Germany’s Foreign Ministry reinvents itself

Steinmeier’s review process has come up with a range of prescriptions for the German foreign ministry, and the far-reaching reform envisioned could transform German diplomacy.

The yearlong review of German foreign policy launched by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier is now moving into its implementation phase. The exercise, aimed at reflecting on “what is wrong with German foreign policy and what needs to be changed?”, has gained much attention from experts and has also resonated with the wider public, not least because of its provocative key questions. The degree to which external input was sought, the interface to a wider audience by means of a designated website, and the many public meetings held in the second stage of the review were all unprecedented in diplomacy, at least in Germany.

The final report evidences the multiple insights gathered in the process. Germany’s foreign ministry presents itself as seriously reflecting on the country’s elevated role on the international stage. The government is determined to firmly anchor its policy within the framework of the European Union, but the will to lead and to shape international affairs is obvious in the themes and wording of the final report.

Germany’s foreign ministry presents itself as seriously reflecting on the country’s elevated role on the international stage.

In a speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington on 12 March, Steinmeier described Germany’s ambition to act as Europe’s “Chief Facilitating Officer”: “a ready convener, a responsible broker, forging an ambitious and unified response to the challenges we are facing.” Germany will perform this role in addressing the three crucial challenges identified in the review: crisis, order, and Europe. Steinmeier and his diplomats see international affairs in the period ahead as being dominated by crises, which will force Europe and the international community to respond more effectively and more thoroughly, and will necessitate the use of the full spectrum of foreign policy instruments. These crises are undermining the international order, and in Germany’s view, preserving this order is the cornerstone of Europe’s interest. Both of these elements – crisis response and building order – require strategic patience, as Steinmeier has emphasised many times in recent months.

Some ambiguity is evident with regard to Europe, the third key element of the new approach. It seems that framing Berlin’s role as “CFO” locates the Germany position as somewhat independent from the framework of the EU. However, the entire review report is permeated with a strong subtext that points to a positioning of German policy firmly in the political centre of the EU. Obviously, Berlin is also keen to communicate to its partners that Germany is the big member state of the union, and that it does not want or seek to distance itself from the community in any way.

In Germany’s view, preserving this order is the cornerstone of Europe’s interest.

The next stage of the review process will focus on strengthening instruments. Interestingly, the action plan developed by the foreign ministry says almost nothing about EU instruments, about what Germany wants the EU to become, and about which capabilities Europeans should strengthen or develop together. If a “positive and productive role for Germany in international politics exists only in and through Europe“, as the report restates, then German policymakers should certainly come up with some more concrete ideas as to how they can “enable Europe to benefit from our strength”.

Instead, the main focus of reforms over the next 18 months will be on the internal reorganisation of the foreign office and on its interaction with other German government ministries. On this, the internal agenda document is truly worth reading – not because everything in it is brand new (and how could it be?) but because it lists a number of interesting ideas and adaptions of practices from other, mostly non-governmental and business organisations. The action plan demonstrates a strong commitment to reform and a real ambition to build effectiveness. Unavoidably, this kind of task list of improvements and innovations sheds a bright light on the weaknesses and shortfalls that have been identified during the review of the foreign service of what is supposedly one of Europe’s better governed countries.

To put it bluntly, drawing out the converse argument from the measures outlined in the plan, the current service misrepresents the ethnic and cultural diversity of German society. Its practices involve too much unproductive routine and it underutilises the potential of the ministry and the embassies. Investment in professional and language skills is too low. The ministry’s internal communication is too hierarchical and it does not adequately develop leadership skills. It lacks a culture of feedback and of “strategic space”. It does not engage in enough forward thinking and scenario-building. Inter-ministerial cohesion is too weak; the office equipment is outdated; and external communication is old-fashioned.

To overcome these problems, the action plan prescribes a set of changes aimed at meeting seven key goals:

1.     To strengthen crisis response, more resources will be made available for prevention and post-conflict rebuilding. Among other changes, the present situation centre will be upgraded into a directorate general that has early-warning, mediation, and planning capabilities. It will liaise with other ministries, government agencies, and NGOs. Current structures will be enlarged and professionalised to create a centre for civil crisis missions.

2.     Resources and instruments will be pooled to strengthen order-building capacities. In particular, the regular inter-ministerial meetings at the level of state secretaries will be tasked with responding to the crisis of order, borrowing from the cluster approach of the European Commission for all RELEX commissioners.

3.     In order to deepen the European component of German foreign policy, the Europe directorate general will be given a bigger conceptual role. Other departments will designate an EU charge d’affaires and initiatives will be regularly assessed to judge their EU impact. The ministry will consider ways to implement better job rotation between Berlin and Brussels, a more systematic exchange with German diplomats in EU institutions, and more interactive meetings in Brussels so as to communicate the Berlin perspective and integrate views from partners.

4.     One chapter of the plan is devoted to enhancing strategic thinking and improving the foresight of German diplomats. To that end, routine tasks will be reviewed and trimmed, strategy sessions will be held to gather staff across vertical lines, and inter-departmental project teams, retreats, and forecasting techniques will be introduced.

5.     Internally, communications should become more regular and less hierarchical, for example, by using regular fish-bowl sessions. Externally, the ministry wants to become more digital, to make better use of social media, to continue public meeting formats (such as town-hall meetings and simulations), and to develop campaign capabilities to increase public awareness of key issues.

6.     The service at large should become more accessible to staff from other ministries and to stakeholders outside of government. Career planning should as a matter of course include regular secondment to international organisations, business, or NGOs. Networking, driven both by the foreign office in Berlin and the German missions abroad, will be prioritised so as to make more and better use of external expert knowledge. A German conference centre for international gatherings will be established, an advisory committee to the foreign minister will be appointed, and an interdisciplinary network of experts will be created. This network may take the form of a partnership with a German foundation such as Körber-Stiftung, which has already made an extensive contribution to the review process.

7.     Finally, the action plan calls for investment in human resources, strengthening leadership skills on all levels, establishing a feedback culture, increasing mentoring opportunities, and creating more career options for staff with high potential. More attention will be given to specialisation and to learning on the job. New instruments are envisioned to improve sharing of knowledge and ideas.

By the end of 2016, most of these steps should have been implemented, driven by project teams under the overall supervision of the two state secretaries in the foreign office, Markus Ederer and Stefan Steinlein. The scheme is ambitious, and quite a few of the modern HR and business organisation buzzwords will not necessarily be easy to take on board in what is likely Germany’s most tradition-minded federal ministry. On the other hand, through this publicly conducted review process, the ship has left the harbour for a new destination. Change is inevitable: neither crises nor challenges to order will disappear, and the EU will remain in dire need of leadership. In all likelihood, Frank-Walter Steinmeier has launched an evolution in diplomacy that could extend well beyond his term of office. And this sea change could spread into other areas of government or even the EU. German Minister of Defence Ursula von der Leyen, for one, seems eager to borrow from the review process for the White Paper process she has just launched.

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.