Toward a New German Foreign Policy

June 30, 2021

“Germany, We Need to Talk”

Debate about what can and should be done in German foreign and security policy will only find real resonance if it can make Germans understand that this is about their immediate and very personal future.

The Reichstag in Berlin
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Anyone in Germany who has spoken recently to foreign friends will be familiar with their questions. What’s going to happen after September? What is going on with Germany? What are we going to have to expect? On reflection, the context to these questions seems more informative than the vague answers they prompt.

First and foremost, this context includes an unprecedented situation, whereby the incumbent chancellor, Angela Merkel, is not seeking reelection, holding out the prospect of entirely new political constellations. This will inevitably mean a change at the top for Germany’s government, but how significant will this change in personnel actually be? How much structural continuity can we expect?

Second, the election is highly significant for many of Germany’s neighbors and close partners, and indeed for its rivals. The direction of German foreign policy, as well as its European and security policies, is an important issue well beyond Germany itself. This year’s German elections are seen as setting a course for Europe and the campaign is closely followed around the world.

Third, underlying the specific questions, there is the more general difficulty many foreign observers have in “reading” Germany and its foreign policy debates. In this, the language barrier is often only the first hurdle; German modes of thought and discourse impose additional obstacles.

A Distorted Image of the World

It is often said that German foreign policy debate has a certain provincial quality and is wholly lacking in “strategic thinking.” But the real picture is more complicated. German discourse on foreign policy oscillates frequently between navel-gazing and global do-gooderism. We either turn our backs on the awfulness of the world, or we ride out to engage with it, full of grand ideas of global salvation. Effective foreign policy, however, primarily takes place between these two extremes.

But why are things like this? At least two closely interwoven erroneous assumptions distort the German perspective of the world since 1989. On the one hand, given our eventful past, we try to make out some line of inevitable progress within the world’s development. This would mean we could choose the “right side,” at last, and could then support, promote, and accelerate this progress. There is indeed something captivating about the idea of linear progress toward parliamentary democracy and social market economy on a global scale. But this belief in linearity ironically derives from what is probably the most disruptive moment in German post-war history, namely the unexpected fall of the Berlin Wall, and the subsequent end of the Cold War, a conflict which for decades had seemed frozen in place. This experience should teach us some lessons about world history: that very improbable events can happen, that the future is highly uncertain, and that at any given moment, we can only make the best of our uncertain situation. The historic moment of global convergence is over, if it ever even took place. We must find our path in a world that only partially corresponds to our own normative preferences.

The second error of German foreign policy discourse is our tendency to universalize from our unique German historical experience. German unification resulted from a world conflict which was peacefully resolved. However, we have tended to elevate this experience—historically almost unique—into a blueprint for other historical situations. In fact, many belligerent parties around the world have studied the German and Central European experience of that era precisely to prevent any repetition of peaceful revolutions. They are willing to do so at almost any price; this is certainly the case with the Chinese one-party state. At Tiananmen Square in 1989, China proved that history always has other options to hand. North Korea has the same urge to prevent peaceful change. So do all those threatened by "change through rapprochement”; they bear East Germany and the Soviet Union in mind, but only as warnings from history.

Thus, the German debate on foreign policy is marked by a tendency to generalize (if I may generalize). More attention to local detail and more differentiated judgment might produce a different picture of the world. Three decades after the end of the Cold War, it is increasingly clear that 1989 did not mark the end of history, but rather history’s return. Once again, time and space have become important categories in international relations. Some astute observers spotted this much earlier, including Clifford Geertz, the American anthropologist, in his clearsighted Vienna lectures of 1995. In this world, Germans may be “fortunate children in the center of Europe,” as President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said on the 30th anniversary of German reunification. However, our experience will neither be a blueprint nor a model for others. And our future good fortune is by no means guaranteed.

Morality Alone Is Not Politics

In future years, this fortunate Germany will have to exist within a wider world. So, what sort of state is that world in right now? In terms of relations with the United States—Germany’s country’s most important strategic ally and its post-war Western security anchor—the shock of the Trump years has given way to opportunities of a fresh start under Joe Biden. Ambitious new forms of cooperation are under way, but they go along with German uncertainty about a confused and deeply divided United States, unclear about its relations with the world, and even with truth. Will Biden succeed where Barack Obama failed, reconciling American society and renewing American democracy? Or will the country, once Germany’s immovable rock, continue to “drift”?

