A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

A Question of Statecraft


With Chancellor Angela Merkel leaving the world of politics by 2021, Germany has a rare opportunity to renew its aging national security structures. It should build on experiences made in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Japan.

© REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Any Western policymaker working in the field of national security over the past decade has had to grapple with the same disheartening reality: the structures and processes that governments created decades ago to analyze threats and coordinate policy responses are ill-equipped to cope with today’s fast changing geostrategic landscape. These days governments must play what international relations scholar Joe Nye calls “three-dimensional chess,” requiring policymakers to address military, economic, and transnational challenges simultaneously. Whether it is Chinese anti-access/area-denial strategies and capabilities in the South China Sea or the Russian use of energy and cyber-attacks as instruments of coercion, asymmetric warfare is presenting unique challenges not only to national security professionals but also to government ministries, which were designed for a different era.

National governments have responded to these changes by developing new strategies, policies, and tools. The homepages of Western foreign offices and ministries of defense are awash in white papers and national security strategies that outline how the world of foreign policy is evolving and why a pan-governmental approach that draws from the respective strengths of multiple government agencies is needed. Less has been done, however, in regards to statecraft. National security professionals know full well that even the best, most innovative strategies and policies will fail if they aren’t accompanied by a process that enables them to be realized. Yet statecraft—the machinery that ensures that national governments can efficiently and effectively execute policy—rarely garners as much attention.

Statecraft often takes a back seat to strategy for a simple reason. Reforming existing national security structures while governing is daunting to say the least. The only real opportunity for change comes at the start of an incoming administration when a new leader has a brief window to reshape how his or her national security team operates.

What’s Wrong With the Current System

With Chancellor Angela Merkel’s recent announcement that she is leaving the world of politics by 2021, Germany will soon be granted a rare opportunity to update its aging national security structures. Among the many changes a new chancellor might consider is the question of whether Germany needs a National Security Council (NSC). That’s an idea that German think tanks and policymakers have been debating for decades, with strong views on all sides. But as one high-ranking German official told me, “the fact that we have yet to create one also underscores the substantial obstacles we face in doing so.”

Due to a constitutional mandate that explicitly calls for and protects the autonomy of federal ministers, German foreign policy is almost exclusively left in the hands of the foreign minister and the Auswärtiges Amt, or Foreign Office. However, in today’s complex world where threats lurch between domestic and foreign policies, many across Berlin’s national security community feel that system has become inadequate or insufficient and lacks the agility to craft innovative and swift policy responses across multiple agencies.

The most common critique of the current national security architecture is the lack of coordination. Germany’s 2006 White Paper from the Ministry of Defense already put a heavy emphasis on the need for a networked approach that would allow ministries to share situational awareness and jointly shape policy options. The 2016 White Paper made the same argument, swapping “networked approach” for a “whole-of-government approach.” In an effort to create such an approach, German policymakers have made some important changes in recent years, including the creation of a Crisis Response Center in the Foreign Office. But policy coordination remains an issue.

Critics of the current system also complain about the inefficiency of ad hoc task forces, difficulties in translating lofty rhetoric into policy, the lack of transparency among agencies, the failure to develop grand strategy, and the gaps between strategic and operational goals. The struggle to pair policy decisions with actual resources has also been a recurring theme.

A More Holistic Approach

Such arguments have led at least some experts to conclude that Germany needs a centralized National Security Council inside the Bundeskanzleramt, or Chancellery. At a minimum, the NSC could possess the authority to chair regular meetings among principals (minister level) with the goal of coordinating policy responses across the government. In more ambitious forms, the NSC could house a larger staff of foreign policy advisors, include the appointment of a National Security Advisor, conduct strategic planning and reviews, set broad policy priorities, or play a more operational role more generally.

There are barriers to change, of course: first, the aforementioned legal issues with the constitution leaving the chancellor with little executive control over foreign policy; second, in Germany’s multi-party system, the junior coalition partner is often granted control of the Foreign Office and has every reason not to cede power to the chancellor; third, government ministries are often vying for attention and power, and the idea of creating an NSC bumps up against strategic turf battles. But those hurdles can be assessed and overcome, particularly by drawing lessons from abroad.

Germany isn’t the only country that has spent the last two decades debating the idea of a National Security Council. The United Kingdom and Japan were home to similar debates, eventually reaching the decision to create a National Security Council in 2010 and 2013 respectively. The two governments saw the need for a more holistic approach to policymaking, particularly in the areas of foreign policy, defense, development, energy, and homeland security.

Britain’s Mixed Record

In the UK, the creation of a National Security Council (which meets weekly) was paired with two other developments: a new Secretariat with a staff of roughly 200 people and the appointment of a National Security Advisor (usually a career civil servant). This new post combines the roles of the prime minister’s adviser on foreign policy and intelligence coordinator, among others.

Reviews of the new National Security Council in the UK have been mixed. On the positive side, the external Institute for Government and the Libra Advisory Group concluded that the NSC has improved coordination across the government, strengthened collective decision-making, and enhanced transparency.

