Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Nov 23, 2020

Global Solutions for Global Problems

The end of the Cold War could have made possible a new global system of collective security, but the West rejected Russia’s outstretched hand. Today, Germany’s interest should lie in seeking solutions to the problems caused by neoliberalism worldwide, not by further militarizing its foreign policy.

The Weltzeituhr on Alexanderplatz, Berlin
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Globalization has made the world smaller and smaller. Digitalization will accelerate this process in the coming decade. The situation has largely resulted from a global concentration of capital and means of production in the hands of ever larger companies, as well as the growing influence of the financial markets. Information, services, raw materials, and production facilities are accessible everywhere and can be controlled from anywhere. Nowadays corporations are global networks, with staff and resources located everywhere, as well as production and service facilities. Their economic power has long since transcended the boundaries of the nation state.

Political power must everywhere address how to limit the power of these global networks and restore the primacy of politics. But this is where political actors have so often lacked the courage and decisiveness to take real measures. There is no political authority on a similar global scale that could intervene and regulate the economic power of banks and corporations. Instead, nation states compete to impose the lowest taxes, the most flexible labor regulation, and the weakest environmental standards, all meant to allow companies to achieve the maximum return on their capital. All of this takes place at the cost of workers and the general public, which loses billions in tax revenues. The primacy of politics is also a question of democracy. In democratic states, politicians can be voted in and out of office; this does not happen with the CEOs of large banks and corporations.  

Neoliberalism Unbound

The process had already begun in the 1980s, but the end of the Cold War accelerated the process. The end of ideological confrontations also saw the removal of the last barriers to neoliberalism. On a national level, certain values were—and still are—regarded are self-evident—democracy, the rule of law, basic rights for all, competing interests balanced through a social market economy. But these values failed to become the pillars of the new international order.    

Worse, some Cold War achievements—like international law, which stopped that war from ever turning hot—were progressively dismantled. There was almost no reckoning with global inequality, except through military power.

The end of Cold War ideological struggles could have made possible a new global system of collective security. Instead, the interests of capital have been given free rein; this has led to a new struggle for geostrategic dominance, recently including resurgent nationalist and racist politics.

At the Crossroads

We must face up to rapidly widening inequality in Germany, Europe, and the world. This inequality directly affects people’s incomes and wealth, as well as having more general impacts on society, economy, and the environment. It is clear that we stand at a crossroads.

Right now, answers to inequality take the form of a Counter-Reformation against neoliberal globalization. Figures like Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Viktor Orbán are taking the route of extreme national self-interest; Poland and Brexit Britain are pointing in the same direction. Their ideology tries to force solutions back onto a national scale, into the narrow framework of the nation state. Countries are attempting to decouple themselves from neoliberalism and its results. But unless they question the foundations of neoliberalism, nations cannot impact the evolution of the system. In fact, this is not something these governments ultimately want.  

Instead, these states are seeking to attract or retain the fruits of global capital, actual and projected. They accept cheap competition and universally exploitable resources, but want to limit the most extreme effects on their own population, keeping things bearable. Social, economic, and ecological devastation is to be held beyond national borders, away in some other part of the world. 

But humanity increasingly faces problems that must be tackled globally. However, key centers of political and economic power are refusing global solutions. Some will not even agree to discussing possible solutions.    

A New International Process

Europe and Germany must understand that their own economic and social development can only take place within a new international process, one that seeks global solutions to global problems. Social and ecological issues have become urgent questions for all humanity.

In 1990, Germany could have become a powerful global actor, mediating in conflicts around the world. The unification of our country brought together East and West, a unique achievement. This should have seen the country taking on the role of a mediator; this would also have been in keeping with East Germany’s citizens’ revolt. The role could also have taken account of our history, including the Nazi era and the divisions of the Cold War.

Instead, Germany went back to war in 1999, its first active military conflict since 1945. And an illegal war of aggression at that. This military intervention in the former Yugoslavia was followed by many others, mostly enforcing UN Security Council mandates, but also as part of so-called “Coalitions of the Willing.” Only on three occasions has Germany refused to participate: the first Gulf War in 1991, the Iraq War of 2003, and the recent Libyan war, when it abstained in the 2011 UN Security Council vote. We have also actively participated in the strategic encirclement of Russia, although basing German soldiers near Russia’s borders should be unacceptable for historical reasons.

Germany’s Key Relationship: Russia

The relationship with Russia is a central foreign policy question for Germany and Europe. But we cannot pursue Germany’s or Europe’s interests as long as we blindly obey the United States and NATO, an organization still dominated by that country. It is very much not in Germany’s interests for Berlin to unconditionally support Washington’s confrontation course with China. European peace and security cannot be achieved without Russia, and certainly not against Russia. In short, global problems must be addressed in cooperation with Russia and China.

The EU and Germany have a geostrategic interest in good relations with the United States, Russia, and China, resting on a solid basis of trust. This is not currently the case with any of these countries.

In his 2001 address to the German parliament, Russian President Vladimir Putin proposed closer cooperation between Russia and Germany. His suggestions were not taken seriously by Berlin, keen to extend the West’s ongoing victory. Of course, there are many reasons to be critical of Putin and his policies, including Russian actions in Eastern Ukraine, its annexation of the Crimea, and its military intervention in Syria.

“Change Through Rapprochement”

But those reasons did not exist in 2001, when Putin extended a hand toward Germany, then from a position of relative weakness. Ultimately, the West rejected the possibility of supporting the democratization of Russian society. This could have extended “change through rapprochement,” the idea underlying West Germany’s policy to Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 1980s. This process would have been far easier in the context of genuine partnership.

Putin drew his own conclusions from the West’s ignorant response to his overture. He brought Russia back onto the world stage, using a combination of military might, aggressive defense of geostrategic interests, and leveraging the country’s resource wealth. He has also tried to divide the EU and NATO, and implemented a domestic crackdown on democratic rights and freedoms. 

Some experts claim the West is on the defensive on all fronts. It can only escape this position by developing global solutions to global problems, not by flexing its military muscle or heeding calls for a European army of intervention.

Gregor Gysi is the foreign affairs spokesman for Die Linke (The Left Party) caucus in the German Bundestag.