Idealpolitik or Realpolitik: Germany’s new old foreign policy debate

Germany’s obsessive debate between a value-based and an interest-based foreign policy has returned

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A feature of the ongoing search for Germany’s new lead role in European affairs is the seemingly endless debate about a value-based versus an interest-based foreign policy. Since the 1970s, two schools of thinking have clashed in political debates, policy circles and the academia. One argues that the foreign policy of Germany ought to project the country’s values and norms beyond its borders, the other maintains that foreign policy must put national interest first, seek to balance or tame opposing power and to control the externalities of conflict.

As long as Europe was divided, this dichotomy did not fully unfold; the terms of the East-West conflict seemed to have aligned the ideological and the pragmatic. After 1990, the situation changed for Germany, initially in favour of a value-based foreign policy. The constraints of bipolar order and the risk of nuclear war had been overcome and “Idealpolitik” could be lived out in East Central Europe. But now, with Eastern Europe falling behind, Russia confronting Europe, and the Arab Spring collapsing, the old divide among the two schools of thinking is back and more acute for German foreign policy than ever before.

Understandably, this discussion is not lead by the parties of the governing Grand Coalition, Christian Democrats (CDU) and Social Democrats (SPD). Their leadership focuses on the necessities of the day. However, in party ranks and parliamentary factions, divisions over values and interests in foreign policy are quite obvious. Among conservatives there is a significant minority advocating a much tougher line on Russia based on a “values first” approach. Among social democrats, this camp is smaller but with SPD members and MPs, a value-based critique has problems with support for authoritarian partners, such as Egypt under President Sisi, strong economic ties with China or arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

With the CDU and SDP constrained by the realities of government, the debate within opposition parties is more interesting, but more confusing.

The post-communist Die Linke grouping usually follows a strong values-first approach, opposes the arms trade in general and has voted against every decision regarding German military involvement. But on Ukraine/Russia the party has been split, with apologists for Putin’s policy putting the blame on a pushy and expansionist EU.

Alternative für Deutschland, formed as an anti-Euro party but which has gradually moved to the right of the conservatives, has echoed such views of Russia – and this could be one of the factors that splits the party before the 2017 general elections.

A real debate is taking place among the German Greens. Members and representatives of the Green party have been strong in their support for “Maidan-Ukraine” and for a tough line on Russia, and strong critics of the ‘Minsk approach’ of Chancellor Merkel. On the other hand, this camp struggles most with the question of how to reconcile value propositions with real world crises and their effects.

Under the headline “How to deal with authoritarian systems”, the 2015 Annual Conference on Foreign Policy of the Heinrich Böll Foundation, the political foundation affiliated with the Green party, was completely devoted to the value/interest divide. Deliberately, the foundation had invited also speakers from Germany, Europe, the US and Asia who would not necessarily share the prevailing views inside the party, thus turning the conference (which ECFR Berlin was partner of) into a high-level reflection format. The confrontation with geopolitical as well as normative thinkers from around the world sparked intense debate, both in the public panels and the expert round tables.

Some key lessons emerged from this remarkable conference, which could and should influence the German debate in coming months

Firstly, German and European foreign policy will be forced to live with power politics and authoritarian regimes. This will require a continuous weighing up of value-driven policies and realism, balancing strategies and incrementalism. Against this background and in the absence of strong US leadership, Germany will be less able to choose between values and interests, but will have to deliver on both.

Secondly, looking at the European neighbourhood in the East and South, Europe’s democracy agenda does not make a realistic blueprint of foreign policy. Here, a policy aimed at supporting a “better life” agenda seem to offer more prospect than current conditionality tied to liberal democracy.

Thirdly, European ‘liberal democratic’ values must be upheld within the EU, with concerns over the illiberal trends in some countries: the treatment of migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and – not least – in the way that solidarity is applied among EU member states. A credible, values-based foreign policy position requires a coherent and mutually shared notion of European values at home.

And finally, with regard to political realities abroad, German and European foreign policy will inevitably face integrity gaps when confronted with power struggles and crises. Controlling conflict and maintaining stability will require both Germany and Europe to interact and to engage with authoritarian regimes, even when they don’t like doing so. Europeans will need to significantly expand their capacity of conflict prevention and humanitarian assistance if they are to defend their ‘values’ in areas where open conflicts prevails.

For German policy makers these debates remind them of the importance of strengthening the coherence of the EU. Berlin will also have to communicate better how it sees the balance between values and interests, and where and when one will prevail over the other. With its European partners, Germany should lend additional support to those supportive of European values, while showing respect to the views and preferences of those less supportive. Links to pluralist groups need to be maintained wherever they exist, but Europeans also need to communicate with all sides early and steadily.

Unlike the 1990s, the expansion of pluralist democracy is not the driver of international relations, though it still guides political change in many places around the world. Unlike the 2000s, the belief in the formative power of the West has eroded substantially. The years ahead will further complicate international affairs and limit further the ability of Europeans to shape their environment.  For German foreign policy, there won’t be time left for debates in the abstract. For Berlin to lead, it has to come up with a strategy that is both realist and helps define the role and scope of European values.

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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