A bright new comet flashed into the global political firmament when the world’s first important Green Party was founded in Germany four decades ago. It offered a dazzling blend of feminism, environmental militancy, and anti-imperialism. The most prominent Green leader, the charismatic young firebrand Petra Kelly, demanded “a rejection of militarism wherever it may be.” She led marches against the US military presence in Germany and preached a radical alternative: “Let’s declare all towns and villages nuclear-free zones, let’s initiate a disarmament race, let’s take the tanks apart and produce something that’s socially useful.”
This party is now on the brink of coming to power in Germany. Yet no one in Washington is worried. In fact, the American security establishment has reason to cheer. The Greens have left Petra Kelly in the dust. Today they are the most outspokenly pro-American party in Germany. Their leaders lustily endorse American campaigns to sanction and isolate Russia and China. They oppose cutting military budgets and strongly support the US-dominated NATO alliance. Now, as Germans prepare to elect a successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel in September, the dramatic reversal in Green Party politics is on full display. It is one of the most remarkable political transformations in modern European history.
Founders of the Green Party were visionaries who wanted to change human consciousness, not just win elections. Even after Kelly entered Germany’s parliament along with other Green leaders in 1983, she insisted that they remain “uncompromising in basic demands.” The greatest danger they faced, she warned, was the temptation “to compromise fundamental values for the sake of expediency” and become a conventional party that “seeks only to gain power.”
As the Green Party grew and the prospect of power became realistic, some members rebelled against this fundamentalism. Two factions emerged. One remained committed to the party’s utopian founding ideals. The others called themselves “realos” because they wanted the party to evolve toward pragmatic and “realistic” policies that would appeal to more voters. Ultimately the “realos” won. Their leader — the key figure in the Greens’ transition from protest to politics — was Joschka Fischer, a onetime street fighter who led the Greens to spectacular success in the 1998 election. Fischer became Germany’s foreign minister and vice chancellor.
In less than 20 years, the Greens had gone from the barricades to the heights of power. That was not enough for Fischer. At a stormy Green Party convention in 1999, he spoke vividly about atrocities being committed in Yugoslavia and persuaded delegates to support a NATO mission that would involve bombing that country. This was the moment the Greens lost their political virginity. Depending on your perspective, they either abandoned their principles in fealty to power or finally grew up and came to terms with the real world.
Green politicians have continued to win elections in Germany. Voters no longer see them as vandals or crackpots. One of their elder statesmen, Winfried Kretschmann, has been governor of a major state for the last decade and is so popular that in his last campaign, he used posters that simply carried his picture and the motto “You Know Me.” This level of comfort has brought Germany to a political turning point. The Green Party is leading in public opinion surveys. Even a second-place finish in September’s election would probably bring Greens top posts in Germany’s next government.
Fittingly for the party first associated with Petra Kelly, the Green candidate for chancellor is a self-confident, sharply articulate 40-year-old woman. There, however, the similarities stop. Annalena Baerbock is so closely aligned with American foreign policy that some Germans call her “Biden’s girl.” She says she wants to “increase pressure on Russia” by imposing new sanctions and canceling the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would bring natural gas from Russia to Germany. In dealing with China, she would follow a policy of “toughness” and join the United States in support of Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the Muslims of Xinjiang. Human rights, not economic or strategic interest, would guide her foreign policy.
Baerbock’s fervent pro-Americanism has left other parties sensing a political opening. Armin Laschet, the candidate of Merkel’s party, the Christian Democratic Union, has warned that “feel-good moralizing and domestic slogans are not foreign policy.” He will likely win support from many who worry that Germany’s economy, which relies on exports, would greatly suffer from confrontation with China. The other major party, the Social Democrats, has gone further, positioning itself as “Germany’s peace party” — a title the Greens once claimed. One of its leaders recently suggested that Social Democrats would distance themselves from the United States by supporting “more Europe-oriented diplomacy” and asserted that “because of our history, German society has difficulty with military operations — which is good.”
Behind the transformation of Germany’s Green Party lies a deep question that Americans should also ask: How big a role should human rights play in shaping foreign policy? The Greens have made a bold decision. They now believe that if the government of any country violates the rights — as they define them — of its citizens, that government must be punished. It is an inspiring idea but fraught with danger. In the modern age, human rights is the go-to justification for sanctions and wars. American interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and Libya were sold in part as operations to protect human rights — but they wound up causing far more death and suffering than they ended. By making human rights the single lens through which they view other countries, Germany’s Greens risk becoming accomplices to the very interventions they once opposed.
Founders of the Green Party, shaped in part by fury at America’s role in Vietnam, believed that bombing other countries is always wrong. Today’s Greens, determined to win a national election for the first time, assert the opposite: that hostile forces are threatening democracy around the world and that only coercive force can contain them. The 16-year Merkel era is about to end. Greens may shape or even lead the next government. It would bear little resemblance to what Petra Kelly imagined when she and her band of eco-peaceniks founded the party 40 years ago.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.