Toward a New German Foreign Policy

November 18, 2020

A New German Answer

Germany should stop worrying about becoming a “normal country.” Rather, it should learn to address the new forms of geopolitics with the best version of Germany’s post-war incarnation—for the benefit of Europe.

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For the last few decades the “new German question” has been a debate about how Germany could become a “normal” power on the world’s stage. By normal, most people meant some kind of mix of the hegemonic responsibility of the Americans, the Western orientation of the British, and the willingness to intervene militarily of the French. However, in late 2020, 30 years after the end of the Cold War, none of these “normal powers” seems to provide a model anymore.

There is an incredible opportunity to reinvent transatlantic relations when Joe Biden takes over the White House in January. The president-elect has announced that the United States will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, the World Health Organization (WHO), and give diplomacy a chance in Iran, but his primary focus will be on rebuilding his country after the ravages of COVID-19. Even before Trump the long shadow of US interventions in the Middle East has raised questions about the effectiveness of American policy and have also sapped public support for external commitments.

The United Kingdom post-Brexit has lost its traditional Western vocation and is searching for a new identity. It is an inventive country and could be a partner on many issues from Iran to the Balkans, but it is introverted at the moment and not exactly a model for Germany.

France, with its focus on strategic autonomy and military engagement, seems a more promising model as well as a key partner. But France’s growing polarization and euroskepticism undermine Emmanuel Macron, the country’s dynamic president, and his credibility abroad. Moreover, Paris’s foreign and security policies have a mixed record in the European neighborhood. Its historical neglect of Eastern Europe has made it harder to be a consensus-builder within the EU.

A Changing Global Order

We are not living in a post-Cold War world anymore, where an American-led security order and a European-inspired legal order guaranteed our security and prosperity. In Europe’s neighborhood, Russia sows disinformation, disrupts politics, and fights proxy wars. Turkey instrumentalizes migration and pursues its own policies in the Balkans, Syria, Iraq, Libya, and the Eastern Mediterranean. And on the global stage, China and the United States are changing the rules of our economic and security order. China is increasingly assertive in multilateral organizations, is trying to set the rules for new technologies, and uses infrastructure and strategic investments to spread its influence while shutting Europeans out of key markets. More painfully, the US has shown a willingness to leverage the centrality of the dollar and its technology to advance its political goals.

The multilateral order is hollowed out and Europe needs to find new answers to the great power competition between China and the US. In dealing with this new world, Europeans do not need Germany to be a less convincing version of France or the UK but rather to put its impressive resources behind a more 21st-century version of geopolitics.

In that sense, the exceptionalism of focusing on economics and relationship-building may be of more use than a so-called “normal Germany” that sends its troops to far-off countries and only talks to Western powers. Thus, Germany finds itself in a unique position to make Europe more fit for the geopolitical realties and to help reinvent the European approach across three levels: intellectual, diplomatic, and institutional.

New Geopolitics

First, the intellectual challenge is to move away from thinking about geopolitics as a space for permanent alliances and institutions in support of EU values and interests. Increasingly, Europeans will need to see the values as permanent but recognize geopolitics as a space for shifting, temporary alignments in support of them—including with powers that do not share those values. While the transatlantic alliance will continue to be the central focus for Europeans, increasingly we will need to work out a flexible set of relationships with a shifting cast of powers on different issues.

As a country with unique relations with the US and a strong commitment to the international system, Germany will find it difficult to undergo this new geopolitical awakening. But this intellectual emancipation will demand a less brutal rethink of Germany’s post-war role than becoming a so-called “normal power” that matches French and British military spending and routinely sends its troops to fight expeditionary wars. Moreover, if it succeeds in reimaging its role in the world, Germany will be in a good position to help the rest of the EU make a shift.

Second, Europeans need to take more diplomatic responsibility for their regional security order. In this context, Germany could inspire Europeans to craft a new European security order—and a way to handle Russia and Turkey—that includes a mix of deterrence, decontamination, and dialogue drawing on its history of Ostpolitik. This should be done as part of a wider economic and security vision as globalization changes, and the neighborhood becomes a focus for shorter supply chains.

A European Pillar

The first strand of deterrence will mean building a European pillar in NATO with a new “level of ambition” and concrete critical capabilities. It will also be vital to increase European forward-basing to tackle Europeans’ credibility problem in Central and Eastern Europe. Germany would be well-placed to lead on this with its notion of being a “Macht in der Mitte,” a long-standing focus on Eastern Europe, and a network of bilateral and unilateral relationships within the NATO framework.

The process of “decontamination” should involve strengthening the resilience of neighboring countries to pressure from Russia or other players so that they can remain sovereign. In order to do this, Europeans should develop an Eastern Partnership “Security Compact” with components on intelligence, cyber, hardware, and arms control.

Dialogue—both with Russia and with Turkey—will be most challenging. In spite of various attempts by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and then by Emmanuel Macron, they have not developed any successful channels of communication on shared problems. In Russia, the Macron plan has struggled both because the Russians do not seem inclined to become more co-operative and because many European countries do not trust Macron to defend their interests. It is clear that if Germany tries to embrace this agenda, it will have more credibility to bring other Europeans with it.

Third, Europeans need to rethink their institutional approach to upholding order. In recent years, there has been a stultifying debate about increasing military spending and very little focus on what capacity that spending would buy or how the nature of power is changing in today’s world. It is important that the EU includes a military component in its tool box, but its ability to have a muscular foreign policy will depend more on its mindset and its ability to translate its economic, technological, diplomatic, and regulatory assets into “hard power.” In that context, instead of asking Germany to fulfil the NATO 2-percent goal, the rest of the EU should ask Germany to weaponize the other 98 percent of its economy and put its trading power at the service of Europe’s strategic goals.

The Best Version of Itself

After Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Germany orchestrated EU sanctions and thereby enabled a unified and strong European answer toward Russia. When negotiating the Turkey deal on refugees, Germany understood to use the economic power of the EU as leverage. The challenge now is to use this economic heft to protect the idea of an open and rule-based economy. The EU needs to develop a toolbox that deters others from undermining the rules through the threat of countermeasures. This approach must be extended to all aspects of our economic agenda from sanctions and finance to taxation and competition policy.

A reinvention of the European approach across the intellectual, diplomatic, and institutional level would promote a Europe that can prosper and maintain its sovereignty in a world of geopolitical competition. The big question is whether Germany has the confidence to become the best version of its post-war self—and if other European countries will come with it. If it happens, Europe will move from having a German question to a German answer.

Mark Leonard is Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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