is trying to undercut her, so far he’s failing. A recent survey gives her the highest approval rating of any of Germany’s main politicians, with nearly half of respondents saying they’re satisfied with her work. That shouldn’t come as a surprise. The war in Ukraine has dramatically shown that Germany’s long-standing approach of staying out of global conflicts is no longer working. Its allies and much of its own population are demanding more initiative.
Indeed, Baerbock has managed to make herself the face of German initiative. Traveling nonstop, she is rapidly raising her own profile in the absence of policy-defining leadership from Scholz. When Russian President Vladimir Putin offered a 36-hour cease-fire over Orthodox Christmas last week, it was Baerbock, not Scholz, who quickly responded that a “so-called ceasefire brings neither freedom nor security to the people,” putting to bed any hopes Putin might have had to splinter Western resolve with his move.
While there is still plenty of time until the next national election in 2025, Scholz has reason to worry about his Green competitor for the chancellorship. Baerbock’s party is neck and neck with Scholz’s in the polls (and sometimes a bit ahead). Depending on the policies and the candidate proposed by former chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who are in opposition, the Greens are well-positioned to improve on their performance in the 2021 election.
What is certain is that Baerbock’s heightened profile has already gained her a power base that makes her hard to ignore. Scholz’s wait-and-see tactics are backfiring, leaving the field wide open for his ambitious foreign minister to fill the void. With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, it is ironically the opportunity provided by armed conflict that is allowing a vocal figure from the once-pacifist Green Party to shine.