For over 11 years, Angela Merkel has held the position of German Chancellor. A member of the center right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), she has been an enduring player in German politics. However, her stance on refugees has led to dissent within the German conservative movement, and it has contributed to the rise of the AfD (Alternative for Germany) – a far-right, anti-immigrant party. Just recently, in fact, the AfD outperformed the CDU in local elections for the German state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, and the AfD now has some degree of influence in nine of the 16 German Bundesländer (federal states) (1). Thus, it’s not surprising that many conservative Germans are growing concerned. They are worried that their party’s long reign might be coming to an end, and they feel that Merkel must change course or risk being swept out of power by the AfD (2). However, it appears unlikely that the AfD presents any immediate threat to the center right in Germany. Despite their recent successes, they simply do not possess sufficient unity or organization to engender a meaningful political realignment.
The AfD has existed for some time. Originally, it was an anti-EU party associated with the Euroskeptic movement. Merkel’s Flüchtlingspolitik (refugee politics) has led to a recalibration within the AfD, and the far right party is now organized primarily in opposition to Germany’s generous refugee policies (3). To some degree, this empowers the fringe party by linking it with a major and controversial issue in contemporary Germany. In much the same way that Donald Trump has been able to gain traction in the U.S. by exploiting controversies and pushing divisive agendas, the AfD is exploiting new divisions in German politics created by the large influx of Syrian refugees. However, this strategy also comes with significant disadvantages. In particular, it means that the AfD lacks any real message or coherent policy platform beyond halting large refugee flows. In other words, they have yet to provide any compelling reasons to vote AfD; at this stage, voting AfD is just a protest vote against current policies. Therefore, it is hard to envision the AfD generating any significant political momentum going into the 2017 Bundestag elections. They will likely perform better than in previous years, but it is hard to imagine them drawing large amounts of support without any positive, unifying message.
The AfD is hampered not only by its inability to craft a central message but also by its internal conflict. For example, in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg, the AfD has been split over anti-Semitic comments made by local AfD politician Wolfgang Gedeon. Gedeon was asked to step down by the AfD’s party leader Frauke Petry, yet divisions linger. This controversy speaks to broader rifts within the party (4). In particular, it demonstrates that the AfD is not a unified coalition, but is instead a highly heterogeneous group with different policy preferences. As with all right-wing populist parties, the AfD has supporters from the center right as well as from the racist far right. Those in the middle are opposed to refugees for economic reasons, but those on the far right oppose them for far more pernicious reasons: They believe that refugees are racially inferior and represent a threat to German culture and society. This philosophical divide is only exacerbating internecine conflicts within the party’s base of support, and it portends future instability within the AfD.
The AfD also has a turnout problem. The Bundesländer in which it has witnessed the most success – Mecklenburg-Vorpommern and Saxony-Anhalt – have some of the lowest levels of turnout for federal elections in all of Germany (5). Thus, it is unclear whether the AfD’s regional successes will carry over to the national level. The problem of turnout is compounded by the fact that the AfD lacks a clear, unified base of support. As the Lowry Interpreter reveals, “While demonstrating a certain appeal to middle-aged male workers, it also receives high levels of support from the middle class, from women, from the young, and from the tertiary-educated.” Furthermore, “its vote was comprised in roughly equal thirds of previous right-leaning voters, previous centrist and left-leaning voters, and previous non-voters” (3). Given this highly diverse group of supporters, it will likely prove challenging for the AfD to develop a platform that successfully caters to such variegated preferences. These people are united in their frustration with the CDU and the center-left Social Democratic Party's (SPD) enduring hold on power, and they are concerned by refugee flows. Beyond that, however, there is very little that unites them. Therefore, it is far from clear that the AfD can craft a message that motivates its supporters to turn out en masse.
The AfD has a bigger problem, though: The CDU is deceptively strong. Despite what a number of commentators seem to believe, Merkel and her party are not nearly as weak as they might appear. For one, there simply aren’t any politicians in Germany as well-known and as powerful as Angela Merkel. No politician in the SPD – the only party with the numbers to threaten the CDU – is as influential as Merkel. Moreover, the CDU’s major political ally, the CSU, has very little political sway. Despite receiving sharp criticism from CSU party leader Horst Seehofer, Angela Merkel is not in any real danger (6). This is because the CSU is only a regional party and thus has a lot to lose from alienating its national patron. Finally, it is important to remember that Angela Merkel is still a very popular chancellor in spite of her controversial stance on refugees (7). Therefore, it is highly unlikely that she will see large defections from supporters. CDU supporters are frustrated with her, but they still support her and view her as the best person to lead Germany.
