Toward a New German Foreign Policy

December 02, 2020

No Easy Fix

Germany’s relationship with the United States needs a reset. US President-elect Joe Biden’s initiatives on climate protection and democracy promotion are good starting points. Berlin, meanwhile, should think about reforming its defense ministry and cancel Nord Stream 2.

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Paul Loebe Haus and the Reichstag seen in a mirror
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If the Trump presidency has shown us one thing, then it is that Europeans cannot blindly rely on the United States in the way that they have up until now. If Europe wants to free itself from the Cold War paradigm of everlasting American protection, it is in dire need of a new foreign common security and defense policy. Debates about how Europe can become more independent and stand on its own feet are as old as the European Union itself.

The newest chapter in this debate began with the uncertainty surrounding the eventual victory of President-elect Joe Biden, which showed us how unprepared we would have been for another term of unhinged unpredictability. Now many observers stress the need to increase the spending on defense to 2 percent of German GDP more quickly. It almost seems like the 2-percent goal has replaced the old “black zero” fetish in the German budget spending debate. It is more than understandable that the majority of the transatlantic foreign policy elite in Germany wants to reach out to the new American president and sees the increase to 2 percent as a nice gesture to show good will after the dark years of Donald Trump’s presidency. But let us not lose sight of why this is, put simply, not a good idea.

A Structural Defense Reform

There is no doubt that the German armed forces need better equipment and qualified personnel to adequately fulfil their duties in a changing international security environment. Especially given the numerous tasks such as the UN peacekeeping missions around the globe or NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force. Raising the budget to 2 percent might seem like an easy fix, but it is short-sighted.

In recent years we have witnessed various scandals and controversies from fishy public procurement contracts to faulty military equipment. A structural reform of the defense ministry is long overdue. The commitment made at the NATO summit in 2014 to achieve the 2-percent goal by 2024, stated that it is not only a question of the level of spending but also of its efficient use. This can mean not only distributing responsibilities more evenly through cooperation and coordination in Europe, but ultimately even saving costs. Various studies show that Europe could save up to one third of what it currently spends on military equipment if governments clubbed together to coordinate investment and use fewer arms suppliers.

Goodbye to NS2

So instead of following a bold, but non-practicable proposal the German government would be best advised to put an end to the construction of the divisive Nord Stream 2 pipeline project. President-elect Biden has in the past called the project a “fundamentally bad deal.” And he is absolutely right. This pipeline is against the interests of many of our European partners and far from being just an economic project, as the German government likes to portray it.

Finishing it would hinder the EU’s move to a low-carbon economy, increase European reliance on Russia for energy to a dangerous level, and empower Russia at a time when it is sparking conflict around the globe and targeting opposition politicians at home and abroad. Threatening the companies involved in this project with sanctions is, of course, not how partners should treat each other. However, I am very optimistic about the possibility of resolving such issues once the trust and mutual respect of our transatlantic partnership are restored.

Revitalizing the Alliance

The transatlantic partnership has had many moments, such as the Iraq war, where interests and views greatly diverged, but what has been lost is the ability to talk about these differences and come to a solution that is not based on the “winner-takes-it all” approach of President Trump. This is why we need a clear set of projects that could have a tremendous impact on the revitalization of our alliance. Two of these projects should be the fight against the climate crisis and defending and consolidating our liberal democracies.

By naming John Kerry his special envoy for climate, President-elect Biden has already shown a strong commitment to confronting the global climate crisis and his discomfort about President Donald Trump's lack of leadership on this issue. America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement has set back common efforts to battle climate change and delivered a massive blow to the problem-solving capacity of multilateralism. Without the US as an active player in multilateral organizations, international order as well as the promotion of democratic principles and values has been gravely undermined whilst Russia and China try to reshape the multilateral framework by promoting their authoritarian form of government.

During the recent election campaign Biden promised to “organize and host a global Summit for Democracy to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the free world.” It is no surprise that authoritarian leaders from Moscow to Riyadh fear the rule-based governing style of the new US foreign policy that will no longer be based upon deal-making. The German government should signal strong support for this policy approach, especially at a time when Poland and Hungary are blocking the passage of the EU budget and the coronavirus rescue package due to a clause that ties funding to adherence to the rule of law.

The German-US partnership that has grown out of the ashes of World War II and America’s role in supporting Germany’s democratic transformation should not be underestimated. Advocating liberal democracy in a non-interventionist way could speed up the healing process that transatlantic relations are undergoing at the moment. Who knows, maybe with the support of a Green foreign minister in the years to come.  

Omid Nouripour is foreign affairs spokesperson for the Green Party in the German Bundestag.

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