The German federal elections in September 2021 will mark the end of the 16-year Merkel era. Angela Merkel was not only the first East German and the first scientist, but also the first woman in the federal chancellery. What does it mean for German foreign policy that Angela Merkel was a woman chancellor? Will she perhaps even leave a feminist legacy? And what should the next chancellor do?
A Comment by Maike Laengenfelder and Karoline Färber
Merkel’s feminist legacy?
Angela Merkel does not necessarily consider herself as a role model for women. However, with her political career and chancellorship she has undoubtedly broken through a glass ceiling: only one year after joining the conservative political party CDU in 1990, she was appointed to a ministerial post for the first time. Later, she led the CDU, one of the most important German political parties, for almost 20 years and served as chancellor for four consecutive legislative periods. For the past ten years, she has been named the most powerful woman in the world. But has Angela Merkel made a (foreign) policy difference as a woman?
The answer to this question must be a resounding yes and no. Thanks to Merkel’s chancellorship, it has become more normal for a white cis woman to represent one of the most powerful countries in the world on the international stage. But the sexist hate campaign against the Green’s candidate for chancellor in the upcoming federal elections, Annalena Baerbock, shows that there are limits to this acceptance.
What is more, other social identities in (foreign) policy leadership positions have not been normalised either: apart from Guido Westerwelle, the first openly gay foreign minister, Germany has never had a foreign minister who self-identifies as woman, LGBTIQ+ or of colour. Equally important: greater descriptive representation does not automatically lead to a redistribution of power. On the contrary, it can even be detrimental to equality if it serves as a fig leaf for a lack of political participation of the many.
Nevertheless, the inclusion of traditionally underrepresented people like women in the chancellery can provide opportunities for a partial renegotiation of gendered and racialised power, as described by political theorist and activist Zillah Eisenstein. Merkel has only partially taken advantage of these opportunities: although she decided not to close Germany’s borders for refugees in 2015, supported Ursula von der Leyen as the first woman EU Commission President, and spoke out for parity and equal opportunities between men and women, she primarily stood for a universalist approach to politics.
One example: Merkel’s security policy has often remained focused on human rights. And although a human rights-based foreign policy is, of course, important and right, it remains limited. For, different lived experiences and realities, such as those of women, LGBTIQ+ people or people of colour, are often not taken into account. For a real redistribution of power, we need to acknowledge more than the simple fact that women’s rights are human rights – we need an intersectional foreign policy.
A new German foreign policy
The upcoming federal elections offer an opportunity for such a change in foreign policy. What do we, as the young generation, expect from the future head of government and from German foreign policy? Centuries-old power structures must be questioned, analysed and changed.
The first step towards change in foreign policy is a critical self-reflection of one’s own positionality. Where does Germany stand, where does the new chancellor stand in global structures? And why? Answering these questions is central because it makes global power structures visible and thus changeable. However, the same structures that privilege certain people on the basis of their gender, sexuality or racialisation in the (foreign) political system are often less visible to those they privilege. That is why critical self-reflection is needed – and this starts with listening. This is especially important for groups of people who hold privileges, including white cis women. In this context, the next chancellor can be a crucial role model.
In addition to listening, an honest stocktaking is needed, based on comprehensive data collection and analysis. Yet, it is precisely here that large gaps exist. For, federal law only mandates the collection of data on the descriptive representation of women. For example, we know that only 18 percent of German ambassadors and 23 percent of senior managers in the Foreign Office identify as women. However, little is known about the significance of these figures for German foreign policy. Therefore, the next chancellor should advocate for a comprehensive, legally mandated and situation-specific disaggregated data collection. Beyond aspects of descriptive representation in foreign policy, data on substantial questions such as the distribution of power in foreign policy, sociopolitical interests and influence should also be gathered.
Action must then be taken on the basis of these findings. The next chancellor’s main task must be to change current power structures together with and based on the ideas of marginalised groups. In doing so, it must be clear that people are not the same: differences, for example between white women and women of colour, and their effects must be recognised and considered. This is also true for foreign policy decisions, which should take into account a broad variety of experiences and knowledge of diverse groups of people.
This should be done by extending regular, substantive and transparent consultations with civil society organisations, such as those on the third National Action Plan on the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, to all foreign policy areas. Furthermore, significantly more members of historically excluded groups should be appointed to key positions in all foreign policy areas, beyond white cis women. Realising these measures would be the first step towards an intersectional foreign policy.
Angela Merkel has come a long way in 16 years and has opened some doors for white cis women, especially at the representative level. But she does not leave a feminist legacy. Her successor should therefore push for change in foreign policy and move away from the status quo, towards an intersectional foreign policy.
This article was originally published in German on 16 July.
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Maike (she/her) is an MA student of International Relations in Berlin and Potsdam. At Polis180, she is a member of the programme Gender and International Politics.