A more democratic foreign policy

With the refugee crisis bringing foreign policy to Germany’s domestic sphere, the time is ripe for Berlin to encourage greater public engagement in foreign policy.

Also available in

The 2014 Foreign Policy Review of the German Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt) resonated beyond Berlin in the European and international think-tank community. Over the course of a year the ministry reached out for fresh ideas on Germany’s role in the world, the changing global environment, and the resources and partnerships of its foreign policy. The review also drew on views from the wider public at a range of events across the whole of Germany. As a result of the review’s findings, the ministry decided to strengthen its strategic capabilities and adopted a number of organisational changes. Another, and so far largely overlooked point of action arising out of the report published in February 2015, concerns the German people themselves and how they interact with German foreign policy.

When presenting the results of the review earlier this year, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced that his ministry was planning “a more open and expanding foreign policy communication in Germany. “The German public seems to be interested in discussing foreign policy,” Steinmeier said, and “this is why we also want to speak more about foreign policy, responsibility and the limits of responsibility in Germany in the future.”

Perhaps this sounds like a rather lofty claim and a rehashing of the usual political discourses. “Bringing the people in” is a slogan that generally goes down well, and that usually carries little risk for foreign policy makers. Foreign policy hardly ever matters in elections, but when it does, it can be a game-changer (as demonstrated by Gerhard Schröder who won the 2002 federal elections off the back of his “no” to the Iraq war).


Democratising Foreign Policy

Is the foreign ministry really serious about engaging in a more democratic foreign policy? There is certainly continued interest in such a development, but it is also clear that the issue is about more than having diplomats engage in foreign policy panel discussions. Ultimately, the goal is to have Germans talk foreign policy just as they would about domestic affairs. There have been many discussions about what changes would be needed to make this a reality. Amongst the outcomes: a strengthening of the strategic community; both wider and deeper expertise in parliament, the administration, think-tanks and at universities; and media that reports more on foreign policy rather than foreign lands, to name only some of the recommendations raised over the past few years.

These debates have been held for good reason and have already shown a degree of impact on the foreign policy discourse. And there have been a number of foreign policy related events that actually did bring the Germans in, and that became defining moments for Germany’s foreign policy identity. Germany’s military engagements in the Western Balkans and in Afghanistan were times of painful learning for policymakers, the armed forces, and for the German public. Now, with the ongoing refugee crisis, there is yet another defining moment that pushes us to widen the lens beyond our own country’s borders.


Foreign Policy as Domestic Policy

These days, Germans are clearly feeling the link between what concerns them at home with what they see on the news, particularly in the Middle East. Every day, thousands of refugees looking for a better life make their way to all parts of Germany. While many Germans are ready to help and accommodate the needs of the newcomers, Germans have started to ask how many will ultimately be coming? With by far the largest numbers arriving from war-torn Syria, it is clear that the answer to this question lies in a solution to the conflict in this part of the world.

Engaging in public discussion about the link between Germany’s role in ending the war in Syria and managing the refugee situation at home will pay off in the medium to long term, because it can help create a permissive consensus among Germans about the need for a more active foreign, security and defense policy. A country at the heart of Europe, whose economy is dependent on global ambition, and that actively encourages working together with partners in the EU and multilateral organisations, needs a people that have an open mindset about Germany’s place in Europe, and the world.

Only a few weeks ago, almost a quarter of a million people took to the streets in Berlin to challenge the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Many of them with strong arguments that made policymakers scratch their heads. What if TTIP fails because parliaments, responding to the growing pressure from their electorates across Europe, deliver it the kiss of death? What if the German government had been more proactive about addressing the costs and benefits of TTIP well ahead of the negotiations led by the European Commission, and beyond limited circles of stakeholders in Germany? There is reason to believe that this might have prevented the massive locking-of-horns on this issue that is happening now. People want to have their say about the “big things” that concern them, which is a simple truth for both domestic and foreign policy (the borders of which are becoming increasingly blurred).


Engaging the public

Getting the message out to the public, explaining, and allowing for controversy on policy choices does ultimately pay off, as citizens start to feel that in many ways, European and foreign policy is not about something distant, but about the way they live in their own country. And just as with any other policy, it is about building majorities of consensus, engaging in compromise, and often making difficult decisions. Included in such a conversation, citizens might perhaps find even the most difficult questions of war and peace, including the deployment of German troops, are more acceptable.

It is important to ask whether such an attempt to democratise foreign policy will make Germans want to see their country play a stronger role with a pro-active foreign and security policy, and a defense policy if needed? Will Germans turn their back on the idea of a “big Switzerland”? There is a long way to go, butwith the refugee crisis bringing foreign policy to Germany’s domestic sphere, the time is ripe for Berlin to push public engagement in foreign policy further.

Clearly, this is a task that cannot be achieved by the German government alone. Those who want Germany to play a stronger role in foreign and security policy will themselves have to demonstrate a desire to bring the German people into the conversation. In the medium to long term, this will widen the room for any elected government in Berlin to manoeuver. Those European and international partners tired of German policy-makers and legislators pointing out their country’s limited scope of action “because the Germans don’t want it” will have to embrace such an approach. And all those interested in a strong and Europeanised German foreign policy will have to amplify the European messages in any such outreach.

Following up on the 2014 foreign policy review, it is time to make the German government accountable for the message of a more democratic foreign policy and make sure this aim is not lost on the way, as German diplomacy returns to its usual daily business. No doubt, bringing the people in will influence policy outcomes, sometimes in ways that won’t make governments happy. But ultimately, it will make German foreign policy stronger – which is not only in the interest of Germany, but also of its partners in the European Union.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Head, ECFR Berlin
Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.