Germany's new president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, is a well-known critic of U.S. President Donald Trump. But that doesn't mean that Berlin will opt to turn its back on America in favor of Russia.
Former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier during his visit to Russia in 2016. Photo: Kremlin.ru
The victory of former Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier in the Feb. 12 German presidential elections didn't create a media sensation. Yet the Kremlin is now hoping for better relations between Russia and Germany. Shortly after the announcement of the results, Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Steinmeier on his victory and invited him to visit Russia.
Indeed, at first glance, there are some reasons to believe that with Steinmeier’s presidency, Moscow and Berlin might alleviate their tensions and come up with a compromise. After all, the new German president is well known for his harsh criticism of Trump during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Moreover, some media outlets labeled Steinmeier “the anti-Trump president.”
In response to a question about the growth of right-wing populism in Germany and throughout the world, Steinmeier denounced those who "make politics with fear." He referred to the nationalist Alternative For Germany party, supporters of Great Britain's exit from the European Union, and "the hate preachers, like Donald Trump at the moment in the United States." Furthermore, shortly after the U.S. presidential election, Steinmeier overtly expressed disappointment with the result.
"The result is not what most Germans would have wished," he said, as quoted by Bloomberg. "I don't want to sugarcoat anything. Nothing will be easier, many things will become more difficult."
However, ironically, Steinmeier has less power now as Germany’s president than during his tenure as the country’s foreign minister, primarily because the president of Germany holds very little executive power. Yet he is a well-experienced politician with a great deal of influence. The German president is seen as a moral authority with the responsibility of hosting foreign high-ranking officials and leaders. Legally, Steinmeier, not Merkel with her executive power, will be Trump’s and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s counterpart. That’s why this might benefit Russia more than the United States.
But Merkel, with her skepticism toward the Kremlin and the Trump administration, might be a sort of counterbalance in this delicate situation. She seems to be ready to be as tough as possible both with Trump and Putin if their policies will contradict the European values that Germany shares. For example, Merkel raised her eyebrows at Trump’s controversial ban on Muslims. According to her, this move contradicts the fundamental philosophy of international refugee assistance and international cooperation.
“Merkel has indicated that she will not play the patsy,” Foreign Policy wrote. “Upon learning on election night that Donald Trump would become the next U.S. president, she insisted that Germany’s relationship with the United States continue within the traditional parameters of the North Atlantic alliance, based on their common values of democracy, freedom and human rights.”
Thus, the situation around the Germany-Russia-U.S. triangle is more complicated, with everything depending on the specific moves of either Trump or Putin and the development of the civil war in Ukraine. In this environment, there is also no reason to underestimate (or overestimate) the role of the German president, given his political influence both inside and outside of Germany.
Although the German Constitution does not attribute particular executive powers to the country’s president, “the political weight of the office depends largely on the weight of the personality who occupies this position,” Dieter Boden, a former German diplomat and an adjunct professor of International Relations at the University of Potsdam, told Russia Direct.
“When Steinmeier takes over as Federal President in mid-March after his victory in the Feb. 12 election he can build on a [good] reputation of eight years of activity as German Foreign Minister,” Boden added.
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“The international community will remember him particularly in his roles as one of the key negotiators on the Iran nuclear deal, as a very resolute mediator in the Ukraine conflict and as an untiring OSCE Chairman in 2016. His prime fields of interest include relations with Russia and the post-Soviet states, where he is known to have had well-balanced views including also on the political feasibility of sanctions.”
Despite the fact that Steinmeier won’t have as much power as he had during his tenure as Germany’s Foreign Minister, he is expected to remain closely connected to foreign policy matters, given his expertise and background.
"His predecessor Joachim Gauck established a guiding philosophy — "Germany is ready to be more active in world affairs" — and this might challenge Steinmeier also in his new job to interfere whenever he considers it necessary,” clarified Boden. “And he can do it with all the moral authority which his new office gives to him. Maybe, even this will encourage him to embark on a project, which his predecessor has not been able to accomplish — the project of a state visit to Russia.”
At the same time, Nikolay Vlasov, an associate professor of History and International Relations at St. Petersburg State University, argues the German president is rather a symbolic figure, much like the British Queen. He doesn’t rule the country but brings people together under his moral authority, which means he is not a decision-maker or a game changer.
“In fact, he doesn’t have opportunities to influence domestic and foreign policy,” Vlasov told Russia Direct. “Basically, the victory in the German presidential election is an honorary end of one’s political career. There were specific cases when the President contributed to Germany’s ties with other countries through official visits. Yet, again, he doesn’t determine the foreign policy agenda.”
All this means that Steinmeier won’t have any impact on Moscow-Berlin relations. All the same, the fact that he left his position of Foreign Minister might have limited impact on Russian-German relations, concluded Vlasov. However, one should not expect sweeping changes, because Germany’s foreign policy is based on the principle of succession.