Gearing Up for the Post-Merkel Era

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.


While Americans are consumed with the upcoming election on November 3, Germans are only starting to look ahead to their election next fall. These two elections will be critically important not only for German-American relations, but for the sustainability of the transatlantic relationship.

Speculating about winners and losers one year in advance is exactly that—speculation. However, the stakes in this German electoral race are already clear. Angela Merkel is retiring after sixteen years; the choices for her successor as the conservative candidate have narrowed down to three men from the CDU, and perhaps one in the CSU. The ultimate selection of the finalist will be dictated by the state of the economy and the status of the pandemic. That decision will be made at a CDU party conference in December when a vote will be taken to elect the new party chairman. Normally the chairman is then proposed as the party’s candidate for chancellor in the next election, but there is a possibility that this time the two positions will be filled by different people.

That is in part due to continuing speculation that Markus Söder, Minister-President of Bavaria and the chairman of the CSU (the CDU’s Bavarian sister-party) might be selected to run in 2021. To be sure, Söder has not committed to that option. If he refuses to run, it would leave three other CDU candidates to be considered for both positions: Armin Laschet, Minister-President of North Rhine-Westphalia; Friedrich Merz, former CDU member of the Bundestag; and Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Bundestag. The idea of having a CSU leader run as the candidate of the combined CDU/CSU Union has continued to gain interest in the debate over the past few months—which says something about the status of the three CDU candidates. Ever since he was elected in 2017, Söder has picked up political traction in Bavaria. He gets credit for marginalizing the Alternative for Germany (AfD), the right-wing political party, on issues like immigration, while also dealing with the pandemic. He has been supportive of Chancellor Merkel’s pandemic policies, open to discussing the future of the green economy, and steered the CSU more to the political center of policy debates. Yet he has repeatedly stressed that his role is in Bavaria—not in Berlin. And the CDU party members will need to decide whether they even want to give Söder the choice of running, or if they want to choose the candidate from within CDU circles. I think the chances of Söder on the ticket are less than 50-50.

How do the other candidates compare?

Laschet is seen by many as a continuation of Merkel’s policy directions. Given her continuing popularity that has some pluses—but perhaps some minuses among those who feel after sixteen years, there needs to be a chance.

Merz is viewed as a more conservative candidate with harder lines on asylum, immigration, and economic issues. The fact that he has been out of elected office for some time may be a negative, but Merz’s sharp edges are not everyone’s preference in the party.

Röttgen presents himself as a foreign policy leader and thinker and capable of steering Germany on the world stage. He has been omnipresent in the media and talk shows. His chances will be shaped by the importance attached to his command of that agenda.

Whoever is the choice of the Union parties, the most expected coalition partner is going to the Green Party—should their popularity at around 20 percent hold through next year. While the Greens will likely nominate their own candidate for chancellor, they would serve as the junior partner with conservative Union. That appears to be an acceptable outcome to both sides as of now, although it would be a tough negotiation.

There could be still another option for voters to consider. The Social Democrats are sending signals that a coalition with the Greens would be welcomed but they would likely need a third partner to achieve a majority; some in the SPD are suggesting that the far-left Die Linke could fill that role. In such a mix the SPD has to increase its strength significantly to claim the chancellor role for its leader Olaf Scholz as the Greens are running higher now in the polls and could therefore claim that crown if they outrun the SPD. But a coalition with Die Linke is controversial in both the SPD and the Greens. Whether a consensus could be formed with this three-way team is an open question. It is also unlikely.

Foreign Policy on the Agenda

While foreign policy issues are usually less of a priority during campaigns, 2021 could be an exception. The future chancellor will need to stake out positions on dealing with an aggressive Russia, the continuing debate over relations with China, Brexit, and a box full of challenges facing the European Union including the continuing challenge of the pandemic.

One additional major challenge will include dealing with the United States, regardless of whether Trump or Biden wins. If Trump manages to get a second term, the level of unpredictability in transatlantic relations will remain high. If Biden wins, a more traditional platform of dialogue will be accompanied by the sound of welcoming relief in most of Europe. But that doesn’t eliminate areas of current friction: Iran, China, trade, Russia, digital policies, climate change, defense postures—among others. Behind each of them there are four signal questions: how, when, where, and why do Europe and America need each other. That will require not only agreements between Berlin and Washington, but also support of the public across Europe and the United States.

The next chancellor will have to deal with and prepare for one of these scenarios. That will require a steady hand to forge a consensus at home and within the EU, both of which will be equally difficult. If the elected chancellor is running a CDU-Green coalition, the issues shaping the dialogue with the U.S. will be influenced by the platform the two groups agree on. That must involve some consensus on the Nord Stream 2 controversy, which is a major bone of contention with Washington. Other negotiations will involve policy positions on climate change, defense appropriations, cyber security measures, economic relations and human rights with China, and relations with Russia. There will be a strong focus on the German role in the EU in the wake of Brexit. Throughout all of this will be the ongoing efforts on containing COVID-19. The alternate coalition scenario—an SPD-led coalition with the Greens and Die Linke—would have great difficulty forging a consensus among themselves, let alone with the U.S., regardless of who is president.

When Germans go to the polls a year from now, they will already know which scenario they are facing in America. The situation in Europe in terms of the pandemic and the economic recovery challenges are not easy to anticipate. There is continuing volatility in the global arena and the ever-present possibility of a crisis occurring beyond Europe. The current political paralysis in the U.S. opens opportunities for those in Beijing, Moscow, or elsewhere to take advantage of that weakness.

The future of Europe and the transatlantic relationship will depend in no small measure on the skills the next chancellor brings to the job. It will also depend on what the U.S. wants and needs from Europe. The two potential presidents will approach the answers to those questions very differently. Europe—with Germany in the lead—needs to be able to respond from a position of strength as the interdependence of the two sides of the Atlantic make up the most important equation of interests and values for both sides in this era of great power competition.

Four cardinal questions for both sides are: how, when, where, and why do we need each other? There are many good answers, but the most important are those about why. Answering them in Germany will be to a large degree dependent on who the next chancellor is. For sixteen years Merkel has given Germans her version of the answers. Her successor will now have to come up with his own and hope that they are persuasive to audiences on both sides of the Atlantic.

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