From Iran to North Korea, German policymakers are at a loss

Postwar German foreign policy is based on cooperation, rules and trust, not power, interest and threat. But with crises from Iran to North Korea likely to be play out the old-fashioned way, that approach looks naive.

Looking at the world today, German policymakers keenly, and proudly, feel their European-ness. In European affairs, such instincts may rank behind Berlin’s national interests and suspicions about hidden agendas in Brussels, Paris or Rome. But on the global stage, German leaders see themselves and their European peers as the last to stand for multilateralism, a rules-based order and a notion of sovereignty that is tamed by treaties and international organizations. Europe, in this view, is about positive-sum thinking in a zero-sum world.

But the Germans are also plagued by self-doubt – doubt about their ability to uphold regimes that have been conducive to European preferences and policy styles. In tomorrow’s world, they worry, their skillfully crafted tower of Brussels may be nothing but a theme-park, a destination for political tourists eager to gaze at a fantasy of politics without hard power and national interests.

The current crises over Iran and North Korea illustrate this European and German dilemma. Both crises cast doubt on European presumptions. Both could be decided by fire and fury, rather than the usual European gloss of political incentives and economic opportunities.


Germans, like most of their European partners, have no clue what to do.

Since the 1990s, the Germans  along with the French and the British, and supported by the small foreign-policy machinery of Brussels – have maintained what they called a “critical dialogue” with Iran. These so-called EU-3 patiently waited for a good moment to engage both the US and Iran to achieve a breakthrough. Iran agreed to stop its military nuclear program while keeping a civilian nuclear option. In return, the Europeans and Americans agreed to recognize the desire for status and security of the Islamic Republic and to ease sanctions.

The Europeans were, and are, hoping that Iran will not want to walk away from such a deal after the long stand-off, because Tehran will be too busy building the most dynamic economy in the Gulf. But the Americans have been skeptical about the deal, with all its post-modern sophistication, from the start. Even the Obama administration didn’t fully endorse the deal’s logic in the face of so much opposition — from Congress, lobbies or allies such as the Saudis and the Israelis.

The Iran deal always contained several unknowns. But policymakers in Berlin, Paris, London and Brussels were willing to accept these risks to avoid a bigger one: that of a military strike against Iran. They underestimated the domestic struggles in Iran and overestimated the capacity of the reformers around President Rohani.

The Europeans now find themselves at a loss in the geopolitical struggle between Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey that emerged from the ruins of Iraq and Syria. This regional cleavage is a new layer under the global power struggle between Russia, the United States, and China. Thus old-fashioned power politics has returned to the 21st century. And Germans, like most of their European partners, have no clue what to do.

The US has now in effect abandoned the agreement with Iran, written a blank check on Israel’s one-state policy, and sided with Saudi Arabia. Germans find all three positions dangerous because they could escalate conflict in the Middle East. The Iranians themselves have lost patience and are taking to the streets.

With their normative mindset, Germans should be supporting the Iranian people in their cry for reform. But German leaders fear that the Iranian hardliners might seize the protests as an opportunity to strike back against Rohani, to close ranks against the outside world, and to double down on their theocracy. This development would culminate in the Ayahtollahs calling the nuclear deal off. If this happens, Trump gets the Iran he likes to imagine, and Europeans will be proven embarrassingly wrong. Hobbes will have prevailed over Monnet.

Berlin remains convinced that dialogue of the sort that led to a deal in Iran is also the right path on the Korean peninsula.





German policymakers are in a similar bind in the North Korean crisis. Berlin remains convinced that dialogue of the sort that led to a deal in Iran is also the right path on the Korean peninsula. But Kim Jong-un is observing developments in the Middle East, and has concluded that compromise has given Iran neither security nor recognition, nor economic boons.

China cares not a hoot about European-style order and regime-building, and instead scours the peninsula for opportunities to grow its own power. It also looks further afield. As soon as relations deteriorated between the US and Pakistan, Beijing was calling Islamabad.

The US, with its brinkmanship in posing as the defender of East Asia, is instead risking its traditional leadership in that region. If North Korea goes all the way and becomes an ensconced nuclear power with the ability to strike the US mainland, the US will be trapped in its own logic, and forced to go to war. Its defensive treaties with Japan and South Korea may unravel.

German policymakers are well aware of the growing rivalry between the US and China. Berlin expects Trump to act against China eventually, in the context of either trade or North Korea or both. This conflict would pose great risks to Europe’s economic and political interests. Germany fears the ultimate lose-lose scenario: being forced to decide between the US and China.

Since 1949, German policymakers, with their own country’s violent history in mind, have avowed that might does not make right. They have placed all their hopes and bets on the supremacy of international law and cooperation over national interest and naked power. The atavism of today’s crises and rivalries has shown that worldview to be untenable, even naive. Berlin needs a new foreign policy. This time, Europe can’t answer for Germany, but the German answer has to include Europe.

The article was first published by Handelsblatt Global on 10 January 2018. 

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

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