The Future of the Zeitenwende: The False Choice Between Values and Interests
For too long, there has been a misconception that Germany has to choose between either a “value-oriented” or an “interest-driven” foreign policy.
In the German foreign policy debate, one pattern was pervasive before the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022: Values were played off against interests as if it were a real alternative. The debate was often conducted as if there were only one option: German foreign policy could either be “value-oriented” or “interest-driven.” Criticism of German policy toward Russia, China, Iran, Qatar, Azerbaijan or other countries euphemistically referred to as “difficult partners” was dismissed as foreign policy moralism.
Those who spoke out against the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline saw themselves branded as naïve moralists who did not understand why cheap and “safe” gas from Russia served German interests. And it wasn’t only about cheap energy, but also about the links with Russia, which were also perceived as being in Germany’s interests because they created an incentive for the Russian government to behave rationally. The idea was that interest-driven policy was both profitable and conducive to stability. This interest was essentially understood in the sense of German foreign trade, which stood pars pro toto for the overall German interest.
The argument was similar in the case of China. Anyone who pointed out the risks posed by President Xi Jinping’s totalitarian turnaround, by the massive repression of dissenters and minorities, by the ever-increasing state control of the economy, was accused of practicing Western value imperialism.
And anyone who argued for a disentanglement of the German and Chinese economies in strategically important sectors due to autocratic tendencies had to face being labelled a clueless moralizer. On the other hand, it was argued that it was not only in the interests of the German economy to maintain ties with China, but that it would also be beneficial for the global issues facing mankind, such as climate policy, if Germany remained closely tied to China. This increased the chances of exerting influence and was therefore entirely in the interests of German foreign policy.
End of the Win-Win Illusion
The days of this political win-win illusion are over. In retrospect, those who played off interests against values are the ones who look naïve. The supposed realism that defended pipelines and investments by dismissing any recourse to values as unworldly and dangerous moral politics has proven to be unrealistic.
There have been several rounds of this debate in recent decades. The occasions were different. Was it wise to receive the Dalai Lama in the chancellery? Should Germany criticize Israeli settlements in the West Bank that violate international law? Was it okay to accept autocratic tendencies in view of lucrative gas deals between German companies and Russian state-owned firms? Does market access in China justify the construction of a Volkswagen plant in the immediate vicinity of re-education camps for Uighurs? How long must sanctions against Russia be maintained after the annexation of Crimea, in the face of the lobbying of the Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations?
Again and again, the question was whether (and how loudly) German foreign policy should position itself in accordance with the values it professes. And what the costs of morality should be, not only in the narrower financial sense, but also in the currency of international influence. The costs were regularly exaggerated by critics of morality, as were the benefits of a policy that forgoes value-based definitions in favor of interests.
Another example: Germany refrained from criticizing the human rights situation in Iran and slowed down the listing of the Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization in order to remain able to talk to Teheran about the international deal on its nuclear program. The greater interest in saving the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement determined the reluctance to speak and act clearly.
This weighing up of interests proved to be useless. The restraint did not result in any concessions from the Iranian side. Rather, the renunciation of the action required by its own values, of clear communication, was interpreted as a sign of weakness, as an invitation to assert the interests of the Iranian regime (internally against the opposition and externally through the terror of the "Axis of Resistance") all the more ruthlessly.
Economic theory has developed the concept of “moral hazard” for such situations of miscommunication of moral risks—the windfall effect that arises from the prospect of being able to increase one's own benefit without risk. This can be applied to foreign policy: Not only does refraining from value-based communication not help to avoid conflicts, this avoidance behavior is risky in itself, because one appears conflict-averse, blurs red lines, and thus encourages the other side to engage in risky behavior.
The simple juxtaposition of values versus interests in foreign policy has become untenable under the pressure of events. It has always been a vital German interest not to ignore the normative dimension of foreign policy. Today, this is hardly disputed. This is hard-won and dearly-paid-for progress.
Taking up arms against supposed “moralism” in foreign policy, as has long been the case, is no longer considered a sign of realism in itself. The defense of human and civil rights, of international norms, is not a burdensome duty without which German politics can pursue its actual interests much more easily. Rather, as has been shown, it is a core interest of German foreign policy. This interest cannot be enforced always and everywhere. But that is not a counter-argument, as it applies to every interest.
It seems that this insight is gradually gaining acceptance, especially since the Russian attack on Ukraine. The phrase “rules-based order,” which is often used in strategy documents and chancellor speeches, and which must be defended (or restored), stands for a dialectical understanding of value-based and interest-driven politics.
Germany must defend this order not only because it is based on norms that we consider to be just and universally valid (including the prohibition of aggression, loyalty to treaties, freedom of alliance), but also because the preservation of this order is simply in the interest of a middle power like Germany, which lacks the means of coercion to achieve its goals in other ways.
To give a concrete example: Helping Ukraine to repel the Russian attack, which is also an attack on the international order, corresponds equally to the values and interests of the Federal Republic of Germany. The situation would be similar in the event of an attack by China on Taiwan or a “reunification” of the mainland and the island enforced by other means (through blockades and blackmail). Here, too, there would be no contradiction between, on the one hand, the unadorned interest in semiconductors and free trade routes and, on the other, the fundamental values of international politics to which German foreign policy is committed, such as the prohibition of aggression and the right to democratic self-determination.
A fundamental change can therefore be observed in the recent debate on values and interests in foreign policy. After the end of the "unipolar moment" and with the return of great power rivalries as a determining factor in international politics, a kind of reversal has taken place. Today, it is no longer a question of missionizing and lecturing, of exporting supposedly "Western values" as foreign policy moral critics often portrayed it. The West’s situation is too precarious for that, both internally and externally.
Criticism of Western talk of values is also salutary, especially when it comes from self-confident, emerging powers in the so-called Global South. They rightly ask which values should apply to whom and when—as the West has always been extremely selective in its approach to this issue. In addition, there is something new: the much-vaunted values—and even the basic rules of democracy—are also being fought over in the West, in the home countries of liberal democracy. The attacks from within are flanked by attacks from outside.
The Alliance of Authoritarian Powers
In both domestic and foreign policy, the greatest challenge today is posed by those players who have no interest in the status quo (which needs to be improved), but instead focus their actions on destroying the existing order. The alliance of authoritarian forces in Western democracies (from the MAGA wing of US Republicans to Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland) with autocratic powers such as Russia and China is no coincidence.
In this difficult situation, the moral overheating of foreign policy that some critics complain about when German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock calls the Chinese president a “dictator” is no longer the issue. The real problem is not arrogant proselytizing and lecturing, but the defense of a value-based policy, also at home, in Western societies.
The distinction between values and interests remains an important instrument of foreign policy analysis, even if this difference does not represent alternatives between which one can choose. The question of whether Germany should pursue a policy guided by values or by interests has always been nonsense.
Today, both in domestic and foreign policy, sharp conflicts of values are forcing themselves upon us in a way that has not happened for decades. The liberal order has to deal with enemies who want to destroy it. The belief that we are dealing with players everywhere in international politics who are pursuing interests that can be reconciled with a little effort has recently been destroyed by the Russian attack and the Hamas massacre. These will not be the last opportunities to recognize this. Such enemies must be defeated and stopped. Only then will it be possible to think about a reconciliation of interests.
Many find it difficult to accept this disturbing realization: It is in the interest of an enlightened foreign policy to adapt to the fact that political players formulate different, incompatible values and make them the maxim of their actions. This adaptation is a key aspect of Germany’s Zeitenwende (historic turn) in foreign and security affairs.
Jörg Lau is international affairs correspondent for Germany’s weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT.