Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Feb 01, 2021

More Ambition, Please!

Germany, together with its European partners, needs to forge a new transatlantic consensus with the United States.

German, US and EU flags fly in front of the Reichstag building ahead of the meeting between US President Obama and German Chancellor Merkel in Berlin.
All rights reserved

A lack of ambition is the biggest enemy of a renewal of the transatlantic partnership. That goes for Europe as a whole, and particularly for Germany. Consequently, the German government should immediately approach the new Biden administration to reach a new consensus on the transatlantic partnership with the United States that lasts far beyond the next four years.

A new consensus is necessary because Europe will only be able to act in unison and build its joint capacity with support from the United States. And a new consensus is possible because President Joe Biden knows that the US can maintain its global leadership role solely through close collaboration with a capable Europe. A strong and unified Europe and an Atlanticist-oriented United States are two sides of the same coin.

The transatlantic narrative, however, needs an update, a fresh impulse. The transatlantic partnership’s foundation lies in the solidarity amongst democracies and thus in human rights, freedom, the rule of law, and yes: sustainability, too. A keener awareness of the fragility of democracy and the need for its continued defense is called for. Freedom is the glue that binds peoples on both sides of the Atlantic, now and in the future.

A new consensus is only sustainable if diverse civil societal groups, not just the established players, get involved and commit to it. Social movements, striving to combat climate change, overcome racism and sexism, or change and modernize the workplace, all offer vital transatlantic connections, especially those driven by youth and minority groups. After all, it has always been the struggle for reform and emancipation, the attempt to perfect the principles and the practice of democracy that has made the West attractive and robust.

Building Momentum

As a first step toward a new consensus, the German government should start a G7 initiative to fight COVID-19. The upcoming Italian G20 presidency could build on this initiative. It would help to restart multilateralism, for example by establishing joint doctrines like a “pandemic playbook,” by establishing collaborative medical rapid-response teams and early warning reporting in the fight against pandemics. This kind of daily cooperation on the most urgent challenge of the day will build momentum toward further joint problem-solving and will help to deliver early success for the new US president.

Beyond that, Germany should offer a package of ideas focused on five transatlantic policy areas: climate, NATO, China, technology, and trade:

Climate: Slowing climate change should be at the heart of the new transatlantic consensus. It is an investment in the future as well as a new beginning. The United States’ new ambition should be met by Germany’s renewed efforts. The goals on both sides of the Atlantic are compatible: President Biden intends for the US to be climate neutral by 2050, with a CO2-neutral power supply by 2030. The European Commission has set an interim target of reducing CO2 by 55 percent by 2030.

After Washington’s re-entry into the Paris Agreement, the transatlantic partners should aim for close coordination on COP26, the global climate conference in Glasgow in November. As partners, the US and Germany can work together within the framework of the climate accord in order to develop a regulatory framework that aims to introduce instruments that rate climate risks on financial markets or they can seek ways to decrease the risks of investing in renewables. Joint initiatives should drive the transformation toward renewables and a green economy, for example investments into climate-friendly technology. A transatlantic battery alliance as well as a joint Clean Energy Bank should pave the way.

A structured exchange on joint policy goals will create mutual dependability. Such fora have to be founded or revived. The US-EU Energy Council should discuss questions of energy infrastructure, cyber security in the fields of energy and climate protection, as well as the development of offshore wind. 

NATO: In light of changing geopolitics, the security partnership—still the anchor of the transatlantic relationship—needs a new consensus, too. The European NATO members, with Germany at their core, significantly increase their expenditures for conventional defense. They, thereby, make it easier for the United States to spend resources on defending the interests of liberal democracies in the Indo-Pacific. The US, in turn, renews its commitment to the defense of Europe. The US substantiates this commitment through a permanent military presence in Europe, and its nuclear guarantee that Germany—through its nuclear participation—should support, as long as there are nuclear weapons states outside NATO.

Europe needs to make itself capable of acting, politically and militarily. Not in order to get rid of the US in Europe (something that seems to be implied in some interpretations of “European sovereignty” and “strategic autonomy”), but rather the opposite: to keep the US in Europe—with all its advantages for continental stability that Europe and especially Germany will benefit from.

The necessary consequence for Germany is to deliver fully on the agreed NATO force goals—and in an accelerated timeline. Above all, it requires consensus in the German government that a readily deployable military is of the highest priority because it lends weight to diplomacy and is an indispensable contribution to safeguarding the freedom of German citizens.

China: China policy is going to be a crucial element of future transatlantic relations. Whether the United States judges its European allies as useful and reliable will depend on the continent’s stance vis-à-vis Beijing. It will determine the United States’ engagement and willingness to compromise on other issues. Although German interests vis-à-vis China are not fully aligned with US interests, the interest in the alliance with the United States is a vital, overriding interest.

China is playing a strategic and long-term game; naivety is punished. A new consensus on China policy is needed. First, President Biden should disavow the goal of economic decoupling. Germany, in turn, should start accepting that trade with China needs technology and security caveats. Germany, together with the US, need to align their human rights and regulatory agendas and thus reign in China’s drive for dominance.

Trade: The German federal government, together with the European Commission, should push the US to lift its sanctions against the EU and end the blockade against the appointment of new members to the appellate body of the World Trade Organization’s dispute-settlement mechanism. In return, the EU will have to continue to open up to US reform ideas. This new consensus sharpens the tools needed to defend against China’s disregard for international trade rules and principles.

Even though the time has not come for a comprehensive US-EU trade agreement, sectoral agreements present opportunities for environmental goods or e-commerce. Also, drafting joint rules for export controls on high-tech products promises success in negotiations.

Technology: Europe and the United States will miss their opportunity to shape the future so long as they do not maximize cooperation on digital policy and new technologies. What is needed here is the protection of open societies’ shared values against Chinese claims for its authoritarian model of international leadership. Therefore, the EU and the US should quickly agree on a standard for transatlantic data exchange, develop common guidelines for handling fake news and propaganda, and align artificial intelligence regulations.

For the transatlantic partnership to be fit for the future, it must be driven forward with new energy in a shared spirit. This spirit does not arise magically. It comes from action. It comes from political projects that can deliver a more secure, prosperous, and self-determined life to citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. The German government should develop such a plan and approach the new US president with it.

Authors and Signatories (all write/sign in their personal capacity):

Benjamin Becker, AmerikaHaus NRW; Deidre Berger, foreign policy advisor; James Bindenagel, Center for Advanced Security, Strategy and Integration Studies, Bonn University; Heinrich Brauss, lieutenant general, ret., German Council on Foreign Relations; David Deißner, Atlantik-Brücke; Eric W. Fraunholz, German-American Institute Saxony; Patrick Keller, Federal Academy for Security Policy; Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, German Marshall Fund of the United States; Anna Kuchenbecker, European Council on Foreign Relations; Rüdiger Lentz, Aspen Institute Deutschland; Rainer Meyer zum Felde, brigadier-general, ret., Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University; Stormy-Annika Mildner, Aspen Institute Deutschland; Lena Ringleb, German Marshall Fund of the United States; Andrea Rotter, Hanns-Seidel-Foundation; Boris Ruge, Munich Security Conference; Oliver Schmidt, americanist and expert in foreign cultural policy; David Sirakov, Atlantic Academy Rhineland-Palatinate; Constanze Stelzenmüller, Brookings Institution; Ellen Ueberschär, Heinrich Böll Foundation

The manifesto “More Ambition, Please!” (“Transatlantisch? Traut Euch!”) can be found here.

Read more by the author

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

Universalism and Its Discontents

The West should give up its messianism, but not its norms and principles when interacting with the Global South.