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

Taking Stock for Germany

On foreign policy fiascos, blind spots, and future action outlines

2014 was a mind-boggling year, marking the start of profound changes in world affairs, but also in the way Berlin thinks about foreign policy. Part of this is the “Review 2014” process Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier launched earlier this year, inviting over 60 political observers, commentators, and think tankers from across the world to put their thoughts down on paper. We offer a critical overview.


(c) REUTERS/Sergei Karpukhin

It is a process that alone makes a statement – at the very least of intellectual curiosity and the desire to generate new ideas and to stimulate a wider foreign policy debate – but also hints at the certain exceptional situation in which Germany’s foreign policy finds itself. It is, as Timothy Garton Ash notes, “nearly unimaginable that Great Britain, China, France, or America would send out such a letter asking what is wrong with their foreign policy.”

Yes, China’s single-party government may indeed fail to entertain interest in an open process of reflection on and criticism of the policies and decisions of its party leadership. Yet we only have to look at the current withering criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy in the United States, listen to one of the frequent foreign policy debates in Westminster’s House of Commons, or perceive the passion with which French intellectuals – sometimes more than philosophically – involve themselves in foreign policy to know that no one in these countries would have the idea of inviting some 60 authors to submit a “review” of foreign policy and thus kick-start a debate on fundamental principles: Such debate in these societies is simply a daily occurrence.

Admittedly, the outcome of elections in the US, UK, and France hinge no more on foreign policy issues than Germany’s. But in the latter, described variously as an “indispensable power” (Ash), a hegemon “in over its head” (Thomas Kleine Brockhoff, Hanns W. Maull) or a “reluctant hegemon” (William Paterson) – and which has therefore undeniably acquired more influence, whose engagement is called for more than ever before, and whose creativity, resources, and wealth of ideas are desperately needed – foreign policy debate is especially underdeveloped. During the last election campaign Germany’s global position wasn’t even an issue, and Bundestag debates on fundamental principles of foreign and security policy tend to be an exception rather than the rule, this despite ongoing overseas military operations.

The fault lines and crimes against humanity in Germany’s history are most certainly responsible for the lack of a foreign policy community matching those of any other major world power in terms of influence, clout, and diversity. For unlike Washington, London, or Paris, Berlin was never a global metropolis or the seat of a global empire, rather an impatient newcomer who grew too quickly inside a tiny Europe; it was the origin of two world wars and ultimately a divided city whose security lay in the hands of other powers.

German society, in turn, has in the wake of such storms of omnipotent delusion rather quickly and seemingly enduringly fallen in love with a state of impotence. The credibility of this position was always questionable, alone considering the country’s increasing economic strength, initially in West Germany and then the reunified state. It has long been clear that anyone who ranks among the world’s economic giants cannot swim in the political kiddie pool.

Germany’s attitude of humility – initially authentic and undoubtedly appropriate, but now more out of place – can no longer be accepted. That is a sentiment shared by every paper submitted to Review 2014. Expectations are higher for Europe’s central power broker.

But what exactly is expected, what should Germany’s interests be, which issues warrant German pursuit – for its own benefit and also ideally for the benefit of its partners? Which resources, means, and tools are available, which shortcomings does German policy currently reveal, and which deficits or previously uncharted territories are identified in the diagnoses of the diagnosticians?

What Is the Problem with Germany’s Foreign Policy?

The formulations of their answers may have varied, but on this question, the criticisms of foreign authors (and not just those from intervention-happy countries) were nearly unanimous: Berlin may have taken a decisive leadership role in the euro crisis, and as Europe’s management trainee handled sometimes harsh criticism with an unexpected measure of aplomb. Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s red-green coalition government paved the way for out-of-area missions with its intervention in Kosovo, leading Germany at present to contribute 4600 soldiers to 16 international missions. Yet nevertheless Germany’s foreign policy lacks its necessary counterpart: a clearly formulated security policy. Berlin, according to these critics, depends too much on its soft power and shies away from hard power; has so far come forward solely as a civil and economic power (Adekeye Adebajo and Kudrat Virk, Center for Conflict Resolution, Cape Town); holds back too much from peace and security missions (Former UN General Secretary Kofi Annan); benefits from the international security system without contributing itself (Zhou Hong, Chinese Society for European Studies); is a “security freeloader” and above all “strategically weak” (Charles Grant, Center for European Reform).