Foreign policy consensus in Washington is limited to a single issue—China, which is broadly seen as the country’s greatest challenge, requiring the mobilization and organization of every US strength. In contrast, Germany's success during the Merkel era, when it was one of globalization’s big winners, is inseparably linked to China’s economic dynamism. What does it mean for Germany that China is now clearly taking a hard authoritarian turn, both on domestic and foreign policy? What are Germany’s options if the transatlantic relationship is increasingly determined by US policy on China? Finally, how should Germany deal with its neighbor Russia, the world’s second largest nuclear power? This is a Russia that refuses all ideas and offers of partnership, and in fact is growing increasingly aggressive, as it attempts to distract from its economic weakness and the regime’s dwindling legitimacy.

None of these great power relations can be reduced to “either/or” or to “all or nothing.” But equidistance is also not an appropriate option for Berlin. These days, Germany must determine its own position, and work out for itself the strength of its various international ties. What does Westbindung— “alignment with the West,” a central concept in German foreign policy—mean today? A strong normative compass is not enough on its own. Yes, politics without morals is cynical. But morality alone is not politics. This is especially true in foreign policy, where determining one’s own point of view only marks the beginning of a conversation or negotiation.

All of this represents a broad loss of reliability and of “long lines” of continuity. But in addition, there is also the arbitrary dynamic of technological innovation, which is always absorbed belatedly and imperfectly in normative terms. These innovations have a profound impact on our everyday lives, but they also shift the global balance of power. And finally, the world has become a global community of risk. What we urgently need is a baseline of cooperation, shaped by the historically founded understanding that we must prevent worse, and the worst, from happeninga major armed conflict fought with the technological means of the 21st century. At the same time, only cooperation will allow us to prevail over the unprecedented global challenges of the Anthropocene, exemplified by the COVID-19 pandemic and by climate change, a slow-motion human-made disaster.

In the face of these dynamics, the German longing for eternal continuity—which has had such a large place in our thinking since 1989—seems oddly defensive. We should remember to look at the world with alert curiosity, rather than deceptive certainty.

Defending the European Project

In a world of US-Chinese great power competition, Europe will be relegated to the periphery; that will not happen overnight but gradually, step by step. On the other hand, this means that, more than ever, Europe will be the fundamental framework for Germany to assert its foreign and security policy interests. At the same time, the new situation gives Germany a more central role than ever in making the European integration project a success. This only appears to be a paradox.

For Germany, this will mean, above all, taking an active role in and for Europe, and doing so in a more honest way. This includes expressing a fundamental commitment to Europe; politicians’ earnest speeches do have an important role to play. But it also includes facing up to difficult questions and making tough decisions. These are decisions about European defense capabilities, about how Europe makes use of military power and arms exports, and about European borders and their degree of permeability for immigrants and refugees. It will involve decisions about the level of Europe's ambitions in its own neighborhood and as a global regulatory power, and about the limits of Europe’s actual capacities. Many of these questions directly concern Germany and any future German government.

In abstract terms, there is a broad, stable consensus on foreign policy, namely that Germany can only continue to be a “fortunate child in the center of Europe” if it manages to hold Europe together, both against internal centrifugal forces and against attempts to divide it from outside. If the European project fails, the lessons of German history are called into question. This still appears to be the belief of the vast majority of Germans. As things become more specific, however, the questions put to us by our partners become more difficult, as do the expectations they place on us.

We Germans like to think of ourselves as the best Europeans. We tell ourselves about our generosity toward our partners and the great consideration we give to their interests. We also believe that we have learned the lessons of European history more thoroughly than anyone else. We like to imagine ourselves to be Europe’s moral backbone. Many others, by contrast, see an empty space in concrete, material terms rather than a country capable of backing up its normative claims, or adding effective policy instruments to its rhetorical toughness. Ultimately, in power political terms, Europe will be unable to assert its interests and values from a position of weakness.

There are many important issues on which Germany's self-perception is different to others’ perceptions of it. However, the more important Germany’s active role becomes, the more damaging this discrepancy becomes. Germany often believes that its actions are helpful, and done out of solidarity, whereas others accuse the country of pursuing its own narrow national interests. This is true in terms of external threats as well as issues of solidarity and consensus within the European Union. To put it bluntly: the question “a European Germany or a German Europe?” is more relevant today than our neighbors would like, and we Germans can be comfortable with.

