Germany needs more leadership on foreign policy

The German people are ready for more international involvement, if the German government can make the case.

On 1 September, the Bundestag debated the federal government’s decision to supply arms to the autonomous Kurdish government in Northern Iraq to help fight back the “Islamic State”. Hardly anyone in German politics missed the link to the events of 75 years ago, when on 1 September 1939 the German navy shelled a Polish artillery post near Gdansk, setting off the Second World War. Chancellor Angela Merkel and everyone who responded to her in the debate made use of the memory of German aggression, whether to justify or to criticise the current policy.

Even decades after the end of the war, trying to generate the will to share responsibility in international affairs still ends up in basic and fundamental arguments among Germany policymakers. Policy discourse in Germany is only gradually maturing to an understanding that critical foreign policy choices involve both uncertainties and potential future dangers – but that even though these choices may have unintended consequences, they cannot be avoided.

The majority of Germans remain critical of military involvement.

Trying to align their arguments with public opinion does not help policymakers much. A study commissioned by the German Körber Foundation earlier in 2014 showed that 51 percent of Germans favour pursuing international peace and two-thirds see the protection of human rights as a central goal of German foreign policy. But even so, the majority of Germans remain critical of military involvement: 82 percent want to see the Bundeswehr take fewer military missions. An equal number favour exporting fewer arms – a remarkably high number in a country that has over the past decade become the third-largest supplier of weapons to the world, after the United States and Russia.

The data on scenarios in which a large majority of Germans would approve of sending German troops abroad is even more contradictory. In the Körber study, 87 percent said that they would support external missions to counter a direct threat to peace and security in Europe, while 85 percent approve of humanitarian missions to secure the supply of aid to local populations. Eighty-two percent would support a mission to prevent genocide, 77 percent would support military action to stop the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and 74 percent agree that Germany should participate in internationally-agreed peacekeeping missions.

But this approval of action in principle seems to change when real-world crises are in question. Recent polls show that 60 percent of Germans disapprove of supplying weapons to the Kurds in Iraq. Sixty-nine percent want Germany to stay out of the conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. And while 80 percent see Russia as primarily responsible for events in East Ukraine, only 49 percent advocate tougher sanctions in the face of potential negative effects for the German economy.

Germans want to be led responsibly, rather than to lead their leaders in calling for more responsibility.

Germany needs strong leadership if these inconsistencies in public opinion are to be bridged. Among the German people, there is clear but diffuse support for greater engagement, and Germans are undoubtedly sensitive to threats and troublemakers in international affairs. But whenever specific choices are presented, the public is reluctant to get involved. Evidently, Germans want to be led responsibly, rather than to lead their leaders in calling for more responsibility. Germans seem ready to be convinced of the need for action if and when leaders dare to take steps to convince them. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s decision to launch a review process involving public and international participation is a step in that direction. This process could act as a public diplomacy tool to lay the groundwork for tougher foreign policy debates.

In this context, the Grand Coalition’s decision to supply weapons to the Kurds breaks with the usual determination of German foreign policymakers to avoid making or debating this kind of decision. At first, the government did not plan to have a parliamentary debate, probably for fear of political repercussions that would further restrict executive powers. But after days of public debate and heavy media attention, members of parliament were called back from summer recess for a special session of the Bundestag.

In spite of that reversal and the debate that followed, key actors were clearly reluctant to speak about the risks involved or to explain why the policy should be pursued even in the face of the risks. This points up a challenge for German politics. Leaders must engage publicly in strategic reasoning about foreign policy choices. They must try to build a constituency for more international engagement. And they must stop running away from debate by pointing to alliance obligations or by saying that there are no alternatives to their preferred course of action.

In part by Berlin’s own doing, the EU’s ability to act internationally largely depends on the will and the capabilities of member states to respond to crises.

Germany must meet this challenge if it is to safeguard its interests in Europe and on the world stage. The German political elite would have preferred to translocate foreign policy choices by strengthening the institutions of the European Union. But this option now seems unavailable. Rather, in part by Berlin’s own doing, the EU’s ability to act internationally largely depends on the will and the capabilities of member states to respond to crises. Steinmeier’s approach to the Ukraine conflict demonstrates that Berlin is accepting the consequences of the EU’s inability to take collective action. Today, it would not be possible for Germany to take an evasive position like the one it took on Libya, followed by a non-explanation of the reasons behind it.

Time and again, the mismatch between Germany’s towering role in the euro zone crisis and its reluctance to take part in the active defence of international norms and order has made it difficult for German policymakers to secure their preferences in European and international affairs. The gap between the two has raised the transaction costs of German foreign policy by negatively affecting other actors’ responsiveness to Germany’s leadership in the EU. For this reason, Germany must review and renew its foreign policy strategy.

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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