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

Everything Is Foreign Policy


Today’s global front lines do not run between East or West, but within states between internationalists and nationalists, our editor-in-chief explained in one of her last articles.

Sylke Tempel

In uncertain times, popular American TV series can help us understand what is going on with the world. They portray new kinds of family life (“Modern Family”), the cynicism of the political establishment (“House of Cards”), and the potential of a surveillance state powered by technology, big data, and artificial intelligence (“Person of Interest”). And indeed, these are the big challenges of our time. The modernization of the past couple of decades has been dramatic and changed our societies, down to the family. Meanwhile, the digital revolution has put a turbo booster on globalization and changed the way we talk, work, and live. And, partially influenced by the other two, there is the loss of trust in a political class that does not seem able to manage the quick pace of globalization, let alone slow it down. These are the new fronts in our society.

On the one side are those who, as Alexander Gauland from Germany’s hard-right, populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) party once so perfectly simplistically put it, “don’t want to put up with the nonsense of globalization anymore.” They want to remain in their fenced-in gardens, safe from today’s complexities, be they refugee crises or increased economic competition. They want a space where the old rules still apply, where the old elite still have the say. On the other side are those who want an open society, even when it means putting up with the pressure of constant change. In this society the “elite” are not defined by birth or origin, but by achievement, irrespective of ethnicity, gender, or belief.

The New Cleavages

We are witnessing a powerful backlash against further modernization. This backlash is not just happening in individual societies; it is also international. A quarter century after the end of the Cold War, the new front lines do not run between East and West, between Western democracies and authoritarian regimes, or between capitalism and socialism. The new divisions are not neatly geographical; they cannot be depicted on maps. What we have now are the ideological fronts of internationalism vs nationalism, of globalization vs localization, civilization vs culture, and urban vs rural.

Or, more broadly, one camp sees free trade and globalization as delivering prosperity and competition. Its members value modern democracies as open systems based on rules set out in a constitution, systems that include citizens of varying cultural backgrounds. They tend to be part of an urban cohort, which believes the European Union to be imperfect and in need of reform, but still considers it an achievement (a big share of the Brexit “remainers”). The other camp is marked by a backlash against modernity which is driven by fear of globalization – and in fact, globalization is placing great strain on our societies and economies. In that camp, there is real yearning to make one’s own country “great again” (Trump) or to “take back control” (the UK Leave campaign’s slogan), to keep the world manageable.

Challenging the Western Model

When Francis Fukuyama claimed that the age of ideological conflict was over because Western liberal democracy had triumphed, he was only half wrong. There still is no ideological competitor to liberal democracy that can offer its citizens the same kind of prosperity, security, and participation. Or at least there is nothing of the kind visible in the platforms of the nationalist-populists.

There may not be any alternative to the Western model, but there are challenges to it. China views itself as a direct competitor, as a power that proves that capitalism and wealth can be attained without liberalism. Putin’s conservative revolution and his concept of a Russian world in which every ethnic Russian belongs in Putin’s empire challenge a model of citizenship that is determined (ideally, anyway) by loyalty to the constitution, and not hereditary membership in an ethnic nation. The third ideological challenger to the West, political Islam in both its moderate and radical form, sees itself as a counter-movement to Western modernity and what Islamists view as its biggest disgrace: the banning of any otherworldly doctrine of salvation from secular politics.

The Chinese model can at least offer its people growing prosperity; it also can actually compete in the global market of innovation. But all challenger models fail to protect citizens’ rights against the infringements of power, or to offer them critical participation in political and societal processes.

What does this all mean for Germany and its role in the world? There is ample evidence that Germany is ready to take on more responsibility. There was the trio of speeches at the Munich Security Conference in 2014 by then President Joachim Gauck, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, but also the Ukraine crisis and the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea. It was Germany, together with France, that shaped policy on these issues. The Minsk agreement may be less than sufficient, but it did contribute to desperately needed de-escalation. Also, the EU sanctions could hardly have been imposed, let alone maintained, without Berlin’s efforts.

For the first time in years, defense spending is increasing, and last year’s White Book process did much to engage the public. These might also be signs that the topic of military responsibility is becoming less of a taboo. After all, the Bundeswehr is already involved in numerous foreign deployments.

Arriving on the Doorstep

But something crucial is still missing. The crucial strategic message is not being delivered to the German public. Germany may no longer be at the center of the East-West conflict, but it is caught between new ideological fronts. As the most open and connected economic power, Germany depends existentially on globalization and a peaceful international trade regime. As a core power and the geographical center of Europe, a functioning EU is in Germany’s fundamental interest.

No problem, no global challenge – from stabilizing its direct southern and eastern neighborhood to countering the political and economic challenge posed by rising powers – can be solved without the support of the EU and shared resources of the EU member states. Most German foreign policy ambitions are only achievable if they are amplified by the power of the EU. The rebuilding of the failed states in Europe’s southern neighborhood is inconceivable without a combined European effort, and even then it will be very difficult. Berlin’s primary foreign policy priority must be the survival of the EU. This entails also thinking about necessary reforms for the EU that go beyond familiar calls for “more Europe” or more integration.

More than anything, amid new ideological conflicts and concurrent disorientation, we must be clear about another principle: everything is foreign policy. Unresolved problems no longer remain abstract and distant. They affect our daily lives and arrive, literally, at our doorstep. But this also means that foreign policy is domestic policy. A Germany that is unable to defend internationalism, Western modernity, and a liberal open society to its own people and beyond its borders – and to make these principles the unwavering foundation of its foreign policy – would be an irresponsible actor working against its own interests.

Nowhere is this truer than with Russia policy, despite reoccurring nods from some in Berlin toward a more conciliatory approach. Liberal values are in Germany’s interests. And a policy to defend these interests must avail itself of all the accessible tools – intellectual debates, diplomacy, cooperation with Western allies, and, as an option of the very last resort, yes, also military tools.

NB. This text was originally published in German by the Heinrich Böll Foundation as part of the collection Die große Verunsicherung: Die Krise der liberalen Moderne. Translation: Rachel Tausendfreund