The rise of the AfD demonstrates that even Germany, a country renowned for its moderate and stable political system, is being forced to deal with the wave of populism now engulfing so many Western democracies. The AfD will continue to be a thorn in the side of Angela Merkel and the CDU, and if the refugee crisis is not resolved within the next year, the AfD may actually begin to pose a threat to the center-right in Germany. For now, however, they remain only a protest party that is unlikely to play any real role in the federal parliament. They are simply too divisive, too disorganized, and too weak to have an impact, and the AfD is too small to have any power over coalition formation. While they have made some impressive gains over the past year, the AfD still has a long way to go before becoming a serious player in the German Bundestag.
(1) Fischer, Sebastian. “AfD-Erfolg in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern: Merkels böse Geister.” Der Spiegel. 5 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(2) Stelzenmüller, Constanze. “Merkel’s election woes are a warning to Berlin.” Brookings Institution. 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(3) Colla, Marcus. “'Alternativlos'? The future of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship.” The Lowry Interpreter. 16 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(4) “Germany's right-wing AfD seeks to avert internal split.” Deutsche Welt. 5 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(5) “Wahlbeteiligung bei den Bundestagswahlen nach Bundesländern bis 2013.” Statista. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(6) Fried, Nico. “Merkel hat nur noch zwei Optionen.” Süddeutsche Zeitung. 6 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
(7) “Merkel gewinnt an Zustimmung, die Union stagniert.” Stern. 7 Sept. 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
Image: © Yakub88 | Dreamstime.com - Angela Merkel
North Korea recently tested its biggest nuclear warhead to date. While the precise size of the warhead is still being hotly debated, there is unanimous agreement that it was at least ten kilotons, or roughly the size of the Fat Man bomb dropped on Nagasaki (1). North Korea has been rapidly accelerating its nuclear program since Kim Jong-un, the young leader of North Korea, assumed power after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il. It now appears that North Korea is rapidly approaching the status of advanced nuclear state. To be sure, North Korea still possesses a relatively small and technologically unsophisticated arsenal. However, North Korea’s nuclear stockpile is rapidly expanding and evolving in deeply concerning ways. The world must come to terms with the fact that North Korea has become, for all intents and purposes, an effective nuclear weapons state. Unless radical new policies are implemented to halt the Hermit Kingdom’s march toward advanced nuclear systems, the world might be forced to contend with a newly aggressive Korea armed with a devastating and highly capable nuclear arsenal.
Jeffrey Lewis, a prominent nuclear analyst at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, argues that one of the more concerning aspects of this recent nuclear test is that North Korean officials claim that they have developed a standardized warhead. In other words, it seems likely that North Korean scientists have settled on a standard warhead configuration to be fitted on their missile systems. Lewis argues that this “test isn’t just a political statement. It has a technical purpose. And that purpose is demonstrating the reliability of that ‘standardized’ nuclear warhead to arm the missile force.” Lewis also contends that the language used by North Korea is meaningful: “The fact that the warheads are ‘standardized’ is… intended to convey that they are being produced in quantity” (1). In a sense, this is North Korea’s coming out moment. After over a decade of concerted effort, North Korea can now claim to be a nuclear weapons state capable of mass producing nuclear devices. It is, of course, still unclear that North Korea is in fact able to produce large quantities of nuclear weapons. We are relying on North Korean statements and propaganda after all. However, trends certainly seem to suggest that Kim’s regime has made great strides in nuclear warhead production.
It is also important not to focus solely on Pyongyang’s nuclear warhead production. North Korea’s development of potent and reliable missile systems is sometimes ignored, but effective missile delivery systems represent an integral component of an effective nuclear deterrent. Thus, it is concerning to see North Korean missile technology developing so briskly (2). As rapidly as North Korea has been improving and refining its nuclear warhead technology, it seems to be improving its missile delivery systems at an even faster rate. Indeed, North Korea tested a successful submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) only a few weeks ago. This represents a significant improvement in North Korean missile technology and puts North Korea on the path toward developing a secure second strike capability. The development of a North Korean SLBM is also worrisome because it potentially gives Kim the ability to bypass missile defense systems designed to target weapons launched from land (3).
What is perhaps most fascinating and concerning about Kim Jong-un’s seemingly unrelenting quest to acquire a secure nuclear arsenal, however, is that it is occurring in spite of incredibly severe sanctions (4). Recently, even China – North Korea’s de facto patron – agreed to increase sanctions on the Hermit Kingdom, and Chinese officials and media organizations have become increasingly vocal in their denunciations of North Korean provocations. While there is some debate as to China’s willingness to enforce sanctions, the fact that China was even willing to publicly support measures aimed at constraining the Kim regime is still significant in and of itself. That North Korea has been willing and able to persevere through ever more stringent sanctions indicates that the regime is unlikely to halt nuclear weapons production regardless of the actions of outside powers (5).
