Feb 16, 2024

Five Illusions of German Foreign Policy

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has sparked some changes in German foreign and security policy. But on scores of issues that are in many cases fundamental, Berlin is finding it hard to abandon old certainties: five examples.

Bild: Annalena Baerbock mit Benjamin Netanjahu
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The Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022 shattered some basic tenets of German politics. Three days later, Chancellor Olaf Scholz said Russian President Vladimir Putin had triggered a watershed (“Zeitenwende”). Since then, there has been debate about whether Germany has drawn the right conclusions from this watershed. The main focus has been on Russia and defense policy.

But the discussion has been too narrowly focused. The brutal attack on Israel by Hamas on October 7, 2023 highlighted that there is a whole range of other positions in post-war German diplomacy that need to be fundamentally rethought because the world has changed dramatically. Here is an overview of five of these positions.

1. The Price of Solidarity with Israel

After the Hamas attack on October 7 which left more than 1,400 people dead, German policymakers very quickly decided to express their unreserved solidarity with the Jewish state. In line with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2008 statement that Israel’s security is part of Germany’s reason of state, Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sided closely with the Israeli government and emphasized that Israel had every right to defend itself against Hamas.

However, to an even greater extent than in the Russia-Ukraine conflict, German policymakers became aware that large parts of the world have a very different view of the Middle East conflict than Germany’s. This resulted in a real conflict of objectives which persists: the solidarity with Israel collides with a foreign policy goal that Scholz has declared to be strategically important during his term so far: courting the ascendant countries in the southern hemisphere.

There has been a historically rooted narrowing of German policy toward Israel for years. The unconditional support is understandable because of Germany’s responsibility for the Holocaust and the resulting self-imposed duty to defend Israel. It was also meant as proof that Germany had learned forever from the monstrosity of the mass murders of Jews in Europe.

But this stance meant that German foreign policy turned a blind eye: Israel’s continued settlement policy in the occupied territories and the creation of different legal standards in Israel proper and in the occupied Palestinian territories have been and continue to be criticized. But Israel could rely on Germany blocking any attempts within the EU to impose sanctions against it. 

Germany’s stance only changed to some extent following the controversial judicial reform by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nationalist-conservative government. In spring 2023, Scholz repeatedly emphasized that there was another reason besides the Holocaust why Germany stood by the Jewish state: Israel shared it values and was the only liberal democracy in the region. The implication was that this justification for German aid at least would be jeopardized if the government were to turn Israel into an authoritarian state.

However, the brutality of the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, 2023 put an end to any nuances in the debate about the right way to deal with Israel. Only when the US government imposed sanctions against radical Jewish settlers in light of the mounting death toll in the ongoing war in Gaza and the events in the West Bank did the German government take one step further: for the first time, it accepted possible EU sanctions in connection with the brutal actions of Jewish settlers in the West Bank against the Palestinian population. In addition, appeals to the Israeli government by Foreign Minister Baerbock in particular became ever more insistent.

“An offensive by the Israeli army on Rafah is a humanitarian catastrophe waiting to happen,” she wrote on X (formerly Twitter) on February 11. 

However, that hasn’t changed the fact that Germany is being accused of double standards by many developing and emerging countries. Germany in particular, they say, with its tendency to argue in legalistic terms and to admonish many other countries, is refusing to draw consequences when Israel violates international law. Because of the Holocaust, Arab states have always had a certain understanding for the Federal Republic’s support of Israel. After all, Germany has provided the Palestinians with a great deal of financial support in return.

But sympathetic views of German double standards are a thing of the past since Israel took tough military action in the Gaza Strip. One contributing factor is that Berlin’s argument that the Israeli government has an open ear for German concerns precisely because of its great solidarity no longer holds water: that is because Germany’s influence behind the scenes appears to be limited. Despite international warnings, Israeli attacks against Hamas in the Gaza Strip have not diminished in intensity and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians has not reached the levels required. Netanyahu made it publicly clear in January 2024 that he rejects the two-state solution explicitly demanded by the United States and Germany.

“Germany should be the very last country to withdraw its friendship and solidarity with Israel,” Joachim Gauck demanded in 2012 when he was German president. But despite all the necessary solidarity with Israel, the German government is now faced with the question of whether Germany has not contributed to the steadily receding likelihood of the two-state solution it has officially called for time and again. After all, successive Israeli governments have ensured with their settlement policy that more than 500,000 Jewish settlers now live in the occupied Palestinian territories.

This now raises at least three questions: how unconditional should German support for Israel actually be? Can the historical responsibility for Israel be completely separated from constitutional developments in the Jewish state? And taking a global view: what price is Germany prepared to pay for this special path?

2. The Belief in the Effectiveness of Sanctions

Precisely because the Germans have shied away from the use of military force for historical reasons, successive federal governments have always advocated economic sanctions in conflicts with other states. It may be logical for one of the world’s largest exporting nations to regard economic punishment as a powerful weapon. However, recent decades have shown that sanctions often have only very limited effect: they have neither prevented North Korea from building nuclear weapons nor Iran from producing long-range ballistic missiles.

