Toward a New German Foreign Policy

Dec 21, 2020

Time for an Active Global Policy

The United States is withdrawing from the world, Russia and China are moving into vacuums, and new power centers around the globe are emerging. In response, Germany and Europe need to become truly global players.

An empty gangway on Berlin Brandenburg Airport
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“The world is out of joint,” is how many people around the world feel these days, as they follow the daily flow of news pouring in from the Middle East, from China, from Russia, from North and South America, from Africa, from many parts of Europe. We have all become contemporary witnesses to a near-tectonic shift in the world’s political and economic balance of power.

The United States of America is—once again—entering a phase of retreat, withdrawing in order to look to its own interests. Even after the departure of Donald Trump, this phase of US policy will continue, at least for some time, and possibly for a very long time.

Advancing into Vacuums

Other countries are advancing into the vacuum this has created, aggressively asserting their own interests. There is Russia, militarily powerful, if economically quite weak. There is, of course, the People’s Republic of China, busy using history’s momentum for its own ends. After three decades of powerful economic growth, China has begun taking to the world stage as a political actor, openly seeking to assert its power. The Belt and Road Initiative is just one way in which the Chinese Communist Party is pursuing strategic imperial goals. It is also placing its representatives in key positions within international organizations, a clever policy since this is another area abandoned by the US.

Meanwhile, Europe is striving to find its own role in the world, but a lack of inner cohesion means the European Union still falls short of global relevance. For the 27-member union, Brexit has come at the worst possible time, disturbing the latest phase of its political development. Moreover, the departure of its second largest economy inevitably weakens the EU, internally and externally, in both political and economic terms.

New Power Centers

We are also witnessing the emergence of many regional power centers, all increasingly keen to have a real say in global economic and political affairs. Glance down the list of emerging powers—India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Nigeria, South Africa, Mexico, Brazil, and so on—and it becomes clear that we are standing at the threshold of a new multipolar world order. Nonetheless, we can safely assume that the 21st century will largely be shaped by two or three major powers. Two of them will unquestionably be the US and China. The EU could take the third role here, if it wants to, and if it can. Which brings us to the crucial question: do we Europeans want to be global players and if we do, are we capable of it?

Our answer to this will impact far more than just Europe’s continued prosperity, important although that may be. This is also a question, above all perhaps, of deciding on the major formative force in our world, or at least on our own continent. Will our world be shaped by Western, liberal-democratic values, and by Enlightenment concepts of what it means to be human? Will our societies remain pluralistic?  (“Our societies” here, we hope, being Europe and the United States, again strongly allied.) Or will we be caught up and sucked in by populist, xenophobic, ultimately authoritarian political systems, of a kind best described as “illiberal democracies”?

Learning the Language of Power

Faced with these challenges, Europe has remained far too self-absorbed. As Europeans in today’s world, this is something we simply cannot afford to do. At long last, Europe must become “capable of global politics,” as Jean-Claude Juncker, the former EU Commission president, put it. Or, to use a phrase from his successor Ursula von der Leyen, and her High Representative for foreign affairs, Josep Borrell, Europe must “learn the language of power.”

However, if Europe has to learn this language, Germany very much has to learn it, too. We Germans have to watch out for our own interests within the EU; but even more than this, we must learn to defend our interests, alongside and with the EU, in relation to the rest of the world. The debate about Nord Stream 2 (the gas pipeline running from Russia to western Europe underneath the Baltic Sea) underlines the significance of this stance. After the US imposed sanctions against Europe on this issue, we must maintain a united front with our European partners in order to fight off the unacceptable US action, and, if necessary, hit back. If Germany is left isolated, or is in open dispute with our European allies, we will be powerless, with no say in what happens.

A Consistent China Strategy

In Asia, Europe must increase its visibility as a united political actor. For this reason, it was absolutely right and proper for Germany to organize a special EU-China summit. The historic meeting was due to take place in Leipzig in September 2020, as part of Germany’s six-month EU Council presidency. Unfortunately, like so much else this year, the meeting fell victim to COVID-19 and was postponed. Because the Chinese leadership is now acting in a far more overtly power-oriented way, so the EU must make genuine countermoves. For this, Europe needs to have a consistent China strategy, including a common response to Beijing’s Belt and Road project.

We Germans have a special responsibility to bring about European sovereignty, so that we can maintain our position as a world actor, especially so as to face off as an equal with the US and China. Germany has an existential interest in the EU’s continued existence. But at the same time, we are the major player on the European continent, whose behavior will decisively influence its fate. It is time for an active German European policy, one which faces up to global challenges, alongside its partners in the EU.

Friedrich Merz is a contender for the CDU party leadership. The vote will take place at a virtual party conference on January 16, 2021.