Toward a New German Foreign Policy

September 17, 2021

Smart Sovereignty

Mere continuity in foreign policy is no option for Germany—it would damage its interests. Yet, Berlin can achieve more, even with less power.

Aereal view of the chancellery in Berlin
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When the next German federal government begins its work around the turn of the year, it will likely make few changes to foreign policy. The coalition treaty will stress how important it is to strengthen European and transatlantic cooperation as well as multilateralism. It will acknowledge the systemic conflict between liberal democracies and authoritarian regimes and note the need for dialogue with China, Russia, and other authoritarian states. It will emphasize that Germany must do more for stability in its neighborhood, as Washington is no longer taking this task off its hands.

All of this is correct—and yet having a new government that barely thinks beyond maintaining the status quo would do real damage to Germany. Nevertheless, it’s very possible that this is exactly what will occur because urgent domestic tasks seem so much more important. This is precisely where the fallacy lies: none of the most important future tasks—such as shaping digitalization, making the economy sustainable and competitive, slowing climate change while dealing with its consequences, and protecting the country’s democracy in the process—can be accomplished unless Germany consistently incorporates the international dimension. If Germany does not fundamentally change its approach, it will not be able to protect its core interests. Already today, none of the state’s essential tasks can be accomplished primarily through domestic decision-making.

What will the challenge for the next government? At first glance, not much. The government still has three major responsibilities to meet vis-à-vis its citizens: to provide for prosperity, for security, and for the democratic political order. These are the classic domestic tasks of the state. And then there is foreign policy, defense policy, and foreign economic policy. The thing is: this approach of separating the two no longer works, for three main reasons.

Domestic and Foreign Policy Are Indivisible

First, it is no longer possible to cleanly divide between the domestic and foreign: the line between internal and external threats is becoming blurred. Germany can only address its major national challenges, climate change and digitalization, if it helps shape the global dimension. What Germany decides on the national level is in many respects only meaningful if it influences the international level. Sovereignty at home, i.e., solving German political problems to promote Germany’s own interests, is only achievable through sovereignty abroad, by making a significant contribution to solving global problems in a way that incorporates German interests and approaches.

Second, vulnerability will be the new normal as long as we maintain social and economic openness coupled with international networking and interdependence. Germany cannot completely prevent cross-sectoral and cross-border shocks—including those caused by external interference aimed right at the heart of our democracy. Under these conditions, governmental action must strengthen the resilience of society, the economy, and democracy, at home as well as abroad. European cooperation is important here; no government can protect its citizens on its own in a world of ideological and systemic competition, global interconnectedness, transnational risks, and continued technological advances.

Third, many of the changes in the political, economic, social, and ecological systems in which Germany is embedded are irreversible. Risks have become damages (climate systems) or tangible threats (social peace). It is impossible to return to the status quo ante. That is as true for climate change as it is for the transformation of our economic system, whose success has provided the foundation for Germany’s international importance.

Smart Sovereignty

In recent years, politics, economics, society, and ecology have become so interdependent that isolated policy approaches without a 360-degree view do not achieve the necessary effects. A new policy approach is needed, one that sees international relations as a priority rather than taking individual policy areas out of their context and pursuing selective interests. The actions Germany takes abroad must serve Germany’s domestic sovereignty. If Berlin does not help shape the central changes in its environment, the living conditions in the country will deteriorate considerably. And the Federal Republic's influence in terms of defining goals and rules will diminish if it is no longer seen as a partner capable of making decisions and acting quickly.

The approach that can avoid this strategic decline is called “smart sovereignty.” Even with declining influence, Germany (and the European Union)  should be able to set and pursue their own goals with regard to central political questions, rather than taking on those of others. With this in mind, the new German government should:

  • create structures for the international dimension of German policies that are commensurate with the strategic challenges,
  • prioritize, within the framework of an overarching strategy, the fields in which Germany is striving for smart sovereignty, and
  • establish and expand close, resilient partnerships from a position of foresight and willingness to act.

Immediately after the formation of a new government, the existing Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat) should be expanded to a strategic body. In meetings of this newly empowered cabinet committee, ministers themselves would regularly discuss strategic issues and make binding decisions. Currently, ministers manage their portfolio independently and under his or her own responsibility. Traditionally the Chancellery does not set clear policy guidelines.

Its first task would be to develop a national security strategy within a year. The committee needs a permanent and workable support structure, with a secretariat and officials with broad expertise. It should have political and academic co-leadership, so that it can comment from both perspectives. Half of it should be staffed by officials from the participating ministries, the other half by academics and practitioners from industry, for example those working in cybersecurity or other fields related to critical infrastructure.

In addition, the Bundestag should closely monitor and support the work of the Federal Security Council. Ideally, important decisions would be made or prepared in the Bundessicherheitsrat. But giving the executive branch greater ability to act should not diminish its democratic legitimacy. A security committee or another body with parliamentarians from all relevant committees should provide parliamentary support for the redesigned Federal Security Council.

A number of actors in the capital are already working on strategic foresight. Improving these groups’ links to other players in Berlin and to EU and NATO initiatives would be an important first step. Moreover, the results of strategic foresight analysis should flow more consistently and verifiably into the definition of tasks, the allocation of resources, and the division of responsibilities between the administration, civil society, and private actors. In this way, the future and fpreventive approaches can become more relevant to the way government and the administration operate.

Strategic Priorities

The new strategic landscape requires Germany and Europe to set clear priorities in the closely intertwined fields of technology and climate, as these are core challenges for societal transformation; economy, resilience, and security are the three fields in which the systemic conflict is playing out; increased migration as well as the continued rise of China are trends that have a significant influence on all other fields. We have selected four fields in order to illustrate smart policy approaches where measures in different fields have a positive impact.