A further factor that weakens the policy of sanctions is that it isn’t applied to large countries or has little impact on them. India and Pakistan, for example, did not have to fear any consequences because they have nuclear weapons. The case of Russia also illustrates the problem: Western sanctions against the nuclear power have still not achieved their goal, despite the German government’s assurances to the contrary. They were intended to prevent Russia from waging a long war against Ukraine and to empty Putin's war chest. However, it is now apparent that Russia's economy has by no means collapsed, and in fact is growing again.

This is because in the changed world of 2024, the western G7 and EU states are simply no longer dominant enough to determine the global direction. Russia may have to go without certain Western products but China, as the largest trading nation, stands ready to supply almost everything and to give the Russians the feeling that their country is not isolated despite having invaded a neighbor.

This is compounded by Russia’s apparently successful effort to circumvent sanctions. At least part of the sharply increased German exports to Central Asian countries are likely to be ending up in Russia. Like the other EU states, the German government is now faced with the question of whether it should also restrict its trading relationships with the Central Asian republics and Turkey in the wake of the collapse of economic ties with Russia.

Individual EU states have also ensured from the outset that the products they themselves need from Russia are not sanctioned; this still includes uranium today. And the Western boycott of Russian oil and gas is also largely ineffective because China and India have drastically increased their imports of raw materials from Russia since it invaded Ukraine.

To be sure, this does not mean that sanctions have no effect at all or are completely pointless. Russia does indeed have to forego some of its income because China and India, for example, only buy from Russia at a discount. But the belief that economic sanctions are a panacea against states that have fallen out of favor and are violating international law has now also waned in parts of the German government. In democracies, sanctions appear more to be a means of giving a shocked population the feeling that politicians are taking action, as in the case of Ukraine—especially when they are unwilling or unable to resort to more drastic measures.

3. The Naively Peaceful Germans

Although (West) Germany’s armed forces, the Bundeswehr, was founded by the Federal Republic of Germany as early as 1955, it was not until the 1980s that a discussion started about giving it a new role that was not exclusively focused on territorial defense in the event of a Soviet attack. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the era in which the economically reinvigorated Federal Republic was able to “buy its way out” of participating in military conflicts with a checkbook policy finally came to an end.

Western partners increasingly warned that the reference to the historical burden of the Nazi era could not be used forever as a justification for insisting on supposedly necessary military restraint and leaving other states to embark on dangerous military missions that were also in Germany's interests. Step by step, there was a “normalization” of German security policy, in which the Bundeswehr was deployed on foreign missions furnished at least with “robust” mandates. Today, Germany is supplying large amounts of weapons to the non-NATO country Ukraine and stationing soldiers in the Baltic states.

However, recent years have shown that Germany has still not made the mental leap of abandoning the hope of a “peace dividend” after the end of the Cold War. There is a lack of awareness or belief that military strength really does create security. For example, it took years for the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens to accept the procurement of armed drones.

It was only the Russian invasion of Ukraine that enabled Chancellor Scholz to push through a special credit line of €100 billion for the Bundeswehr in 2022, overcoming previous reservations from the left of the SPD, the Greens, and a Free Democratic Party (FDP) that was primarily concerned about debt—together with the conservative Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) for whom adequately equipping the Bundeswehr had not previously been a priority during their time in government until 2021. The permanent increase in the defense budget to the NATO countries’ voluntary commitment to spend two or more percent of economic output on defense is still subject to political debate, as the budget preparations for 2025 and the medium-term financial planning will show.

It was not until the Russian attack on Ukraine that German policymakers woke up from another deep sleep: they suddenly realized that an operational Bundeswehr also requires a large-scale, efficient arms industry. Until then, the public debate had tended to focus on limiting arms exports. In the academic world, a strict distinction was made between (good) civilian and (bad) military research. With Russia's attack on Ukraine, however, Europe is facing an existential challenge, as it did during the Cold War. The supposedly progressive German aversion to military matters seems rather naive today. 

And November 5, 2024 could trigger another shock with a Donald Trump victory in the US presidential election. The conceivable withdrawal of the US nuclear umbrella has already triggered a more intense debate on what has been a taboo for decades: should Germany participate in the Europeanization of French nuclear weapons, for example?

Added to that, there is a mental problem when it comes to the relationship with the German secret services. For a long time, there was a fundamental mistrust of the services, especially among the Greens and the FDP. Here, too, it was only the Russian attack and growing concerns about China that slowly brought about a change in mindset. The protective function of the intelligence services suddenly appears more important than the insistence on all-encompassing data protection or fears of supposed curbs on civil rights. Nevertheless, the Federal Intelligence Service and the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s foreign and domestic intelligence services respectively, are still a long way from having the clout, powers and, above all, public acceptance that other Western intelligence services possess - and that they should have in a watershed world.

