Toward a New German Foreign Policy

August 23, 2021

The Engine Room: Rebooting Germany’s Foreign Policy Architecture

Berlin needs to improve its decision-making processes, and that means repairing its creaky foreign policy set-up—a contribution to the debate about a German National Security Council.

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An illustraion showing the German chancellery as a machine
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Eastern Ukraine, spring 2021: Every day, shelling across the Donbass contact line is intensifying, with artillery, mortars, and heavy machine guns all brought into action. According to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), there are up to 200 ceasefire violations a day. Ukrainian soldiers are killed on an almost daily basis. Then over 100,000 Russian soldiers are mobilized close to the border, the largest force since the war of 2014. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov threatens Kiev, saying a new military conflict “could destroy Ukraine.”

What if there were another invasion? What if Russian President Vladimir Putin attempted to intimidate a NATO member, like he did to Estonia and Latvia in 2017? Where can German decision-makers come together to synthesize individual tactical decisions with broader strategic goals? “I spent months asking German politicians these questions. I am still waiting for reassuring answers,” wrote Julianne Smith, currently US ambassador-designate to NATO. There is no well-established process for this kind of decision-making in the German capital: “Everyone will just be calling and texting each other,” says one experienced diplomat.

The German government has a well-oiled crisis management system for repatriating German tourists from overseas; the administrative apparatus can handle this. In a clear-cut alliance defense scenario, NATO’s joint command structures take over. But political warfare is something else again, a gray zone where time is very much of the essence, even if armored divisions are not rolling across the borders of a NATO country. And it is no longer enough to simply wait for Washington to show leadership. Increasingly, Germany’s closest partners are looking directly to Berlin. They cannot wait for unanimous agreement about who gets to participate in an impromptu meeting.

Berlin, summer 2017: The UN peacekeeping operation in Mali sustains 42 casualties in a bid to give Malian politicians time to make compromises and improve living conditions in the far north of the country. A helicopter accident kills another two German soldiers. Meanwhile, in Berlin, the foreign ministry and the development ministry have been squabbling for months over financing a road in northern Mali. Time bought with blood is wasted in jurisdictional disputes.

Berlin, autumn 2018: Germany’s network regulator is auctioning off 5G frequencies. The aim is to ensure good cell coverage and raise maximum revenue for the treasury. European business interests in the success of Nokia and Ericsson play no role in the decision-making process, nor do security concerns about low-cost Chinese providers, long a subject of heated debate in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand by this time. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision is based on years of being fed analysis by individual departments, rather than a comprehensive inter-ministerial picture. The economy ministry does not think in European terms; the interior ministry’s intervention comes too late, and it comes from a place in which Merkel does not place much trust.

Today, Berlin and Brussels have woken up to the crucial issues at stake with 5G. Mobile networks are being treated as a critical infrastructure. But will the bureaucratic machine sleep through other crucial issues in the future? How many times do we have to observe years of squabbling over who gets to call the shots on new “emerging issues”, instead of all relevant perspectives from across the federal government – security, economic, technology, or climate change – being pulled together into common, forward-looking analyses and decision-making options? How many more crises will see human lives squandered due to friction within Germany’s foreign policy apparatus, as in Mali?

Incentives Lacking

The German government’s foreign policy architecture lacks incentives for decision-making and forward-looking analysis from multiple perspectives. As a result, Berlin often acts too late and incoherently. To address this problem, experts and politicians call for a reform of the policy architecture—the buzzword is to set up a “National Security Council”. A more unified leadership structure is expected to lead to faster and better decisions.

Whether the challenge at hand is a crisis in eastern Ukraine, long-term 5G technology policy, or urgent stabilization in Mali: even on issues where the coalition partners agree internally, within and among the political parties, there is simply too much machinery clogging up the process.  No reform will ever provide a magical solution for the issues on which they do not agree. Institutional structures, however, can shape incentives and make it easier to translate the governing coalition’s shared political will into coherent action.

If anything changes in this regard will depend above all on who becomes chancellor following September’s federal election. Armin Laschet, the Christian Democrat candidate, and Annalena Baerbock, his rival from the Green Party, both say they want to coordinate international issues more strongly out of the chancellery. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democrat candidate, is regarded as more of a skeptic on the issue. But even if Laschet or Baerbock becomes the head of government, reform in this area will only happen if smaller coalition partners find it worthwhile to sign up to a change. A serious proposal from the winning side would show that the new chancellor is serious about their promises to “create a security architecture that enables better coordination and forward-looking strategic approaches, [since] a reactive approach to crises is not sufficient.” These words are from the Christian Democrat election program, but could easily also come from the Green Party.

