Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Feb 15, 2021

Taking More Regional Responsibility

To create a transatlantic partnership amongst equals, Germany and the EU need to take on more responsibility in their immediate neighborhood.

The Chancellery in Berlin
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A new German foreign policy is long overdue. Rarely have the failings caused by Germany and the European Union’s lack of capacity to take action been more evident than during former US President Donald Trump’s four years in office. These failings include not only very tangible shortcomings on providing equipment to the Bundeswehr, for example, but also the failure to recognize the new geopolitical realities.

The world has changed radically in recent years. It is time to face up to the fact that Russia militarily annexed Crimea and that German-Russian relations have, despite Nord Stream 2, reached rock bottom. The “change-through-trade” (Wandel durch Handel) approach toward China has failed and the Chinese regime is making an unashamed grab for power and influence across the world; Africa remains marred by poverty, crises, and war, with radical Islamism finding fertile ground; the international mission in Afghanistan has failed and the violence of the Taliban has by no means waned; autocratic forms of government, propaganda, and fake news are thriving; rapid technological change goes hand in hand with the emergence of new security-policy threat scenarios. And, whilst the rift in the systemic conflict between autocrats and democrats grows ever wider and liberal democracies are generally occupied with their own separate agendas, common solutions need to be found to global climate change, pandemics, and the arms race.    

Hesitant and Inconsistent

Of course, neither Germany—nor the EU as a whole—can tackle these challenges alone. Yet the continuation of Germany’s hesitant and inconsistent foreign and security policy will only serve to further exacerbate the overall situation. Whether on NATO’s 2-percent goal, debates on nuclear sharing, or the question of arming drones: Germany could lead the way with clear commitments on many issues, rather than simply bringing up the rear. It is not without reason that calls for stronger German and European engagement have grown ever louder in recent years. So far, however, little action has been taken—despite the Trump administration so clearly withdrawing its protective hand from the European partners—even more so than was the case when President Barack Obama was at the helm.

Now that these “years of horror” are over and the world—at least the so-called “West”—is hoping that the United States under President Joe Biden and his Secretary of State Antony Blinken will once again turn to diplomacy, there can be no more excuses. Europe must seize this opportunity and pro-actively breathe fresh air into transatlantic relations. On no account must Germany and the EU now simply wait for the new-old world power led by President Biden to do whatever needs to be done. Decisiveness, unity, and the capacity for action are now required, which also involves them demonstrating a readiness to shoulder responsibility for their own direct security. Of course, the frequently invoked principle of an interests-led, yet values-based, foreign policy must remain the maxim for action. Or indeed must become it, since it is hard to say when this principle was last actually applied.

Germany’s new foreign policy should in the first instance focus on its direct geographical neighborhood. Since this neighborhood naturally has the greatest relevance for core German and European security interests—notwithstanding the importance of other regions. In the Mediterranean region alone, a myriad of challenges exists, which the German government should address resolutely in cooperation with its European partners. It is worth taking a retrospective view. The events of 2015, with the “refugee crisis,” demonstrated even more clearly than previously that the problems in our neighborhood can, and will, impact directly on our society. The EU played scarcely any role in the war in Syria, whilst the US withdrew from the region early on, under President Obama.

And a similar scenario is now being played out in Libya. The Berlin Conference on Libya set out a bold vision. Yet, one year on, it is clear that none of the players in the war seriously believed, or now believes, in the necessity of implementing the decisions reached there. Likewise, the European naval mission Irini is little more than a well-intentioned attempt, an expression of the will to play a role in the conflict. Nevertheless, bearing in mind that Europe does not even have a common position towards the warring parties, it is remarkable that this mission came about at all.

Yet Syria and Libya are not the end of the story—a host of new problems have been looming on the horizon for some time. Lebanon, which is firmly in the grip of an outdated sectarian system, is in a politically and economically disastrous state. No improvement is in sight and those who can are leaving the country. Meanwhile, Iran continues to work on its vision of a Shiite axis and is using its militias in Iran, Iraq, and Syria to eliminate any reform-oriented voices. Stability and progress thus seem a distant prospect. Thus, it is not only on Libya and Syria that the Europeans must take a much bolder and more unified stance in the medium term. For it is only a matter of time until the impacts of the instability across the region are also felt within the EU. In this context, German and European interests and values must be dovetailed into a consistent and comprehensive approach.

Stronger Engagement

A new German and European foreign and neighborhood policy must include not only stronger engagement in the Middle East and North Africa, but also a fresh approach to both Turkey and Russia. Though it would be wrong to lump together the Putin and Erdogan systems, it is clear that both are pursuing an extremely aggressive foreign policy, are involved in an array of regional conflicts, show complete disregard for civil liberties and human rights, and are increasingly revamping their states in an autocratic and retrogressive fashion. Today, just over 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and 15 years after the launch of accession negotiations between Turkey and the EU, we must admit that hopes of both countries taking a pro-European path have been dashed. Despite the direct dependencies which exist—whether they be geostrategic or purely economic—Germany cannot afford to turn a blind eye when it comes to the values/interests trade-off.

The Biden administration will undoubtedly be open to cooperation on these and other aspects of the approach taken toward the wider Middle East. But Germany and the EU should set the course themselves. This is vital to a transatlantic partnership amongst equals. On issues of much greater geopolitical dimensions, such as relations with the People’s Republic of China, however, it will be vital to act in concert at every step along the way. One thing is clear: whether in seeking answers to European, or to global, foreign and security policy questions—Germany and Europe will not be able to defend either values or interests in the future by continuing to pursue a feel-good policy in the form of a raised moral finger.

Bijan Djir-Sarai is foreign affairs spokesman of the Free Democrats’ (FDP) parliamentary caucus in the German Bundestag.