Alongside a reluctance to use force, German foreign policy is characterized by the strongly-held principle that any problem can be solved through negotiation. – Charles Grant

These criticisms are also shared by domestic authors: Germany has “earned itself the reputation of a fence rider inside the alliance,” and “despite recent advances in moving the common project of military alliance forward through ‘Framework Nation Concept’ … is only mildly interested in actually developing NATO further” (Jan Techau, Carnegie Brussels). Every party that has belonged to the ruling coalition in recent years has spoken of a common European defense policy, yet concrete initiatives to this end were lacking (Volker Perthes, German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)). For the most part, deployment in Afghanistan brought with it a deep insecurity about the spirit and purpose of such missions. It requires critical examination of the results of various deployments and what lessons can be learned from them (Joachim Krause, Christian Albrecht University Kiel).

Germany’s foreign policy, according to Anne-Marie Slaughter, President of the New America Foundation, “today is defined as much by what it is not than by what it is. It is not militarist. It is not exactly pacifist, however; German troops have fought with honor in Afghanistan. It is not interventionist, even when intervention could save hundreds of thousands of lives. It is not exactly sovereigntist, however; Germany subscribes at least in principle to the responsibility to protect doctrine and does not side with Russia and China against any humanitarian action that would violate national sovereignty.”

And with that we find ourselves at the next topic: Germany’s abstention on Libyan intervention in the UN Security Council, when Germany found itself surprisingly – and apparently surprised even itself – in the same boat as China and Russia. The contributions of most German authors either fail to mention this decision or use hindsight as evidence of its correctness, for the situation in Libya following the intervention has only gotten worse. For most – especially Western – observers is the shock and anger over Germany’s step out of line as strong now as it was then. In this case – and this is also evident in discussions about Berlin’s relationship with Russia – it goes in fact much further, namely around the following unanswered question: Is Germany really securely anchored in the West? Is it a case of reestablishing foreign policy sovereignty after 1989 and an acceptable level of increased independence from the US, such as Chancellor Schröder’s veto on the Iraq War? Or is it rather “The idea that somehow Germany should be a bridge between ’East’ and ‘West,’ tied neither to one nor the other, is still present in the mind of many Germans” and influencing German policy (Anne-Marie Le Gloannec, Center for International Studies, Paris)?

The sense of political self-worth of the old Federal Republic and the reunited Germany have been fundamentally rooted in economic success. – Herfried Münkler

Without a doubt: Germany is popular; for years, BBC polls have ranked it at the top on the question about global “positive influence.” This may in part be due to the fundamentally agreeable disposition to be seen as a balance-oriented civil power rather than rank among the world’s policemen. But whoever wishes to project power and ensure and protect security must in fact supply more than material and immaterial resources. Such a position provides no immunity from mistakes and thereby brings criticism (and subsequent damage to one’s image) upon itself.

The questions here for Germany are: Does everybody’s favorite promising adolescent hegemon finally want to grow up, supply more of its own resources, and in the framework of its (expandable) possibilities also take on more responsibility, thereby accepting at least a temporary decline in popularity? And vice versa: Would others who call for Germany to accept its leadership role also be prepared to accept policies that are not immediately decipherable and whose ramifications will not always be in tune with selfish national interests?

What Is Expected of Germany?

It is impossible to determine clearly whether this point is skewed by cognitive dissonance or a healthy dose of optimism. Does one expect a lot from Germany, despite the widely-held opinion that the country is boxing far under its weight class? Or is one hoping that it will eventually develop and apply its available, yet clearly expandable security policy potential to stand beside its soft power pillars, “stem[ming] primarily from its economy, and from the domains of technology and research, as well as from its liberal structures, its social market economy, and its solid rule of law” (Perthes)?

