Annalena Baerbock (Image: DPA/Kay Nietfeld)

In the days following her announcement as the German Greens’ first-ever chancellor candidate, Annalena Baerbock said she would approach authoritarian powers like China and Russia with “dialogue and toughness,” advocating for a harder stance than many other German politicians.

She argued a common European foreign policy is crucial, saying without Germany’s influential voice on issues like the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, “then Europe will be destroyed”. And she acknowledged military intervention can sometimes be necessary to end conflicts and save lives.

If the world wasn’t listening to Baerbock before, they should be now: for the first time ever, the Greens have a chance at picking Germany’s next chancellor and will almost certainly be part of any government formed after September’s election. She and her party are betting they can convince the German electorate they’re ready to take on national leadership and bring a steady hand to governing the country, including on foreign policy and security issues.

Baerbock, 40, is an ideal messenger for that task. Even before she became her party’s standard-bearer for Germany’s federal election this fall, Baerbock was one of the Greens’ leading foreign-policy voices: staunchly pro-European, tougher on big authoritarian powers, and focused on human rights and climate issues — all with a pragmatic tone on issues like NATO and military spending. Her worldview has been shaped both by her own experiences working in and studying international politics and by the Greens’ own history and, at times, painful transformations when facing these issues.

“She’s very knowledgeable: you immediately get the sense that she knows what she’s talking about” on foreign-policy issues, said Jana Puglierin, head of the European Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. “It’s an intrinsic motivation for her. It’s not forced — and that’s what makes it so credible.”

A major centrist force

Under Baerbock and her co-party leader Robert Habeck, who have run the party jointly since 2018, the Greens have developed into a major centrist force in German politics — including on foreign policy, where they’ve helped soothe tensions between the party’s traditionally left-wing fundis and more pragmatic realos (despite both coming from the realo camp themselves).

To look at Baerbock’s approach to foreign-policy issues is, in some ways, to trace the development of the Greens: from its start as a pacifist protest party, to its growing pains on military and security issues when it served in government in the late 1990s and early 2000s, to the current push toward the centre and a generational shift that’s coincided with its rise in the polls.

Baerbock “symbolises the modern Green party”, said Sudha David-Wilp, a senior transatlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office for the German Marshall Fund. “She puts human rights at the centre of a German foreign policy … but sees that there are times where a hardline stance is important, set against these authoritarian or revisionist powers like China and Russia.”

That hardline stance contrasts sharply with establishment views in Germany’s current governing parties, the centre-right Christian Democrats and the SPD. Both have traditionally prioritised maintaining good economic relations with countries like China and Russia, sometimes at the expense of more forceful action against human rights violations.

In some ways, Baerbock’s biography tracks alongside the history of the party itself. She was born in 1980, the same year the party was founded; growing up in Lower Saxony, she attended protests against nuclear energy with her parents, already steeped in environmental issues from a young age. As a teenager, she spent an exchange year in Florida; after studying political science in Hamburg, Baerbock went to London to earn a master’s degree in international law at the London School of Economics. Her first job with the Greens was for a member of the European Parliament and then as a policy adviser on foreign-policy and security issues in the German Bundestag; she also served on the board of the European Greens.

Collaborative approach to policy

That distinctly international (and European) bent, more common among Baerbock’s generation than those who came before her, contributes to the way she approaches foreign-policy and domestic issues. Rather than considering them separately, Baerbock has always approached them as inextricably tied. Real action on climate change, for example, can’t happen without the help of other countries, even ones with whom there are other disagreements or tension points.

“For her, both biographically and also how she looks at politics, domestic politics in Germany was never separate from what was happening on the European level or globally,” said Bastian Hermisson, director of the Washington office of the Heinrich Böll-Stiftung Foundation, the Greens’ associated political foundation. “She always looked at questions like climate policy, like financial policy, like foreign policy, like migration policy, from an angle that went beyond the borders of Germany … to some extent, that’s a generational advantage she has in how she looks at the world.”

Baerbock nodded to that generational perspective in her first speech as a candidate. “I come from a generation that isn’t young anymore but also isn’t old,” she said. “A generation that grew up in a united Germany and a common Europe.”

Her start with the Greens in 2005 also coincided with the end of a major inflection point in the party’s history. That year, the Greens had just finished up their first stint in the federal government, where they’d served as the junior partner in a coalition with the centre-left Social Democratic Party.

Those seven years, from 1998 to 2005, were a transformative time for the Greens: its pacifist roots clashed with the realities of governing, a process that triggered fierce internal debates and shaped the party’s direction going forward. Under then-German foreign minister Joschka Fischer, a realo, the party backed the decision to send German troops into Kosovo as part of the NATO campaign against ethnic cleansing — the first time Germany’s military had been deployed into a conflict since World War II. The reaction from the left-wing fundis was furious: after a deeply divided vote on the issue at the party’s 1999 convention in Bielefeld, the resulting rift took years to heal.

Baerbock “joined the party after the Greens had already gone through a number of intense and sometimes painful foreign-policy debates and questions, particularly around the issue of military interventions,” Hermisson said, who has also worked for the Greens in the German Bundestag.

As a result, she avoided the political baggage associated with some of the older party figures, which is perhaps part of why she and Habeck have had an easier time keeping inter-party fights at bay. Those tensions still remain, however, even if they’re more muted than they were in the past. Baerbock, as the party’s standard-bearer this autumn, must walk a fine line on these questions: particularly on security and military issues, she’ll need to balance a centrist tone to win over new voters with the more pacifist desires of the Greens’ base.

She’s sought to do that in recent months. Late last year, the party approved a program that refers to NATO as an “indispensable actor for European security” and vowed to “securely” fund Germany’s military. Baerbock has reiterated these commitments in speeches and interviews since. However, like many in her party, she’s been critical of NATO’s 2% GDP spending target for member states, saying it’s an arbitrary number and debates surrounding it are “not really helpful”.

Broad agreement in the party

A government involving the Greens would have to wade through these issues on a regular basis. Omid Nouripour, the Greens’ foreign-policy spokesperson in the Bundestag, said there’s broad agreement within the party on the fundamentals — a focus on human rights and the responsibility to protect them — even if the means of getting there are still contentious.

“It’s not a question of right-wing or left-, realos or fundis. The use of military force as a last resort can be necessary in some situations to prevent genocide,” Nouripour said. “So, of course, we have to talk and we have to discuss what’s the right thing, but there we cannot just shy away from what’s going on. This was, and always is, the consensus.”

Beyond grappling with these questions within the party, Baerbock must also contend with the criticism that she lacks experience. Unlike her opponents in the CDU and SPD, she has never held executive office as a state premier or head of a government ministry, which has led to questions about whether she’s prepared to take over the chancellery. (Asked about this in the early days of her candidacy, she argued even those with experience have struggled to solve Germany’s biggest problems, and that fresh perspectives are exactly what the country needs.)

And above all, the German system of coalition government, which requires a great deal of compromise and consensus, will limit how much any party is able to implement its own agenda. The party has proven itself to be flexible on the state level, currently serving in 11 of 16 state governments across Germany. It has partnered with parties across the spectrum in different coalition constellations, apart from the far-right Alternative for Germany party.

“There will be compromises,” David-Wilp said. “But it could be that Germany is faster and bolder when it comes to making decisions if the Greens are in government.”

Emily Schultheis is a freelance journalist based in Berlin, where she writes about European elections and the rise of populism.