Note to Berlin: Power and responsibility in foreign policy

If Germany is to take on the mantle of international leadership, it must prepare itself for the challenges and the responsibilities

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Paris often underestimates the recent evolutions in German foreign policy. Berlin has come a long way from the time when “no-one – neither abroad nor within Germany – wanted [Germany] to play a strong international role”, in the words of President Joachim Gauck. Its evolution began even before the end of the Cold War. In particular, the “Ostpolitik” – West Germany’s policy of outreach to East Germany and other Soviet countries – showed that the country could and should pursue its own foreign policy objectives.

The most visible aspect of this evolution is defence. Germany’s military capabilities may still have significant weaknesses and limitations, but its leadership has pushed ahead. German forces have deployed overseas in Kosovo and in Afghanistan; in the Middle East, in the maritime component of the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon; in Iraq, to fight Islamic State (ISIS) outside any collective security institution; and ground forces have re-engaged under blue helmets in Mali, one of the most sensitive theatres for United Nations peacekeeping.

And that is just the military side. Whether it is its joint leadership with France on Ukraine, its role in the E3+3 negotiations (alongside France, the UK, China, Russia and the US) to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear programme, or its decision to handle the refugee crisis as a foreign policy challenge, Germany is also proving more assertive. Berlin discusses its interests more openly and adopts a more pragmatic approach than before, making a case for the distinction between realism and cynicism.

Still, this evolution is not a given, and remains subject to a major democratic and political debate. The Foreign Ministry “Review 2014” and the discussion about defence modernisation are cases in point, showing not only that Berlin’s acceptance on the global stage is not self-evident for Germans, but also that the content of this renewed foreign policy remains open for discussion.

The debate about Germany’s assertiveness in foreign policy, its contribution to international and European security, and its reassessment of the post-Cold War “peace dividend” is also of major significance because of the current European environment. Europe’s role on the international stage is no longer a given. Partners do not consider that we deserve a seat at the table on principle. And several European powers seem to agree, indulging in navel gazing, giving in to “foreign policy fatigue”, or simply turning to isolationism. Even those who used to herald European foreign and defence policy seem to believe that the results are no longer worth the effort. If further evidence of the link between external action and political integration was needed, the current situation makes it clear.

The stakes are high in the current discussion on German foreign and defence policy, both for Germany and for Europe. Berlin has many reasons to conclude that being active on economics, but less so on difficult topics of foreign policy, does not make its (external and internal) economic might more acceptable or more effective. One does not need to espouse a threat-driven vision of the world to acknowledge that potential disruptions, threats and challenges make Europe’s economy dependant upon Europe’s foreign policy effectiveness. The refugee crisis is only the latest reminder that we cannot afford to disregard a crisis of the magnitude of Syria, nor to let others try to settle it instead of defending our own interests. Eventually, Europe more that anyone else has an interest in a rules-based world order based upon international cooperation, the provision of global common goods, and human rights, and such an order will not happen without Europe contributing decisively to it.

However, settling the domestic discussion in favour of a more assertive foreign policy would only be the beginning. Recent events give a few examples of the challenges that would remain.

  • Being assertive and strategic is not enough, as Germany may realise with the refugee crisis. Leadership needs followers, or it runs the risk of being ineffective.
  • Being strategic is more difficult than merely responding to events. When Germany pushed for a EU summit with Turkey in order to find a way forward on the refugee crisis, it was France that insisted that the discussions needed to be comprehensive, including exchanges on Syria.
  • Even President Gauck has acknowledged that Berlin is sometime perceived as “the shirker in the international community”. Insisting on the need for a compelling political strategy or a convincing exit strategy before making any decision is wise – unless the situation does not allow for it. Foreign policy is unfortunately an area where you sometimes have to put the cart before the horse (though you still need the horse). Conversely, taking initiatives and seizing leadership – as Germany did with France on Ukraine – creates responsibilities to follow up and to adjust strategy.
  • Foreign policy cannot and should not consist of opposing military action to diplomacy. Germany’s preference for a mediator or arbitrator position is understandable, but is not adapted to the current international environment. Europe has its own interests to promote and protect, as recent terrorist attacks show. And even where it acts as a facilitator, it finds that mediation is rarely a self-sufficient strategy. Most threats and challenges call for simultaneous coercive, diplomatic, and civilian measures, as exemplified by the Ukraine crisis.

Foreign policy in general, and international leadership in particular, comes with imperfections and costs, and sometime with frustration and loneliness. Germany has to prepare for this, and its partners – with France at the forefront – should ensure that as Berlin moves towards a stronger foreign policy, they facilitate support for it both domestically and internationally.

Europe needs to recognise how far Germany has come. Whether they traditionally refrained from a bolder European foreign policy or advocated for it, other member states will learn from the current discussions in Berlin, especially in the context of preparing a revised EU Global Strategy.

Germany itself should recognise that the remaining distance is not only about making the decision to build a stronger foreign policy:  making such a decision will only be the beginning. Germany like all Europe needs, not just to decide whether they want to carry weight on the international stage or not, but to confront all the difficulties and problems that come with this ambition. 

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 Paris
Senior Policy Fellow

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