The swansong of Germany’s foreign policy president

Gauck’s commitment to bringing the German people into the conversation has helped to widen the space for a challenge to a stronger German role in European and international security.

Berlin is heading into an election year for both its heads of state and government. Elections to the Bundestag will be held in autumn next year, and earlier this week Federal President Joachim Gauck announced that he will not stand again for the presidency once his term ends next spring.

While the German system envisions a non-executive role for the head of state (similar to Italy, Poland, Bulgaria, Finland, and Portugal), the office has a strong tradition of providing guidance on major questions that concern German society. As president, Gauck has chosen to focus on an area that has met with a great deal of interest beyond the country’s borders: Germany’s role in international affairs.

In the policy community outside Germany, Gauck is perhaps best known for his speech “Germany’s role in the world: Reflections on responsibility, norms and alliances” at the Munich Security Conference in 2014. This speech, along with those by Foreign and Defence Ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Ursula von der Leyen, has become a point of reference in foreign policy circles. For many observers it marked the start of Berlin’s awakening as a stronger player in foreign and security policy, responding to expectations long articulated by its Western partners. Interestingly, Gauck first addressed this topic in a speech to the German people on reunification day in October 2013, a fact that has been largely overlooked.

“Our country is not an island. We should not cherish the illusion that we will be spared from political and economic, environmental and military conflicts if we do not contribute to solving them”, he argued, directly confronting the broadly pacifist attitude of the German public.

Gauck’s commitment to bringing the German people into the conversation has helped to widen the space for a challenge to a stronger German role in European and international security. He has also been active on foreign policy, perhaps not always to the liking of the foreign office and the chancellery of Angela Merkel. Indeed, by involving the German people in these issues he has taken on a role that Merkel in particular has often been hesitant to play.

It was Gauck who delivered a major speech on Germany’s refugee challenge to an international audience in Davos in January 2016. This was followed shortly after by a forum convening European voices on this divisive question at his residence in Berlin. That same month, Gauck visited Mali, where he met with German soldiers, while back home the government was considering extending its role there as part of the United Nations mission in the aftermath of the November terrorist attacks in Paris.

With less than a year left in office, what can we expect from a president who is passionate about Germany’s role in the world? In the time since his Munich speech, the security situation in and around Europe has changed dramatically: Russia’s annexation of Crimea – an open attack on the European security order – and the war in Ukraine; Syria, Libya, and the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels; and hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants looking for shelter in Germany, which has brought what used to be distant voices to the German people’s attention.

These developments have compelled the government to take on a more assertive role in security and defence policy, as I argued in a recent “Note from Berlin”. But what do the German people think? Since Munich, the gap between what is needed to keep German and European countries and societies safe and what public opinion in Germany is willing to support has probably widened, not shrunk. With foreign and security policy likely to loom large in the general elections – it won’t take much to remind us of the fragile situation in and around Europe – this tension may play out in spring and summer, after the president has left office.

But if Gauck is to leave a legacy that fulfils his hopes for a stronger German role in international affairs, then he must address this gap himself in the months ahead.  

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.