Of course, the new, even harsher sanctions agreed upon by the P-5 might alter Pyongyang’s calculations. However, there are two compelling reasons to believe that punitive economic measures will continue to prove ineffective against the North Korean regime despite this recent multinational cooperation regarding North Korean sanctions. The primary reason is that sanctions have already reached maximum effectiveness, and thus further economic tightening will likely have no meaningful impact on North Korea’s economic situation. The Hermit Kingdom has been effectively bankrupt for a number of years now, but the regime simply doesn’t care. Because regime leaders are largely shielded from the impacts of North Korea’s dire economic situation and know that China will always backstop them in the event of a catastrophic economic calamity, sanctions possess only limited effectiveness (6). The second reason for Kim’s willingness to endure such severe sanctions is that he views nuclear weapons as the only way to guarantee North Korean security (7). Absent nuclear weapons, it becomes far easier for countries like South Korea or the United States to try to depose Kim or otherwise precipitate regime change. Thus, Pyongyang is willing to endure almost anything to acquire an effective nuclear arsenal and, by extension, a secure hold on power.
The ineffectiveness of sanctions is incredibly concerning because it means that there is very little the West can do to halt North Korean nuclear weapons production. The U.S. could attempt to launch targeted airstrikes against North Korean nuclear facilities, but this would risk massive escalation on the peninsula, placing Seoul and Tokyo in Pyongyang’s crosshairs and potentially leading to conflict with China. In other words, if the United States chooses to do nothing, it may end up with a North Korean arsenal that is “likely to keep growing. If [the U.S. does] nothing… it will grow in number, grow to threaten the continental United States, and eventually grow to include very powerful staged-thermonuclear weapons” (1). However, if the United States chooses to use military power to destroy North Korea’s arsenal, it risks sparking a major regional war that could draw in a number of great powers. There are no easy solutions, and the question of how best to deal with North Korea is only made more complex by the competing interests of external powers like China. However, the United States and its regional allies can no longer afford to simply wait out the Kim regime. More decisive action is required.
(1) Lewis, Jeffrey. “North Korea’s Nuke Program Is Way More Sophisticated Than You Think.” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web.
(2) “North Korea: Missile.” Nuclear Threat Initiative. September 2016. Web.
(3) Park, Ju-min and Jack Kim. “North Korea fires submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan.” Reuters. August 24, 2016. Web.
(4) Pollack, Jonathan D. “What makes this North Korean nuclear test different.” Brookings. September 9, 2016. Web.
(5) Hudson, John and David Francis. “Why Did Sanctions Fail Against North Korea?” Foreign Policy. September 9, 2016. Web.
(6) For a case study of regime shielding, see Ashford, Emma. “Not So Smart Sanctions: The Failure of Western Restrictions Against Russia.” Foreign Affairs. January/February 2016. Web; for China’s role in backstopping the North Korean economy, see Kuhn, Anthony. “Why China Wants To Squeeze North Korea A Little, But Not Too Much.” NPR. September 9, 2016. Web.
(7) Taewoo, Tim. “Combating North Korea’s Nuclear Blackmail: Proactive Deterrence and the Triad System.” Korean Institute for Defense Analysis. 2012. Web.
Image: © Gordeev20 | Dreamstime.com - North Korean soldier
The Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently travelled to Cuba to meet with Cuban President Raúl Castro and other Cuban dignitaries. This Iranian outreach to Cuba is raising eyebrows in the United States, as the two countries have historically acted as impediments to American foreign policy (1). The meeting between the two countries is further complicated by the Obama administration’s foreign policy of rapprochement. With the implementation of the JCPOA (otherwise known as the Iran Nuclear Deal) and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba, there is a lot riding on improved relations with both Iran and Cuba. Ultimately, though, it is unlikely that recent diplomatic actions between Iran and Cuba portend any significant changes in the current global order.
