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

Well Advised? Hardly


Foreign affairs experts are facing a crisis. The problem is particularly pronounced in Berlin, where advisers and analysts are staring at the ruins of their belief systems.

© REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

Going by the number of available experts, the German government is receiving better advice on foreign policy than ever before. For years, the number of think-tanks in Berlin has been growing, as have their budgets and staff. Ten years ago, there were 175 think-tanks; last year, there were 225. These figures from the think-tank index created by the University of Pennsylvania document an increase of nearly 30 percent. That German foreign policy has gotten 30 percent more effective over the past decade, however, is not an assertion one is likely to hear.

The growth is plainly related to the increasing importance of Germany in Europe and the world. Anyone who wants to influence the direction of European foreign policy is now likely to open an office not only in Brussels, but also (perhaps even beforehand) in Berlin. A sort of mixed forest of expertise has grown up in Germany’s capital, with plants of various size and orientation—from large institutions close to the government that can provide advice on nearly every global political issue to party foundations with numerous offices abroad to small civil society initiatives that fight for a single issue or point of view.

On top of that, there’s what the wags call the country’s biggest think-tank: the German Foreign Office, with its thousands of world-wise officials.

The “Merkel Plan” Dare

But what makes for good foreign policy advice today? It’s not the size of the institution that counts. In 2015, one of the smallest and newest think-tanks in Berlin made an astonishing impact. A small team boasting a bombastic name—“European Stability Initiative”—showed Angela Merkel’s government the way out of the refugee crisis. Gerald Knaus and barely more than a dozen employees formulated the basic concept of the EU-Turkey agreement without being officially tasked. Then the group cheekily named its concept the “Merkel Plan.”

Knaus, a Balkans and Turkey expert, proceeded on the following premises: deaths in the Mediterranean had to stop; Turkey needed help with the flows of refugees; and Greece needed relief. The stability of south-eastern Europe is vital for Germany; Turkey may not be able to become an EU member state but needs to be kept close to Europe; Germany cannot take in every refugee; a “Hungarian solution” of building fences would drive Greece to collapse.

So Turkey had to receive financial incentives to prevent people smuggling and improve its refugee refugee camps. And Greece would, after a certain deadline, return new arrivals to Turkey. The incentive to board dangerous boats would disappear; the drowning would stop. Germany, Knaus believed, had to lead the way there, in part to avoid having euroskeptics like Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán offer (illusory) solutions.

Why didn’t the proposal come from one of the established think-tanks? Knaus had dared to step beyond the well-trodden path: both German leadership and European unity were possible on this issue, and it was even possible to deal with ornery Turkey. Migration is not an act of nature that withstands political control.

Advising Without Knowing-It-All

In times of upheaval—to employ a true cliché—advice cannot come from a standpoint of omniscience, not in a tone of perspicacity. Those giving it have to acknowledge uncertainty about Germany’s role in the world. It is a question of expanding the realm of the possible and doable, of reassessing the basic assumptions of German foreign policy.

The first efforts are here. Some examples: a debate has broken out at the German Marshall Fund about how the transatlantic relationship can be saved in the Donald Trump era by Germany itself. As GMF Vice President Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff put it, “producing more West” rather than just waiting for the United States. At the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), under Russia expert Stefan Meister, a sober, realistic approach to Moscow has taken hold, one that has freed itself from the Ostpolitik paradigm and takes a clear-eyed view of Vladimir Putin’s tough anti-Western power politics. The German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) is carrying out a critical analysis of the Franco-German ambition to achieve “European sovereignty” and researching diplomacy in post-diplomatic times. The Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) is illustrating the dangers of German industry’s excessive dependence on the Chinese market instead of simply celebrating its opportunities for growth.

Nevertheless, such outside-the-box thinking is still far too infrequent. All too often, experts are satisfied with putting themselves forward as voices of moderate reason in their respective fields, which is reflected in their use of certain buzzwords. Middle East experts hold on to the “two-state solution” for Israel and Palestine, regardless of every new Jewish settlement; transatlanticists swear to the “community of values,” which the US president stomps on every day; undaunted France experts demand a restart of the “Franco-German motor,” which has long been broken; and it took years of destructive policies by Putin to drive phrases like “modernization partnership” out of at least some Russia experts’ vocabulary.