The level of expectations, in any case, is indeed far from modest. It ranges from “shouldering a greater share of the burdens of leadership, collective security, and international aid, be it in the EU, NATO, or the UN” to “advocat[ing] in favor of an open, global, rule-based trading system … [and] being a champion of the fight against climate change” (Annan), from “be[ing] accommodated as a rule-maker” rather than “indefinitely remain[ing] a rule-taker” to “play[ing] the role of a facilitator or mediator in East Asia” (Brahma Chellaney, Center for Policy Research, New Delhi), from “ recalibrating the international order … to accommodate the new reality” of powerful emerging economies, rethinking development cooperation (James Shikwati, Inter Region Economic Network, Nairobi), and “advanc[ing] a more rules-based, multilateral global order that emphasizes values, human security and better global governance” (Elizabeth Sidiropoulos, South African Institute of International Affairs, Johannesburg) to less focus on economic interests (Grant; Le Gloannec).

Germany’s broad approach to foreign policy, with its emphasis on strengthening the international order as a whole through multilateral frameworks and norms, remains sound. – Kofi Annan

Germany must develop a strategic political sense equal to its economic intuition, argues Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow). The country has lain the groundwork for success in a globalized world; now it must “amplify its world outlook by adding a modern geopolitical dimension to it. … Think beyond Europe. Work toward an ever more coequal partnership with the United States. Develop a modern concept of Eurasia to deal with the key neighbors there: China, India, Iran, Japan, Russia, Turkey, and others.”

The world and all its immediate crises, however, cannot stand still while Europe first sorts out its own problems. Nevertheless, the overwhelming majority of these contributions makes clear: it is only in the European context that Germany is a player of whom everyone could have such high expectations. And further, on this point: concerns about independent German action may sometimes surface when the close relationship between Germany and Russia is interpreted as a quiet renunciation of the West, when Berlin allows itself a certain amount of trade policy egotism, or when the German government decides overnight to implement a massive transition to renewable energy without informing either its European or domestic economic partners affected by the change.

Reining in Germany is no longer the chief strategy in furthering European integration. Rather, the world is waiting for the opposite – in the sense of former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski: that Berlin deploys all possible energy for the European project, dedicating even greater attention and creativity to the European integration process.

“Expectations” are sensible and not simply futile fantasy when they can be implemented, when they are not only (but also) in the interest of those in power to whom they are addressed, and when the necessary resources for their implementation are either immediately available or the willingness and means to make them so are. In this sense, Europe’s integration into a powerful foreign and security policy actor who must be reckoned with is exactly the field upon which “expectation” and “interest” most beautifully overlap. The core question, however, remains largely unanswered: What kind of Europe should we become?

The EU of the 21st century, as Anne-Marie Slaughter believes, for example, will become “less federalist and more intergovernmentalist, … act[ing] most effectively when a cluster of interested states combine their national energies and resources with the supranational weight of the EU as a whole.” Germany – such is the expectation – would assume to some degree the role of a spider in its web, given not only its central geographic position, but also its (yes, clearly historically influenced) interest in a greater European framework. It would fall to Berlin to forge coalitions of the willing and, for example, in the case of Ukraine, to band together with Poland, the Baltic states, as well as every other Central and Eastern European EU member country to cooperate closely with the president of the European Council and the EU’s high representative for foreign and security policy. Such a tight group of countries could convince the other EU members to support their strategy. The positive side effect is that such a constellation builds greater confidence between us and our American partners (and is in fact easier to control than other forms of cooperation) than when the US works either directly with the EU or with just a handful of its member states. According to Daniela Schwarzer (German Marshall Fund), Germany “should promote effective cooperation in small groups” while “prevent[ing] the formation of camps in the EU-28.”