Foreign policy decision-making is a two-level game (2). In other words, policymakers have to consider two central questions when formulating foreign policy: how will the policy be viewed internationally and how will it be viewed domestically? While each have authoritarian elements, both Cuba and Iran have legislative bodies that hold some degree of influence over decision-making. Thus, Iranian and Cuban leaders need to design policies that both appease their legislative bodies and are effective on the international stage (3). Iran, in particular, has a powerful conservative bloc that has been staunchly opposed to Iran’s moves toward détente with the United States. Indeed, recent military actions like the testing of potent missile systems and the harassment of American warships in the Persian Gulf signal a growing willingness on the part of Iran to flex its geopolitical muscles (4). This, of course, is partly designed to pressure the U.S. and remind it that Iran has cards to play. However, provocative actions like these are likely more focused on signaling to Iranian hardliners that the Rouhani administration is not caving to American pressure and is still working to frustrate American foreign policy.
This is not the first time that Iranian emissaries have met with Cuban officials. Back in 2014, for example, Cuban and Iranian officials met to strengthen their resistance “against hegemonic powers” (5). Thus, the more recent meeting should hardly be viewed as a novel or particularly unprecedented event. It is unsurprising that rogue actors like Iran and Cuba seek to strengthen their ties to one another. As small, relatively isolated states, they are only to project strength through cooperation with like-minded regimes across the globe. Indeed, this dynamic of cooperation among states opposed to U.S. international policy can be seen in East Asia as well, with Russia, China, and North Korea cooperating in opposition to American interests. These Asian powers aren’t allied because they have particularly close bonds ideologically or culturally, but because they have a shared goal of limiting U.S. foreign policy successes and enhancing their power and influence outside of the U.S.-led liberal international order (6). So it is with Iran and Cuba as well.
It’s important to remember that despite these provocations from Iran and Cuba, the U.S. still possesses enormous leverage over both countries, as access to the lucrative American market is a powerful incentive with which Washington can shape Iranian and Cuban actions. Alarmist rhetoric about the creation of a new “axis of evil” is, therefore, entirely overblown. The Iranian hardliners that pushed for this diplomatic trip likely seek to provoke the U.S. into overreacting. In other words, this action might very well be designed to incite the United States into condemning or threatening Iran, giving hardliners the excuse they need to abrogate the JCPOA and sabotage U.S.-Iranian relations. Thus, it is important that the United States does not take any drastic actions in response to this Iranian overture toward Cuba: overreacting and engaging in inflammatory rhetoric will only provide hardliners ammunition needed to eliminate moderate voices within the Iranian government. It is imperative that the United States unilaterally refrains from engaging in confrontational actions because only through ignoring minor diplomatic insults can the U.S. break the enduring rivalry shaping Iranian-American relations (7).
Like everything with Iran and Cuba, the factors shaping this visit are complex, nuanced, and somewhat opaque. It is very easy to believe that Iran and Cuba are acting solely to anger and provoke the U.S., but it is just as likely that this recent diplomatic meeting was designed to appease hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corp (IRGC). The real reason for Zarif’s visit to Havana probably has to do with both factors, and possibly even other factors not immediately clear to Western observers. Understanding the foreign policy of American adversaries is always important, as it allows American policymakers to predict and impede hostile actions against the U.S. Nevertheless, it is also important not to exaggerate the significance of individual actions, as events are frequently not as significant as they might originally appear. A budding Cuban-Iranian alliance is certainly concerning. However, there is currently too little information to draw sweeping conclusions.
(1) O’Reily, Andrew. “Iranian minister's trip to Cuba, Latin America raises concern about its influence in region.” Fox News. August 25, 2016. Web.
(2) Putnam, Robert D. “Diplomacy and domestic politics: the logic of two-level games.” International Organizations 42(3) (Summer 1988): 427-460.
(3) For selectorate dynamics, see Bueno de Mesquita, Bruce et. al. The Logic of Political Survival. Boston, MA: MIT Press, 2003. Print.
(4) For example, see Dickstein, Corey. “Navy Fires Warning Shots At Iranian Ships In 3rd Close Call In 2 Days.” Task and Purpose. August 27, 2016. Web.
(5) “Envoy underscores Iran-Cuba growing relations.” The Iran Project. October 8, 2014. Web.
(6) Mead, Walter Russel. “The Return of Geopolitics.” Foreign Affairs. May/June 2014. Web.
(7) Goertz, Gary. “Enduring Rivalries: Theoretical Constructs and Empirical Patterns.” International Studies Quarterly 37(2) (June 1993): 147-171.
Image: © Zoltán Balogh | Dreamstime.com - Cuba
Sam Seitz is a student at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where he studies International Politics, German, and European Studies. He has served as an analyst for the Roosevelt Institute at Georgetown University, specializing in defense and diplomacy, and runs the blog Politics in Theory and Practice. Sam’s areas of interest are, broadly speaking, security studies, alliance networks, European politics, and the intersection between comparative politics and international relations. Sam is also a devoted fan of the University of North Carolina’s men’s basketball team.