Steinmeier Steps Up?

The Next German President Could Shape Transatlantic Relations—at Merkel's Expense

Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a rally in Bochum, Germany, September 2009. Ina Fassbender / REUTERS

At the end of January, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, then German minister of foreign affairs, exited the political stage. He’ll be back in March, but this time as president, after being elected by a parliamentary assembly on Sunday. As the consensus candidate, his victory was no surprise. For Germany, the timing is fortuitous, since the country faces unprecedented foreign policy challenges. But for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, his presence could pose a risk as she campaigns to be chancellor for a fourth time. 

At first glance, it might appear that Steinmeier has been sidelined. After his time engaging in shuttle diplomacy from Tehran to Minsk during two stints as Germany’s top envoy, Steinmeier’s new ceremonial role at Bellevue Palace might seem like a letdown. But this dyed-in-the-wool public servant will be a trusty wingman for Merkel as Germany faces several existential threats. And in that, the federal presidency offers an ideal perch from which he can underscore the chancellor’s commitment to democratic values and multilateral cooperation. 

But there is a danger for Merkel that he will win the hearts of German voters by standing up to U.S. President Donald Trump and inadvertently buoy his fellow Social Democrats (SPD). The SPD is beginning to position itself as the country’s only bulwark against Trumpist America, while Merkel, head of the Christian Democrats, is cautious in her approach.   

The global economic crisis, the eurozone’s troubles, and the ongoing influx of migrants have not toppled Germany as Europe’s leading power. The country has maintained its export prowess and a low unemployment rate. Its role on the international stage has gone from novel to normal, and a dedication to European unity has guided the country. Even so, ongoing trouble in the EU and eurozone have transformed into marked fissures, with Brexit and a surge in populism across the continent.  

Brexiters and their admirers across Europe will further test the European Union with elections in the Netherlands and France this spring.

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