4. The Fairy Tale of Unbreakable Friendships

For decades, German governments have relied on two unshakeable basic convictions: the US is Germany’s guarantor of security. The EU is the only way that Germany and its European neighbors can still be a power factor in the changed world of the 21st century and live in peace and prosperity. The basis for this is Franco-German friendship. After three terrible wars between the former “arch-enemies,” this is an understandable and correct attitude: France and the US are Germany’s strongest and most important partners.

However, since the French presidential election in 2022 and the American presidential election in 2016 at the latest, it has become clear that the former certainty of unbreakable friendships no longer exists. In the US, then-President Trump terrified the Europeans with the idea that NATO was “obsolete.” At the same time, he stoked fears that he could shake the democratic foundations of the US. Trump could now return to power at the beginning of 2025.

And France faces a very difficult presidential election in 2027 amid predictions that Marine Le Pen of the far-right Rassemblement National has the potential to win following the departure of Emmanuel Macron. This may not happen. But the Franco-German axis could collapse from one day to the next if a right-wing nationalist government comes to power in Paris. There is no real strategy for this scenario. Instead, hope prevails that things won't turn out so bad—just like before Trump’s first election.

In both cases, German policymakers must face the question of whether they have contributed to such events potentially having disastrous consequences. In the case of the US, Germans still rely on the superpower spending huge sums on its defense apparatus that also provides a shield for Germany. Trump, however, poses the quite justified question of why Germany keeps discussing new domestic and social policy dreams while American taxpayers are supposed to be responsible for security in a division of labor which is costly for them. In the case of France, the question arises as to whether the insistence on a very strict German fiscal policy has not prevented deeper integration, particularly within the eurozone, which would make a rupture impossible even for right-wing populists on both sides.

There is a second misconception among German policymakers: in the last two years in particular, there have been claims that it’s enough to become less dependent on authoritarian governments. This has fueled the debate about cutting back the exposure to business with China. By contrast, there has been less discussion about Western partners with shared values also pursuing national policies that are detrimental to German interests—especially as Joe Biden, a friend of Germany’s, is in power in Washington.

It was Biden’s gigantic subsidy program (“Inflation Reduction Act”) for climate-friendly technologies and the redirection of investments from Europe to the US that provided a reminder of how tough competition can be, even with the closest of partners. It wasn’t even so long ago that Berlin was taken by naive surprise that US intelligence services were also eavesdropping on a German chancellor. It has been forgotten that the best protection against undesirable political developments lies not only in deeper cooperation with the very best friends, but also in striving for one’s own technological, economic, and military strength.

5. The Eternal Dream of EU Enlargement

Since taking office, one of Chancellor Scholz’s mantras has been to push ahead more decisively with the accession process of the six Western Balkan states to the EU or even to complete it—more than 20 years after it began. But despite forceful words and a number of special summits, the question arises as to whether the Germans are not succumbing to an illusion here too: how realistic is the admission of new EU members really, even if it would be urgently necessary for Europe in geopolitical terms? In any case, the gap between promises and plans on the one hand and reality on the other threatens to widen rather than narrow.

There is a reason why there has been little progress with the Western Balkan states over the years. For example, the unresolved problem between Serbia and its former province of Kosovo is simmering in the region. Nationalist tensions continue to flare up there. But there is also opposition within the EU. Some EU members have not even recognized the accession candidate Kosovo as an independent state.

In addition, France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Spain, Bulgaria, and Greece have expressed reservations about progress with various Western Balkan countries for completely different domestic political reasons. The rise of right-wing populist and nationalist groups in many EU countries means that the accession process could be slowed down rather than accelerated, contrary to Scholz’s wishes. And as long as the EU can only decide unanimously on the opening and closing of each individual accession chapter, the veto option for EU members remains in place at every stage of the accession talks. In the end, a ratification procedure awaits the accessions in each of the 27 EU member states.

Ironically, however, the EU has grown even more ambitious despite these problems: in December, the 27 EU governments decided to open accession negotiations with Ukraine and the Republic of Moldova, and even to give Georgia the prospect of talks. This is politically understandable in view of the desire to show solidarity with the countries attacked or threatened by Russia. However, the decision could cause a lot of frustration in the coming years—as was the case in the past with the eternal candidate Turkey, which was promised something that could never be kept.

Today, these doubts apply above all to Ukraine. Politically and psychologically, it was understandable to at least prepare a path for the war-torn country to join the EU in view of the difficult military situation, in order to show Ukrainians that they are welcome as part of the European community.

But firstly, countries with unresolved territorial conflicts cannot join anyway. Secondly, the question of who should actually pay for Ukraine’s accession to the EU has so far been elegantly avoided: if the current EU agricultural policy remains in place, Ukraine would siphon off a considerable amount of the money that has so far been intended for other Eastern European states such as Poland. Beneath the declarations of solidarity for Ukraine, problems are already becoming apparent, for example when Polish or Slovakian farmers protest against the new competition in the EU agricultural market. That doesn’t make the goal of EU enlargement wrong. But the expectations of rapid accession being nurtured remain an illusion.

Andreas Rinke is chief political correspondent for the Reuters news agency in Berlin.

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