A Small Step in Germany
A Small Step in Germany
Die Deutschen machen sich von einem Diktator abhängig
Die Deutschen machen sich von einem Diktator abhängig
Op-Ed / Europe & Central Asia 8 minutes

A Small Step in Germany

Talking about power (and the will to power) in Germany is a delicate business. When one wonders why German officials and policy wonks emphasize "effective multilateralism," conflict prevention, "the rule of law," partnerships, and Germany-in-Europe, the answer is always "for historical reasons," followed by a pause.

The phrase explains everything and nothing. The fact that Germans once led Europe into several years of murderous insanity has led to a principle, in German foreign policy, of restraint on power -- thus the multilateralism, partnerships and so on -- that approaches paradox: you can only act if others act. Germany can't have the solitude that every other nation has, and believes it shouldn't go out for a walk by itself at night.

The third Berlin Foreign Policy Forum last week, sponsored by the influential Koerber Foundation with the participation of the federal government, was itself a symptom of Germany's inching forward to accepting its growing role in the world. Still, an inch at a time: There was noticeably little direct mention of Germany's expanded presence, and the only agenda item devoted to it was about Germany in Europe. And that was off the record. 

The incongruity was heightened by the slowness of negotiations over a new government: Angela Merkel's CDU was at the end of its second month of coalition negotiations, mainly with the centrist SPD party, with further to-ing and fro-ing likely before a government forms in mid-December. As much as a year ago, major European debates and decisions were already being delayed with the thought that "we ought to wait until we see what happens with the German election." And then -- another three months? It suggested a lack of serious purpose.

So, for the most part, did the coalition negotiations themselves, as far as foreign policy went. The widely leaked, 25-page foreign-policy chapters of the coalition negotiating document -- a ten-page chapter on Europe, a 15-page chapter on the rest of the world -- were something of a cut-and-paste, and had sections that appeared to be dropped in by the CDU, others by the SPD, presumably to be harmonized, or not, at some later date. The final public version was tighter, but not a lot.

A big reason for this relative indifference to foreign policy is that foreign policy is so dominated by Europe: it is at once the major topic of German foreign policymaking, the major field for asserting that policy, a major instrument of it (through the shared European External Action Service), and its most important result (as a way to manage relations on the continent and present a coherent front to Europe's east and southeast). And, of course, the peaceful and unified European market is key to German wealth and thus to its power outside Europe as well.

Europe's centrality is a somewhat bitter pill for Germany's foreign-policy elite. The academic and professional road maps don't tell how to make "foreign" policy with nations that are joined with your own as part of a 17-member common currency zone and a 28-member common economic and political zone. (As for a foreign policy that would enable nations to protect their interests in the event of a European breakup -- well, that just has to not happen.) Nobody knows how to make a not-very-foreign foreign policy.

This is a challenge for all EU countries but especially so for Germany, which by virtue of its size, centrality and economic strength -- and its businesses' success in international markets as exporters and multinationals -- is uniquely placed for European leadership. It has, in effect, led Europe since the recession began in 2007 and Germany embarked on its career as reluctant hegemon. It has led for economic reasons. But this creates an expectation for leadership of other kinds. The other main European foreign-policy players, Britain and France, operate still within national (and ex-colonial, even ex-Allied) traditions and understand and project power accordingly. Germany is left as the major power of Europe itself, and to the degree that Europe projects power it will do so under significant German influence.

But how, and toward what end? For now, European foreign policy is shaped by values (based on treaties and the decade-old European Security Strategy), formed by consensus of the 28-member council of foreign ministers, and executed by a non-professional, appointed High Representative (currently Baroness Catherine Ashton) who chairs the council of foreign ministers, sits on the European Commission, and depends upon a comically under-resourced front-office cohort atop a professional bureaucracy (the European External Action Service, EEAS) that mixes European and seconded national officials. (Ashton's deputy secretary-general for political affairs, Helga Schmid, is a German career diplomat from Bavaria and a bright star in the German firmament.) The EU has been criticized for having no foreign-policy strategy since just after the European Security Strategy came out -- and this was repeated at the Berlin forum -- but how could a 28-member body ever agree on truly strategic priorities?

The EU actually does have a coherent foreign policy and has had a dozen or so pretty successful projects recently, from Kosovo to the P5+1 negotiations with Iran (which Europeans sometimes call the E3+3). But it is a tactical policy: the 28 countries actually avoid strategic prioritizing, and attempts at planning ahead have run up against the fact, familiar to anyone who makes foreign policy, that the big emergency of June will have been displaced by Christmas (see: Ukraine).

Besides, Europe as such has few strategic interests. It needs energy. It doesn't want an excess of non-Europeans. Beyond that, its interests are in adequately free trade and the global public goods everybody else wants, like an effort against global warming and sea lanes free from pirates.