Germany remains content to be an industrial force and export powerhouse while leaving the geopolitics to other major powers. – Brahma Chellaney

How exactly can an EU – which is, it must be noted, less federally structured and more based upon the cooperation of individual states – be unified through a singular core competency: namely, according to Schwarzer, “hold[ing] the eurozone together”? The euro crisis has yet to be fully vanquished, and monetary union remains despite all progress to this end incompletely integrated. Germany was saddled – in part in its own interest – with the task of creating a “pioneer group” to move the internal integration process forward as well as develop common positions and strategies for the EU’s international affairs (Feng Zhongping, China Institute of Contemporary International Relations). If one assumes, as Eberhard Sandschneider (DGAP) does, that the EU will not “speak with one voice” for the foreseeable future, then Europe must square the circle: stabilizing the eurozone through a more strongly integrated common finance and fiscal policy while simultaneously – and with the help of smaller groupings, especially in the fields of foreign and defense policy – building strong bridges with every country that has yet to become a eurozone member.

What Are Germany’s Interests?

Admittedly, this question was never posed explicitly. Yet if one of the most significant demands is that Germany finally arrive at greater strategic clarity, then answering these questions is of central importance: What are Germany’s interests, and how can those interests best be brought into synchronization with the interests of its partners in order to expand its power in the sense of the potential to both direct and achieve its goals?

Strategic thinking, according to Grant, is a country’s ability “to define its interests in ways that are not exclusively commercial and economic; and to set out its long-term objectives and the means by which it hopes to achieve them (even if the means involve short-term costs or commitments to deploy force).”

Germany has an unspoken vision of foreign policy. In that vision, economic interdependence serves as a great stabilizer that is bound to limit the scope for great power conflict. – Pawel Swieboda

Unfortunately, the review process papers offer little strategic clarity themselves. Naturally, it is clearly stressed that it is foremost in Germany’s interest, as both an exporting nation and one of the most tightly interwoven countries, to secure and whenever possible increase the wealth of its citizens. Similarly obvious is that this goal runs in no way counter to a value-focused foreign policy in a democratic market economy that by definition should be interested in promoting the rule of law, rule-based legitimacy, and consensus-oriented conflict resolution.

Noteworthy is the fact that this is only rarely mentioned in connection with the key phrase Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). In the absence (if not after the failure) of the Doha Round, this comprehensive trade and investment treaty could offer a perfect opportunity for Europe and the US – still the two largest markets in the world – to establish high and reliable international standards in areas from labor law to environmental protection.

If these papers name any interests at all, it is less German interests (or potential interests) and more the interests other countries entertain in Germany. Without question, “Berlin must also urgently strengthen its economic and political relations with East Asian economies, particularly Japan, South Korea, and Indonesia,” according to Cape Town’s Adebajo and Virk. In a time in which Europe’s engagement for liberal democratic values finds little resonance in conflict-ridden countries, Germany must deepen its cooperation with countries like Turkey, says Fuat Keyman (Istanbul Policy Center and Sabanci University). “All in all,” argues Keyman, “Germany and Turkey have much common interest in rebuilding conflict-torn regions and restoring the basic institutions of safety and services in places like Afghanistan. The duo can even expand the boundaries of their peace cooperation by creating joint solutions for the situation in Syria.”

Germany now has a responsibility to promote the coordination of European foreign policy and foreign relations on China. – François Godement

That the interests of German foreign policy are so difficult to describe, its purpose and goals so difficult to recognize, was identified years ago by Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff and Hanns W. Maull, in INTERNATIONALE POLITIK (November/December 2011 edition) and on IP JOURNAL, to be due to a specific, serious deficiency: “a lack of what is called ‘purpose’ in the Anglo-Saxon world. Since reunification, Germany has exhibited mental laziness by falsely believing that peace and prosperity would always be automatically guaranteed – although the European and international political arenas are changing dramatically.” Here at least some of the most significant goals of German foreign policy still applied: In order to secure both peace and political order, the authors wrote, Germany needed to be part of a powerful alliance. In order “to ensure the bases of prosperity … the foreign policy architects would seek integrated markets that cover as wide an area as possible (but at least Europe) and that have the same or similar investment conditions and cost structures. At the global level, they would ask for free markets and free trade.” Then as now, it is still a matter of multilateralism and of nurturing relationships with countries of a similar political and values bent, and not by any means (see above) about a reinvention of Europe.

