Germany’s summer of discontent on foreign policy

Germany prefers co-operation to conflict, but with its five special relationships each facing bad weather, it needs to think about new ways to conduct foreign policy.

In a different era, Robert Kagan provoked the transatlantic policy community by using the analogy of Venus and Mars to describe the mental split across the Atlantic on attitudes to conflict. A similar divide appears to exist on dealing with opportunity and risk in foreign policy. Some actors grow stronger when they perceive risk. Others depend on a positive-sum environment to exercise power and seem to be almost paralysed in the face of adverse conditions.

Among the major players in Western foreign policy, Germany is perhaps the one that best fits the latter category of a “sunshine state”. Berlin’s foreign policy machine works best when it can support, encourage, help, or reward. It struggles when it has to employ dissuasion, sanctions, or red lines. Public attitudes in Germany, as well as the country’s foreign policy resources and tools, lend themselves to co-operation, not conflict. This may be the main obstacle to redefining Germany’s international role and responsibilities, as President Joachim Gauck called for in his speech at the Munich Security Conference in January.

All but one of the five special relationships in Germany’s foreign policy seem to be going sour

This summer, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier could hardly be described as a happy man. On many fronts, Germany’s search for co-operative climates has been frustrated. All but one of the five special relationships in Germany’s foreign policy seem to be going sour, thus limiting Germany’s ability to affect foreign policy outcomes.

Relations with the United States continue to be damaged by the erosion of trust among the German political class, which likely runs deeper even than the fall in German public support for the US. Leaving aside the Berlin speeches of Presidents John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama, the US has not attempted to influence the general public in Germany as much as it has schmoozed the policy elite. Now, German policymakers seem to be shocked by Washington-centred power politics and by the US’s instrumental or tactical approach in dealing with its key allies.

Germany’s relationship with France is strained by the German perception that France is unable or unwilling to tackle structural reforms at home. As a result, the traditional motor of European Union policy-shaping has stopped running. France is trapped in a supplicant role, seeking exemptions, extensions, and expenses to keep its head above water. German policymakers feel forced to reject or contain these demands. As things stand, no other member state is in a position to replace France in the duo. This means that the coalition-forming effect of Franco-German consensus has for the moment been lost.

Russia has never been a serious multiplier of Germany’s foreign policy, but its increasingly confrontational attitude is now becoming a real divisor. During the Cold War and beyond, the special relationship between Germany and Russia has been an asset whenever Moscow wanted to improve its position through co-operation. Germany was Russia’s preferred partner and point of contact. This increased Berlin’s relevance to the US and to Western powers. But in the current situation, this asset has become something of a liability. Moscow is defining the terms of the relationship, not Berlin.

The hard-line approach taken by the Israeli government is causing problems for German policymakers

In the Middle East, Germany is faced with an escalating conflict. Berlin feels Israel’s role in the conflict will only make the situation worse and will deepen the hostility of the Palestinians and of its Arab neighbours towards Israel. The German government is determined to stand by Israel as a matter of principle. However, the hard-line approach taken by the Israeli government is causing problems for German policymakers. Berlin would be prepared to shoulder a significant burden to broker an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, by helping Palestinians to achieve statehood under the two-state formula.

The only relationship not producing troubling signs is Germany’s relationship with China – which is in itself a remarkable turn of events. Even so, the state of relations with China is mostly defined by Beijing. The way the relationship will develop depends on how the Chinese leadership chooses to deal with China’s immense internal challenges and with the conflicts of interest in its neighbourhood. Some spill-over may be taking place from China’s deeper economic ties with Germany to political transformation, which for years Germany has carefully put forward in its dialogue with China over legal reform and the rule of law. But China’s leaders mostly take a utilitarian approach to their relations with Germany, seeking to adopt and integrate German technology in order to strengthen their own industrial base. At the same time, China’s growing assertiveness in East and South-East Asia should ring some alarm bells in Berlin. Territorial disputes and conflicting claims could easily escalate into regional conflicts. This would negatively affect the trade and investment relationship that Germany hopes to deepen.

The challenges Germany’s foreign policy actors face seem to contradict the overall situation of the country. Germany has a flourishing economy and a relatively high rate of employment; its fiscal policy is fairly sound; it is surrounded by friends and allies in the EU and NATO; it is regarded as a principal actor if not as the strongest power in the EU; and it is feeling good after its soccer team’s success in the World Cup in Brazil. The country is willing, even eager, to do good in a positive-sum milieu and yet it is constrained in many ways by zero-sum constellations. So far, much of the German debate about the country’s responsibilities in international affairs has focused on the issue of more active projection of military power abroad on humanitarian grounds or to protect global order. A glance at Germany’s principal relationships suggests that more thinking is needed on ways to navigate when the “sunshine state” finds itself facing bad weather. More options and robust tools will be needed to deal with adverse conditions.

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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