To defend such interests you need police and some military assets but not really a military. Europe shows no sign of becoming a military power. Money is its main weapon.

Europe is, in short, and not coincidentally, a lot like Germany.

Is Germany, and therefore Europe, likely to change with a new government in Berlin? Possibly, though not by much. The conviction in Berlin is that the CDU will keep the Ministry of Finance under the firm hand of Wolfgang Schauble, while the SPD will probably get the Foreign Ministry under Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who did the job once before in 2005-2009. German foreign policy has been increasingly "executivized" -- brought under the control of the Chancellor's office -- at the expense of the foreign ministry. But if the SPD indeed takes the foreign ministry and Steinmeier runs it, this executivization is likely to weaken. Steinmeier is a prominent figure. He has a strategic turn of mind. He comes from an SPD tendency -- tradition is too strong a word -- that developed under Joschka Fischer (as FM) and Gerhard Schroeder (as chancellor), and itself harked back to the Ostpolitik (eastern-oriented policy) of Willy Brandt, who was chancellor from 1960 to 1974.

This tendency was based on a certain independence from the US and an idea that Germany had interests of its own and shouldn't be shy about advancing them: in other words, not so much against America as for a more independent Germany (which meant, de facto, being more independent from Europe). Steinmeier is not Fischer, but he is experienced and strong-willed. Merkel's coalition government itself took an independent line in abstaining from the Libya resolution in March 2011, reflecting broad German opinion that its first "out-of-area" experience with NATO -- in Afghanistan -- should maybe also be its last. The coalition draft foreign-policy program said almost nothing about NATO. There is a real drift here. Something new is forming.

The great clarifiers for Germany have long been France and Russia. France, which the coalition draft gave just a few sentences, is quiet for now. Russia is not. Ukraine was expected to sign a trade agreement with the EU -- at the Vilnius summit last week -- when, in essence, Russia convinced Ukraine not to. (Russia performed a similar exercise with Armenia in September.) At Vilnius last Friday, EU Council president Herman von Rompuy stated unambiguously that Russia's actions were "incompatible with how international relations should function on our continent." Russia views the European Union as like a soft NATO, which is not altogether wrong. The Russian version of it -- the Eurasian Customs Unions -- possesses little economic sense or, as yet, economic viability, but politically it is quite real. Putin is not at all alienated from his own will to power, or from Russia's. Given Russia's proven ability to disrupt vital energy supplies, Germany will continue to pay special attention, with or without the EU, to its eastern neighbor. The lengthy attention paid to Russia in the CDU-SPD coalition document suggests a new government might construct its own version of Ostpolitik. So did Merkel's upbraiding of Ukraine's Victor Yanukovich, which was quickly made available on video. Protests in Ukraine led German FM Guido Westerwelle to tweet: "Demonstrations on the streets are the best proof, that the heart of the Ukrainian people beats in a European way."

One of the interesting features of the Berlin discussion was the lack of emphasis on Islamist terrorism. The Forum included an extended thrust-and-parry between Prince Turki al-Faisal of Saudi Arabia and Hossein Mousavian of Iran -- a former intelligence chief and former nuclear negotiator, respectively. Each accused the other's country of sponsoring terrorism in Syria. But the vision of Islamism as a more general threat was now advanced principally by Muslim attendees. Among Westerners (and the Japanese, and to a degree the Indians) the real threat was from China. China and the U.S. had begun taunting each other over the East China Sea the preceding weekend. The Forum included an (unscheduled) exchange between representatives of Japan and China, increasingly a set-piece at foreign-policy conferences.

Finally, the argument was made that the Iran agreement of that same weekend was due to EU diplomacy. This seems to have been true in a very specific sense: because the EU, which has only had a (somewhat) empowered foreign-policy representative since 2010, has little history per se with the Iran nuclear discussion, it was therefore able to act as an honest broker and hold the pen for important stretches of the agreement. That is an extremely valuable role to be able to play in diplomacy, and it is rare for good reason: there is hardly ever an actor who is respected and motivated without being compromised.

The EU has, in a sense, power but no history. If it keeps its power, it will get the history after a while. Germany has had history but little power. That's changing. One startling Forum moment came when Chancellor Merkel's principal foreign-policy adviser, the formidable Christoph Heusgen -- responding to some Asian jibes about how Germany, for historical reasons, was in no position to judge others -- noted that Germans have worked very hard to deal with their past, and that to him it was a wonder why Japanese leaders continued to feel they need to visit the Yasukuni shrine. Germans have indeed worked hard to regain a respected place in the world, and how they use their power to build Germany's role in the EU will define the coming decades - as well, of course, as history.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.