The main cause of deadlocks within Germany’s foreign policy architecture comes from a combination of coalition government and ministerial vetoes. Deadlock often originates with major disputes over coalition policy, but filter down, having a profound effect on the obscure detail of policy dossiers. As a result, even permanent deadlock can provide useful political payoffs for individual coalition partners.

From a game theoretical perspective, the best solution in this context is always a draw. A package deal that would satisfy all veto-wielding players usually comes at too high a political price: everyone involved would have to sell painful compromises to their own supporters, for example in terms of “nuclear sharing,” or the role of military force in crisis management. Vetoing a decision is a much more attractive option, because everyone can present themselves as having heroically prevented the other side’s victory. But this only works because the political consequences of delayed decisions and lazy compromises are not clearly assigned to any one of the actors involved, and thus no one is held to account.

In the case of major political conflict issues, temporary deadlock can be a democratic solution. In such cases, the next election is the only way to resolve it, which poses increasing difficulties in a six-party system. However, there are far too many issues that lend themselves to being used for a tactical deadlock, despite not being particularly controversial. The veto power vested in each ministry gives every bloc of interests—lobbies within political parties on obscure topics, even individual heads of units and divisions in ministries—the opportunity to use blocking actions to apply pressure to other actors. In this way, they can win advantages for their preferred issues and their own budgets.

This situation has given rise to dozens of operational disputes of no interest to coalition leaders or the average party member, but which do interest specialist politicians, and which have made government work needlessly difficult for years and even decades. The Mali example cited above is one of these. Thanks to this incentivization of blocking tactics, state secretaries and directors-general waste thousands of hours every year in ceasefire negotiations. If this wasted time could be halved, how much more effectively would Berlin’s policy apparatus get a new coalition’s foreign policy consensus “up and running”?

Has the Danger Been Recognized?

The Christian Democrats and the Greens each claim to have recognized the costs of such deadlock. The CDU election manifesto says it wants to create a “security architecture that enables better coordination and a forward-looking strategic approach.” For their part, the Greens want to “align all policy areas in Germany with the [global socio-ecological] transformation, and establish a national council for peace, sustainability, and human rights, so as to enable coherent strategic action across all ministries and political areas.”

Whether conceived narrowly or broadly, limited to the executive branch or linked to parliament, civil society, and European institutions, the main engine for change will always be the chancellor taking the lead in international affairs, as they always have in domestic policy. In the German system, the chancellor’s role offers informal resources of power, resources which Angela Merkel deliberately did not use. This meant that responsibility for many tricky issues was conveniently diffused between individual ministers and parliament, with well-known downsides.

If we are to take Laschet and Baerbock serious on this issue, they want to change this. They already have the key instrument of power in their own hands. Simply by exercising leadership, a chancellor can counter existing incentives for deadlock with stronger incentives to take decisions. The manifesto statements cited above represent the first steps in this direction; expectations in the media and public opinion will create further pressure for progress. These early signals can be made concrete by institutional changes, a different approach to the coalition agreement, and the new government’s early policy moves.

Trust and the Chancellor’s Power

Within the institutional structure, the new government will have to implement the chancellor’s new leadership function in practical terms, while making sure not to unnecessarily tread on the toes of smaller coalition partners and their ministers. Bearing this in mind, what is needed is a senior position with the responsibility and the capacity to adjudicate foreign policy conflicts among the coalition partners, resolve bureaucratic disputes, and ensure the implementation of decisions by leveraging the chancellor’s capacity—so far rarely used—to seize hold of any political issue with a statement, a phone call, an appointment, or a personal visit by the chancellor or their closest advisers. In this way, a chancellor can boost or undermine the responsible ministers in the eyes of the public, of their parliamentary party, or of foreign partners.

To do this will require a figure with more influence and more bureaucratic support than the chancellery’s foreign and security policy advisors have held so far. In return, the chancellor must credibly promise coalition partners that they will never abuse these increased powers of reward and sanction for their own party-political interests. Instead, they must emphasize that new powers will be used to implement shared priorities and provide support for all ministries, including those with ministers from smaller coalition partners. This might include—like a kind of political “bad bank”—assuming responsibility for issues that no minister wants to be identified with.

A political “National Security Advisor” with ministerial rank would be too partisan to play this role effectively. To boost the existing Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat) would bring a double disadvantage: its current secretariat is stacked with defense ministry personnel, and its name hints at a narrow idea of security that not every coalition partner identifies with.

A New Cabinet Committee?