This exercise demonstrates the importance of recognizing how, for example, security and climate policy today closely interact with economic, technology, and energy policy. Such thinking should be incorporated into the security strategy to be drawn up by the Federal Security Council, as well as into NATO's new Strategic Concept and the strategic discussions in the EU. This would enable our partners to understand at an early stage what they can expect from the new German government in terms of protection and solidarity and where Germany is paying particular attention to its own interests.

Making new and greater contributions to European security demands democratic legitimacy. Therefore, the government and parliament should take care to involve civil society, especially with regard to raising awareness of risks as well as developing short-term policy options and long-term visions for the future. There should be a stress test of both whole-of-government security structures and federal, state, and local government processes, based on the model of the Scandinavian countries and carried out in a way that facilitates public debate.

Technology: In a technology and innovation masterplan, the federal government should, in coordination with European partners, determine which technologies Germany would like to become or remain a leader in, those for which it wants to promote an EU-European or transatlantic ecosystem, and those where it accepts dependency on other actors. The price of this dependency—for example in the worst-case scenario of a conflict—should be clearly stated. Governmental resources should, meanwhile, not be expended only for research but also for fostering young talent and creating an attractive innovation landscape. This includes setting up a legal framework that promotes the necessary risk-taking with regard to innovation as well as financing, e.g., through the European Capital Markets Union.

A new digital and technology ministry should focus on expanding broadband coverage, the digitalization of the public administration, regulatory issues in the digital economy, and the promotion of innovation, and be responsible for the foreign and European policy dimension of technology policy. The rapid and comprehensive digitalization of the public sector is a prerequisite for innovation and the effective functioning of the state. However, it also goes hand in hand with greater vulnerability. That’s why the German government should adopt a new, binding plan for the digitalization of federal, state, and local government that includes uniform cybersecurity standards. And it should closely coordinate its foreign policy towards the main aggressors—Russia, China, Iran—with partners like the EU and NATO, but also with other states like Australia and Japan.

Climate: Combating climate change and dealing with its consequences will be a major challenge for the next federal government’s domestic, European, and foreign policy. In hardly any other policy field is it so clear that national policy, no matter how ambitious, won’t make a difference if European partners and the international community do not follow suit.  That’s why climate policy should immediately move to the top of the agenda in relations with the United States, China, and India, for example. Hardly any other development has as much potential to divide and threaten politics and society as climate change does. Therefore, German policymakers should consistently take into account climate impacts and the side effects of climate mitigation policy. Conflict-prevention measures at the EU and UN levels should consider the effects of climate change. Climate adaptation and mitigation should be mainstreamed in the development of tools and expertise for activities in the fields of conflict prevention, stabilization, and reconstruction. Spending on sustainable development policy should therefore increase to 1 percent of GDP.

The German government should also work to make the EU the center of climate science. In many areas, knowledge and data can make action more effective. Germany should establish a new national climate research program and seek to have it contribute to developing a new European center of excellence with the ambition to make a global impact.

China: The new German government should signal that it is making the necessary changes to its China policy by developing a China strategy that, while continuing to seek cooperation, reduces the country’s exposure to blackmail and thus better protects German interests. It should also strengthen the country’s advocacy for goals such as combating climate change and upholding human rights. The approaches described above, for example in technology policy, would underpin these efforts to deal with China in one of the core areas where the systemic conflict will play out. The German government's 2020 Indo-Pacific Guidelines point in the right direction. The next government needs to clarify national tasks and principles and, at the same time, map out how it will promote a more unified EU-China policy that addresses the key issues of technology, climate, and security and involves regional partners.

The German government must soberly acknowledge that China already plays a central role in Germany's economy, politics, and society. This role will continue to grow. Thus decision-makers must learn how to deal with China, whether they are in government, the private sector, education, or civil society institutions. The German government should create a target-group-specific information and advisory service with a view to paving the way for a corresponding European initiative. China is already making massive use of its influence in some EU states to prevent joint action or to steer things in its favor.

Partners: As a trade power in the center of Europe, and an economically open and connected country, the Federal Republic relies on cooperation with the world. The EU remains essential in all of this. It is at once Germany's closest political partnership, increasing the country’s power and prosperity, and the political framework for its geopolitical position. That’s why the next German government must continue to strengthen the EU as Germany's constitutive political, legal, and economic framework and defend it against attacks from within and without. Furthermore, it is essential to maintain proven partnerships and alliances that go beyond the EU, especially with the United States but also with the United Kingdom. In addition, Germany must establish itself in new issue-specific networks and alliances to address globally-interconnected policy challenges such as climate change, for example in the Indo-Pacific and Africa, where other governments became active much earlier. To do so, Berlin must break away from its wait-and-see, reactive, and often risk-avoidance-driven attitude. Otherwise, Germany will not play a formative role as a partner in new networks and will become unattractive within the EU, in transatlantic relations, in NATO, the WHO, and in other organizations and alliances.

All of these challenges have long been understood analytically. Far too little has been done. The new government and the new Bundestag have the chance to deal responsibly with two dilemmas. First, they must redistribute power in order to maintain power and then expand it again. Second, they must act with more foresight and more speed, even though it is precisely in times where power threatens to dissipate that the readiness to do so decreases.

The world is currently showing everyone what the alternative is. The costs of inaction are no longer borne by a diffuse next generation—the costs are already being borne by everyone in Germany, be it in terms of climate, the economy, or security. It is the task of the sovereign and legitimate state to find real solutions to these problems—here and now.      

This text reflects the authors' personal assessment. It is based in part on the work of the German Foreign Policy Ideas Workshop (Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik), which was funded by Stiftung Mercator and chaired by the authors. The group's report will appear in September 20, 2021 at

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