And what should this Europe represent for us anyway, beyond mere self-assertion? Does Europe have anything to offer the world, except regulatory norms, and some standards for a more humane digitalization? Can Europe offer serious ways to peacefully reconcile competing interests? Can it provide a successful model of enlightened self-interest, which recognizes and addresses the global dimension of human co-existence?

German observers would probably join this chorus more loudly than anyone. But who in German politics and media recognized the key geopolitical moment during last year’s vaccine-related navel-gazing? In spring 2020, it was the EU that collaborated with the World Health Organization to launch COVAX, the global vaccine alliance. Donald Trump’s America and Xi Jinping’s China were absent, each one as narrow-minded as the other. But who among Europeans was still defending this global perspective in early 2021, when the talk was of supposed “disaster” and the “failure of Europe”? Who, when Europe was in short supply, was pushing for strategic generosity and an equitable distribution of vaccines around the world? It was only at June’s G7 summit that the German government finally made a concrete pledge on this question for 2021. How can global efforts to save the climate possibly succeed when the pandemic’s clear demand for action and solidarity proved to be so difficult, with the exception of a few financial contributions?

Navigating a Landscape of Crises

A contemporary foreign policy debate, dealing with today’s reality and with Germany’s actual role in the world, will necessarily look different than it did 75 years ago, when Wilhelm Cornides founded the political and economic affairs magazine, the Europa-Archiv, precursor to today’s Internationale Politik, with "daring and improvization." At that time, Cornides’ genius was to give Germans access to the things determining their future: the thoughts of others, speeches and documents from conferences where Germany’s fate was hammered out. “We will not shut ourselves out from any emerging consensus,” was the watchword of (West) German diplomacy at a time when the country was divided between the superpowers. The main rule was—do not be alone, do not become isolated. Today, Germany is itself an actor on the stage; for years now, other countries have looked more and more looked to Berlin for guidance on their own actions.

In this new situation, what should and what will be our guide? Should we put our own characteristics centerstage, and raise our own historical lessons to absolute status? Or are we most concerned about how our positions connect to and are compatible with those of our closest partners? To put it even more bluntly—which of the two post-war German lessons from history weigh more heavily in a conflict, “never again,” or “never again alone”? Can we recognize the danger that German self-righteousness might turn into German self-isolation? And will we do what is necessary to counter it?

Of course, none of these formulas offers a panacea for the future. On the contrary, they should keep us from any illusion that we can slash through the world’s complexity like a Gordian knot, in a single decisive moment or action. Nor should we look for a new version of neo-conservative “moral clarity,” which supposedly offered an infallible compass. Instead, we must try to make, as much as possible, something productive from the tensions between competing interests and necessities. This is fundamentally about recognizing difference, about maintaining our capacity to change perspective, about attempts at rapprochement, about making serious efforts to understand the other. Here we find a tough but worthy task for Europe in the world, and for Germany in Europe. For this, we will need curiosity and sober realism, above all. We will also need a moral compass, but we can do without zealous missionary hopes for world salvation.

Debate about what can and should be done in German foreign and security policy will only find real resonance if it can make Germans understand that this is about their immediate and very personal future, not about far-away problems. This has happened successfully in the case of the climate crisis. The reason for this is partly the grave danger involved, but also the promise of salvation, the idea that the problem is “solvable,” given sufficiently radical action. In the case of climate policy, what is supposedly “right” is clearer than in most foreign policy crises. Unease and discontent with the ways of the world have grown since it no longer conforms to German expectations that flourished after the fall of the Berlin Wall. However, the reactions of most people in Germany have remained strangely unaffected by this change. But global crises and conflicts concern us, not just because they disturb our normative perceptions of the world, but because many of these directly affect our security, our prosperity, and the future of our democracy.

One of the most difficult challenges for Germany’s new government will be to make Germans face the reality of a tougher world. Any new government would be well-off to keep a journal like INTERNATIONALE POLITIK at its side. This is a journal that presents clear-eyed perspectives on the world and its dramatic changes to Germans with an interest in these matters. A journal which puts forward ideas and proposals to help Germany navigate a landscape of crises. A journal which brings our partners’ issues and concerns into our own debates. And a journal that, last but not least and now more than ever, seeks to make Germany’s “own” debate accessible and comprehensible to others. A journal that makes Germany “legible” with its international edition INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY.

Thomas Bagger is a member of the board of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), publisher of INTERNATIONALE POLITIK and INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY. This article represents his personal opinions.