The Temptation of the Mainstream

Having a registry of foreign policy phrases might even be useful—for political advisors as well as newspaper columnists. Right at the top would be the “liberal international order” (LIO for short). These days, people pledge allegiance to it so often that one would think that a free, liberal world order for the good of all mankind had reigned for decades until Trump showed up out of the blue and kicked it to the curb. Again and again, like a mantra, we hear that we must defend this “rules-based order.” (Is there actually order without rules?) I must confess, I have joined this chorus myself.

And yet it is important to understand how this order was related to the Cold War and US hegemony; why it brought neither freedom nor rules to large parts of the world; why its rules were perceived in many places as an imposition; and that this order carried the seeds of its present decomposition long before its opponents ganged up on it. Only then should one ask the question of what the German government could contribute to saving it, and what part of the LIO promise seems, despite everything, worth saving.

Without critical examination of such axioms, political advice becomes the production of ideologies. Which, admittedly, when one looks at the historical context out of which the “strategic community” originated, is a constant danger.

In the mid-1950s and early 1960s the foundations were laid for what are still the most important think-tanks in Germany, the DGAP and the SWP. The inspiration came partly from London (Chatham House), but above all from Washington. Germany’s friends in the US had already complained in the early 1950s that they didn’t have German counterparts in the “pre-political” sphere. So Germany set about creating corresponding institutions.

Around Massachusetts Avenue in the US capital, there had arisen an expert network linking government, lobby groups, the academic elite, and—not to be forgotten—the intelligence services. This network justified, shaped and steered US foreign policy during the decades of its seemingly unlimited growth in importance. According to its own claims, the network was both an instrument of US hegemony as well as a means of correcting the latter’s worst mistakes.

The “Playbook” as a Problem

The foreign policy advisers were a characteristic of US hegemony after World War II from the start. Today, they continue to constitute a cross-party foreign policy elite with a strong sense of mission, who claim to write the “playbook” for the challenges facing the world’s leading power. Their institutes can make available a recruitment pool of highly-qualified experts after every change at the White House and the State Department.

Today’s German landscape still lags behind its American counterpart, not just in terms of numbers (the US has 1800 think-tanks), but also in terms of the lack of barriers between government, politics and advice. The division between expertise and the executive remains strong in Germany. To be sure, there are a few diplomats who have gone on further education and professional training missions—in a sense parked in the pre-political sphere. But rarely do think-tankers switch to the other side and temporarily become diplomats, as the head of SWP, Volker Perthes, has done with his Syria mission. The German political foundations are essentially permeable in one direction only: they serve as a spent fuel pond for deserving top talent on its way off the political stage.

Because changes of government in Germany do not lead to the replacement of thousands of top officials, one key function of US think-tanks—being a place for temporarily out-of-action top officials—is superfluous here. That alone creates, despite all the interconnections, a large distance between the experts and political power. This distance is often lamented. But in view of the massive advising failures of the American foreign policy establishment, one could also take that as a virtue. The US think-tank complex is—after the failed wars it helped pave the way for in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya—in a deep crisis. It wasn’t Trump’s disparagement of the elites that first created this problem, as some interested parties would suggest.

Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama—not a person that one would suspect of anti-intellectualism—also rebelled against the expert consensus, the so-called “Washington playbook.” Obama’s decision to erase his own red line and not interfere in Syria, as he admitted to Jeffrey Goldberg in The Atlantic, was a break with the advisers who recommended an attack for reasons of “credibility.”

The Legitimacy Crisis of the Experts

The discreditation of the foreign policy establishment did not start with Trump, the populist. Obama was proud to have pulled away from the “experts complex,” too. The fact that two US presidents who couldn’t be more different have conducted themselves in the same manner in this respect suggests that the crisis of experts has structural causes.

To a lesser degree, the downfall of the foreign policy establishment in the US is also relevant for Germany. Not only does it demonstrate which mistakes one should avoid, it also has repercussions due to the international interconnection of experts. The experts’ legitimacy crisis is an international phenomenon.

The world of advisers is, like other institutions—parties, parliament, governments, trade unions, universities, foundations, the media—under unprecedented pressure to explain itself. The questions are justified: whose interests do the experts represent? From which perspective do they actually make their observations? How do they acquire their knowledge? How objective can they be?

The going conspiracy theories about the dark power of the adviser network are inadequate. Just think of the Open Society Foundations (OSF) founded by George Soros and the numerous organizations they support. For years, there has been a global hate campaign against them, with anti-Semitic elements. Left-wing critics now accuse the network of wanting to keep the world open for the capitalist market. Right-wingers see a global “shadow government” that has dedicated itself to the subversion of national sovereignty. The corrosion of traditional values, the promotion of illegal migration, the support of “color revolutions”—authoritarian regimes accuse OSF of all of this. The organization had to move its headquarters from Budapest to Berlin last year because Hungary was impeding its operations.

Other interested parties also cast doubt on foreign policy networks. I myself was denounced on Russian television as an American agent after writing several articles critical of Germany’s Russia policy. Proof of my guilt: in 2000 I was a fellow at the German Marshall Fund in Washington. On his evening news show on Russia 1, the Kremlin’s chief propagandist, Dmitry Kiselyov, used this freely available information and the GMF logo to make me out to be a US-directed enemy of Russia.

Even discounting such smear campaigns, it is true that political advice today needs to do a better job of justifying and explaining itself. As the decisions made in Berlin become more important in Europe and the world, the pressure increases on those who make them to legitimize themselves.

German Belief System in Ruins

What’s more, Germany foreign policy no longer faces challenges only from its opponents, but also from its most important allies. Nothing has thrown this into sharper relief than the US government’s rejection of the most important achievement of German (and other countries’) diplomacy since reunification. The agreement over the Iranian nuclear program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was torpedoed last year by the same ally that helped negotiate it.

That is not merely a disagreement about substance or policy, as has often occurred between Berlin and Washington. The fight about the JCPOA is also about a basic premise of German foreign policy: that there can be diplomatic solutions for problems that cannot be solved at the national level (such as climate or trade questions); that one can achieve success with opponents and frenemies (Russia, China) for the benefit of non-participating third parties (Israel); that, in other words, win-win-win situations are possible.

The US government, under the banner of “America First,” is questioning this axiom of German diplomacy. And the end of the JCPOA is possibly only a harbinger of coming disruptions: in climate diplomacy and on free trade questions, serious fissures between the allies are already starting to appear. That is also true with regard to NATO, an even more existential question.

Decision-makers in Berlin are deeply shocked by all of this, and uncertainty about the consequences has also hit external advisers. That’s a good thing. But what should be done? Simply carrying on won’t work. What then? Break away from the powerful partner, strengthen one’s own capabilities? Even openly act against it? Try to bring it closer? Build an alliance against it? Develop workarounds with other allied powers that might compensate for the loss of the US (Alliance of Multilateralists)? Or do all of that at the same time?

Is the German government getting good advice on this existential strategic question? That’s a hard claim to make. The traditionally transatlantic-minded expert circle is Berlin is only slowly coming out of its shock-induced paralysis. After two years of constant attacks on NATO, free trade and every liberal principle, Trump is now being taken seriously as the result of structural change, and no longer trivialized as a “freak event” after which we can all return to the status quo.

As bitter as it is, it could actually be an opportunity that all three major schools of Germany foreign policy are staring at the rubble of their belief systems: the transatlanticists thanks to Trump, the Ostpolitikers thanks to Putin, and the European integrationists thanks to the European reality.

Passion and Inner Freedom

How to proceed? Two rather technical-bureaucratic proposals are making the rounds: Germany needs a national security council, and (or) it needs a council of foreign policy experts similar to the German Council of Economic Experts. Both might be helpful to some extent, in order to facilitate strategic communication between the government departments and between different levels of hierarchy. (However, in recent times the US example of a powerful NSC has not proved very encouraging.) In the future, Germany will have even more colorful, fragile coalition governments, which will divide up the ministries relevant to foreign policy. (And today, which ministries aren’t?) That makes reaching a consensus about “grand strategy” even more difficult. That doesn’t have to be a disadvantage in every respect, and could instead be chance for self-correction.

A pluralistic council of experts could bring strategic questions into the public consciousness, questions that cut across the borders of government departments: why climate change is a security challenge; how migration is related to our economic policy; that one has to understand digitalization as power politics, data as a resource, and social media as a weapon.

But new strategic structures alone will not answer the decisive questions. How does one avoid the self-reinforcement and path dependency that got the experts into this crisis? By suggesting the Turkey deal, an unknown mini think-tank with a small budget was able to change the policy course of the German government and help solve a European crisis. So it is possible, with passion and inner freedom.