However, there is another option—to create a new cabinet committee for European foreign policy, whose subordinate system of working groups would absorb the existing Security Council along with new mechanisms for coordinating a transformational climate policy. The committee would carry a firmly European perspective in its name to be applied to any issue, regardless of whether it is primarily handled in Brussels or inter-governmentally between capitals. Membership in this pyramid of working groups serving the cabinet committee, from ministers at the top to desk officers at the working level, could be defined in an issue-specific manner. A new round of Russian saber-rattling would require only a small group; political strategy in Mali would require more, including development and climate expertise; data infrastructure issues would demand another set of participants. But in each case, non-participants would not be able to block progress.

At the top of the hierarchy would be the chancellor. A person trusted by all coalition partners would be appointed to lead the preparatory meetings of state secretaries along with the secretariat that would include the coordinators for the various working bodies. This person would be able to devote themselves entirely to international coordination on a day-to-day basis. They would need the chancellor’s backing to face down bureaucratic opposition in ministries, while not stealing the limelight from the ministers in question—except when asked to by those ministers themselves, or on rare occasions in the implementation of joint resolutions. A top civil servant, appointed with the mutual agreement of the coalition partners, would be best suited for this role. The concept could build on the “Steinmeier model,” referring to the period in the first eight months of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s administration when Frank-Walter Steinmeier, now federal president, served as state secretary under chancellery minister Bodo Hombach.

However, the quantity of day-to-day management tasks within such a revamped system of inter-ministerial bodies would overwhelm the chancellery as currently set up. Additional staff would need to be assigned from the foreign office, the ministry where international processes converge, and whose minister is the only one to be involved in every foreign policy issue. At the same time, other ministries must also provide staff, and they must be given influence. This would additionally give the chancellery a critical mass of financial, economic, environmental, and institutional expertise, including direct lines to the relevant ministries.

The broader the basic foreign policy consensus among coalition partners, the smoother the day-to-day policy process. This would also put Berlin in a position to make greater contributions to shared interests with key partners. In turn, this would give Germany more influence in difficult negotiations on climate goals and regulatory conflicts. For this reason, it would be worthwhile, early in the life of the coalition, to clear away as many existing bureaucratic disputes as possible, and to establish principles for dealing with new crises and for jointly mapping emerging issues.

Not all of this has to be the subject of immediate negotiation. Anything omitted from the coalition agreement—for example because coalition partners require internal party debates on a topic—can be presented as part of a new integrated foreign and security policy white paper at the end of the first year of government. Success in this effort would be in the interests of everyone who benefits from less frustration about blocked German foreign policy in Paris, Washington, or Warsaw.

No One Needs to Be Disempowered

Coalition conflicts will not vanish overnight because of innovations in foreign policy architecture. Structures will not prevent politicians from making catastrophic strategic mistakes: this is a lesson taught by the very recent history of the United States. However, the new German government must manage to bring all relevant decision-making perspectives to the table at an early stage, including scenario analysis and contingency planning. It must also begin to make decisions on “smaller” issues with more coherence and less friction.  

If and when a new Russian troop deployment takes place, Berlin must have well-established processes of how and when to collectively make decisions. A rapid, pragmatic division of labor is essential in crisis prevention and stabilization. In the context of future technologies, security must have as large a role as sustainability.

A thought experiment along these lines suggests that concerns about loss of influence—for example, in the foreign office, or among smaller coalition partners—can be countered with offers of tangible empowerment: for these ministries to deploy more of their own people to the chancellery, and for coalition partners to gain real decision-making power over the appointment of the key senior civil servant to manage the new European foreign policy committee and its secretariat. It would be a first for a decision about senior staff in the chancellery no longer to be at the sole discretion of the chancellor. This would ensure that the core projects and red lines of all partners could be respected. The foreign office would benefit from the fact that the chancellery’s need for new personnel would increase pressure to fill huge gaps in senior civil service staffing, and rapidly develop the culture and competencies required for a “networked foreign policy”.

The executive branch structure outlined here could also serve as an anchor point connecting the federal government with the federal states, parliament, Brussels, and civil society. As a basic starting point, the secretariat will be operational and reactive, and thus inevitably short-sighted. It needs additional mechanisms for strategic foresight and early warning implanted on both the working and decision-making levels, just to name the most urgent and important additions.

However, the decisive element remains the next chancellor’s political will. Will they be satisfied with the dilapidated machinery inherited from the previous government? Wouldn’t it be better to minimize frustration among Germany’s closest partners, while generating political capital to achieve the coalition’s political goals? On foreign policy, maybe it’s time to switch from inefficient diesel engines to better, more modern hybrid technologies.

Philipp Rotmann is associate director of the Global Public Policy Institute (GPPi) in Berlin.

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