Op-Ed: Germany Needs to Help Forge an Alliance of States to Protect the Rules-Based Order
“Surrounded by friends,” self-imposed dependencies, “change through trade”: Germany has to leave behind these fallacies and help create an alliance of states to jointly work to safeguard an international order in which right trumps might.
With Russia and China, two revisionist powers are striving to change the international system that underpinned our prosperity and freedom for many years. Particularly we in Germany, however, have banked on three fallacies since reunification.
First, we deemed ourselves “surrounded by friends and partners” and have often said so. It may still be true for us today, but it was really only true with reference to our direct neighbors. Our allies in Helsinki or Tallinn have been seeing things quite differently for a long time already. Since the Russian cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 and certainly since Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, our near-neighbors were no longer surrounded by friends only. This fallacy has also led us to misjudge our security policy. We focused on social security, effectively demilitarizing the Bundeswehr and using it as a financial quarry.
Second, we have built our prosperity on a self-imposed dependency system: cheap energy from Russia, cheap value chains from China, and cheap security from the United States, enjoying NATO’s benefits without contributing to credible burden-sharing on our own part. Closely connected to this, it was our fallacy to believe in “change through trade” ("Wandel durch Handel"), hoping that Russia and China would converge to our standards of democracy. Instead, we are the ones who have changed.
Living those lies has no longer worked since February 24, 2022. Cheap energy from Russia, cheap value chains from China, and cheap security from the United States have now taken their toll. While we have been able to say goodbye to cheap energy from Russia thanks to immense political and social efforts, the other two dependencies remain in place. This harms not only our country, but also the so-called "West" in the long run.
“Russia Is the Storm, China Is Climate Change”
The president of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, Germany’s domestic intelligence service, Thomas Haldenwang, recently summed it up in a concise and accurate way by saying “Russia is a storm, but China is climate change.” And we can only counter this “climate change of international politics” as a united community of states. Otherwise, our liberal-modern ideas, which have evolved over centuries, will be swept away.
This means, above all, that we must pursue our interests, but also represent our values at the same time. We can only do this with like-minded partners. To confront China and to be prepared for a much more challenging systemic conflict, we need more allies than just the European community and possibly the United States and Canada. To modernize the international system for the 21st century, we need an alliance of states supporting a rules-based order. “Rules-based” means accepting as the foundations international law and related treaties within the framework of the United Nations, such as the Paris Charter and the Helsinki Accords, which put an end to the “right of the stronger.”
Alliance of States of the Rules-based Order
This idea is not completely new. Already under former US President Bill Clinton, there was an effort to create a kind of United Nations of Democracies—a forum in which liberal democracies would come up with common strategies to promote freedom and human rights. A conference was held in Warsaw in 2000, with over 160 states participating, but the project never really took off. The same goes for the idea of the current US President Joe Biden to establish an "Alliance of Democracies."
When we propose an alliance for the rules-based order, this does not mean that we have to give up the values of a democracy. Rather, the idea is to attract states that do not want to side with China, but are also disappointed by failed Western policies, such as in Afghanistan. To win the competition against the systemic rival China, we need to convince states like India, Indonesia, the Central Asian states or those in Africa and South America to work more closely with us.
As it stands, China invests in many countries without many preconditions. Of course, many pay a high price later when debt dependency is leveraged into the control of key infrastructural assets, but at first glance China is simply more attractive than we are. We must thus change our approach completely. In the future, our projects must be implemented in a more national interest-oriented manner. Countries we support must see the rapid benefits and develop their own smart power.
One example of how this would work is the European Green Deal. The way it is currently structured is far too exclusive. This way, we are at risk of pushing, say, Algeria or Kazakhstan into China or Russia’s camp. The EU should urgently start working more closely with oil- and gas-exporting countries to promote their economic diversification. This includes investing in renewable energy and green hydrogen, which could then be exported to Europe. This would be beneficial both for Europe and the partner countries.
Another project is the Global Gateway, which has an estimated volume of €300 billion and with which the EU wants to create a counterpoint to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This concept, too, must be designed to be more inclusive. It has to offer win-win partnerships—a gain for Europe to enter into economic and security cooperation and, at the same time, economic benefit and infrastructural added value for the other side.
It is equally important to strengthen cooperation with democracies around the globe. For example, China currently controls around 70 to 80 percent of global critical minerals production and has therefore a strong hold over these supply chains. Germany imports nearly 25 percent of its rare earths from China. Why don't we support Japan, Australia, and, after the war, Ukraine in developing their export capabilities in the field of rare earths?
Another approach would involve a rethink of economic development at the EU level. In the surrounding neighborhood, we can revive the traditional idea of the European Economic Area and create a free trade zone that can reach out widely from a purely economic point of view and include, for example, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Israel, the states of North Africa and EU candidacy countries including Ukraine. For it is precisely Ukraine, as well as Taiwan for that matter, that play a central role in the question of what our future world order will look like.
For decades, West Berlin was a frontline city in the struggle between freedom and oppression. This frontier has shifted: in Europe to Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Mariupol, in the Indo-Pacific to the South China Sea. If we want to convince other states to cooperate with us and not with China, Ukraine must win and Taiwan must survive as a free, self-determined, and independent state.
What role should Germany play in this? In the short term, Berlin needs, at long last, to deliver transport, infantry, and battle tanks to Ukraine, as our allies have been demanding publicly for months. At the same time, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz must stop sabotaging the "Zeitenwende" (“historic turn”) he himself has proclaimed. His trip to China and the entry of the Chinese state-owned shipping company Cosco into the port of Hamburg have already led to a situation in which our partners no longer believe in the German "Zeitenwende."
In fact, it must be understood in the chancellery that the historic turning point took place sua sponte in February 2022. It is now up to us to turn it into a political one and to leave the three fallacies behind us. Germany must live up to its responsibility on the international stage and not stand on the sidelines. First and foremost, this means creating a fair burden-sharing system between the US and Europe. The current US commitment will not be sustainable if the "pivot to Asia" is fully implemented. This will make it all the more important that we relieve the US burden in Europe and also in our neighboring regions.
After all, at the heart of the matter is nothing less than the question of whether we will succeed in defending our spirit of freedom against autocrats in Beijing, Moscow, Tehran, or Pyongyang. They are on the cusp of forming a strategic partnership against the rules-based order. It will take an alliance to stop them.
Roderich Kiesewetter is a member of the German Bundestag for Germany’s Christian Democrats (CDU). He has been representative (“Obmann”) on foreign affairs for the CDU/CSU caucus since 2014. He serves as deputy chairperson in the parliamentary oversight panel supervising Germany’s intelligence services and is spokesperson for crisis prevention for his parliamentary group.
Maximilian Reiterer is a researcher and advisor to Roderich Kiesewetter.