On the negative side, however, UK policymakers continue to lament the lack of strategic thinking and worry that the NSC focuses too heavily on operational decisions. But every leader gets the NSC he or she wants. For former Prime Minister David Cameron, it was an NSC that would execute policy. “Of course in the NSC we discuss strategy,” Cameron said, “But I want us to determine policy, I want us to agree action, and I want us to check that we have done what we said we were going to do.” Nevertheless critics point to the NSC’s failure to discuss President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” or the national security implications of the eurozone crisis as two examples where the UK’s NSC could have played a more constructive role.

Perhaps most interesting for Germany is the feedback from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). Like its German counterpart in Berlin, the FCO was initially skeptical of or outright opposed to the idea of creating an NSC for fear of diluting its preeminent role in crafting policy. Surprisingly, though, some policymakers at the FCO now claim that the new process has actually enhanced the role of their ministry. It is the FCO that prepares the briefing memos for NSC meetings and helps set the agenda, and it also gets tasked more than any other agency.

Three Lessons from Japan

Japan’s experience with a National Security Council has been shorter but here, too, one finds some interesting lessons. In 2012, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe worked to pass legislation (similar to America’s National Security Act of 1947) that led to the permanent establishment of a National Security Council. And external and internal assessments of Japan’s NSC have been extraordinarily positive. Japanese officials feel that the National Security Council has provided much-needed centralization and coordination of Japan’s foreign policy. But Japan has three additional lessons that are particularly relevant for Germany.

First, as its strategic culture has evolved, Japan has found it preferable to allow its new National Security Council to handle the country’s most sensitive political issues when it comes to Japan’s role in the world. For example, Abe decided to revise Article 9, the war-renouncing clause in Japan’s constitution and asked the new National Security Advisor to take the lead on this particular issue. Abe believes that the relatively smooth global reaction to this constitutional change was a direct result of the National Security Advisor’s close coordination with his counterparts in many other countries.

Second, like Germany, the Japanese Ministry of Defense used to issue a five-year defense plan that only agitated the all-too-familiar turf battles between the foreign and defense ministries. Once Japan established a National Security Council in 2013, it was able to issue its first National Security Strategy from the top that helped frame defense planning guidance coming out of the Ministry of Defense.

Lastly, the development of an NSC has also led to the centralization of Japan’s intelligence system. Like the United States, Japan created a Director for National Intelligence (DNI), and intelligence officials have been integrated into NSC meetings, regularly providing intelligence briefings at the top. An added benefit of these new arrangements has been stronger US-Japanese intelligence sharing, partly due to the fact that Japan has gotten better at protecting US information.

Washington‘s Need for Reform

As for the US, German policymakers tend to be less interested in America’s experience with its exceedingly large and powerful National Security Council. No German I’ve met could imagine replicating the US model, nor would they want to. That doesn’t mean Germans can’t learn from it, though. Over the past decade, American scholars and practitioners have undertaken a series of in-depth reviews of the NSC. Understanding how the NSC went from a small group of foreign service officers and military officers in the late 1950s to just under 400 people in the Obama administration is instructive. As Americans continue to debate how they might reform this aging structure, Germans may want to tune in.

The biggest lesson from the US is the danger of excess. America’s National Security Advisor and the NSC Directors simply wear too many hats. The legally mandated meetings that the president chairs are now but one small part of the NSC daily rhythm, along with a long list of coordinating and operational tasks. The NSC needs to return power to other agencies and focus on two core missions: managing the process of presidential decision-making on national security and ensuring implementation of those decisions.

The NSC also has too many staff members in too many directorates. Each time a new challenge arises, administrations like to add a new directorate without ever removing any of the former ones. Of course, the United States plays a global role and maintains a global presence, which requires simultaneously tracking multiple continents and issues. But Germany would be wise to follow’s Japan’s example; it only created NSC directorates for its top priority areas.

Despite the weaknesses of America’s NSC, it would be tough to find a former or current policymaker that could imagine eliminating that body altogether. The “DCs” (deputies committees) I attended when I worked in the Vice President’s office were some of the most informative and consequential meetings I attended in government. Yes, I often wished there were fewer meetings, and my colleagues and I often lamented the lack of connective tissue with the budget process. But the level of interagency coordination, especially during a crisis, was critical in shaping US policy responses.

Start Planning Now

Germany is approaching a unique opportunity to change its strategic culture and develop new structures that will help it respond to today’s transformative security environment. Well before a new chancellor arrives in office, Germany should commission a small, outside team of experts to undertake a rigorous review of the experiences of other countries and examine the following questions: are there existing structures in the German government that could be expanded or altered to serve as a National Security Council of sorts? How might Germany make structural changes without adding unnecessary bureaucracy? What kind of constitutional changes would the creation of an NSC body require? Who might lead such an effort in the next administration (a technocrat or senior statesman)? And are there consequences for Germany in not having an NSC, which so many other regional powers have recently created?

The short list of candidates that stand the best chance at becoming the next chancellor of Germany are no doubt already thinking through a variety of new policy ideas. But those good ideas must be matched with good governance. Taking the time now to return to the question of a National Security Council would be a good place to start the conversation about German statecraft.