Given this, German foreign policy must achieve what Berlin architects (well, in part at least) have succeeded at doing: marrying the new substance with the old – through building relations with emerging powers on the basis of its existing Western partnerships and tending a multilateralism that is built upon groups of willing state partners rather than aiming for quickly eroding universal consensus. Globalization cannot be understood as a self-propelled movement leading to change through connections forged by ever greater integration, but must rather be viewed as a process that raises ideological contradictions with and resistance to Western models of political order. Countering this friction, however, becomes not only more difficult, but also carries higher personal cost as a direct result of the intended increasing interdependence.

What Is Missing?

At the end of every year, IP asks Germany’s leading foreign policy thinkers to share their picks for the year’s most important new (or newly discovered) books. Two titles have thus far shared the lead: one obvious – Christopher Clark’s World War I best-seller The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 – and one that has largely flown under the radar, in great part because it has yet to be translated into German: John Lewis Gaddis’s 2012 biography of American diplomat George F. Kennan.

That interest in Kennan among foreign policy observers and planners is experiencing a renaissance should be no real wonder. Lucid, elegant, and in the relatively compact form of a “long telegram” (and later an anonymous article in Foreign Affairs), Kennan developed a grand strategy that under the simple moniker of “containment” remained valid for 60 years, till the end of the Cold War, because it met all of the requirements of a successful strategy: a clear picture of the world as it is; a conception of how it should be; and clear guidelines for implementing said conception. Its frame of reference is simultaneously stable and flexible, allowing not only for the sensible organization of the modern flood of information but also for the absorption of unexpected events. It is both attractive and coherent enough to include other partners as well.

That the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union still lacks a clear designation and is rather described by the vague phrases “since the end of the Cold War” or “in the era of globalization” shows that it is not only German foreign policy which is lacking strategic clarity. General strategic confusion currently reigns. Even the authors’ contributions to this review cannot – in the sense of penetrating clarity at which Kennan succeeded – paint a picture of the world as it is. Naturally, our past of confrontational blocs – on the one hand, Communism, and on the other, liberal democracy plus market economy – appears rude wood carvings next to the complicated calligraphy of a connected, yet highly dynamic multi-polar present, influenced by differing political orders and ideologies. Further, it is noticeable that certain commentators are inclined toward showing off their narrow view. It is natural that experts feel most secure in their own field. But it is nevertheless surprising to what degree some of them are trying to ride across the world on little more than a hobbyhorse.

Germany needs to amplify its world outlook by adding a modern geopolitical dimension to it. [It must] construct the requisite intellectual underpinnings for a 21st century German Weltpolitik. Dmitri Trenin

If a grand strategy for this complex, constantly changing pattern is even contrivable remains to be seen. Maybe we really will have to satisfy ourselves, as Stanford’s Stephen Krasner once suggested, with a few “orientation principles” instead. But even in that case: there must be a lot of thought and even more knowledge put into the process in order to end up with a much clearer picture of the world, to be more prepared for unexpected attacks – such as the advance of ISIS radicals in Iraq, Crimean annexation, or possibly an escalation of the island conflict between China and Japan. And hopefully not only will we gather a better vision of how the world actually is, but also rather develop a vision for how it could be.

It is above all the German contributors to this review who are responsible for the fact that there is still much to achieve toward this end. If Germany is to carry more responsibility, then the pool of knowledge from which it draws must also grow larger. The Ukraine crisis proved this point: In the academic hype over all-encompassing, yet largely theoretical concepts such as “global governance” or “conflict prevention,” our entire classical training – deep knowledge of other societies, cultures, histories – has been lost. Kennan, incidentally, was not only a sharp observer of the present – he was also a profound scholar of Russian language, culture, and history.