Beginning this week, Strategic Europe launches a new series devoted to explaining the foreign and security policy ambitions of the 28 EU member states. We have asked our contributors from each capital to give a candid assessment of their country’s perception of security and strategy, with a ranking on a scale from 0 (the laggards) to 5 (the ambitious). To kick off the series, this week the spotlight is on Germany.

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International crises bring about the best and the worst in governments’ policies. Germany is no exception. A look back at 2014 shows a Germany at the center of gravity in EU foreign policy making. During a year plagued by wars and conflict, Chancellor Angela Merkel managed to show leadership while also integrating other EU countries into a specifically German approach. That was no mean feat for a country so often criticized for not taking more responsibility commensurate with its size and economic power.

Map; Germany If anything, the foreign policy ambition of Merkel’s third government is quite remarkable. It is definitely higher than that of her previous coalition, which wouldn’t be difficult given that government’s lackluster approach in this field. Berlin’s current level of foreign policy ambition should be ranked 4 out of 5.

It’s not that Germany didn’t use its weight under the first two Merkel governments. Ask anyone in Greece whether they think that Berlin was unaware of its power as it insisted on tough austerity measures for the single currency area. But Germany’s weight and influence were mainly geared toward just that—economic and structural reform in the eurozone—rather than toward foreign policy issues.

This balance has changed with the Ukraine crisis.

When Russia began meddling in Ukraine, Merkel effectively proved wrong those observers who used to claim that her interest in foreign affairs, and particularly in international security policy, was limited. It was she who has been engaged in crisis management efforts. It was she who has taken on the task of talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. U.S. President Barack Obama was only too happy to delegate that role to her.

At the same time, Merkel and German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier coordinated the EU approach toward Moscow. In doing so, despite immense differences among the 28 member states over Russia, Berlin kept the Europeans together on the sanctions they imposed against Moscow. That unity is not a given and will be tested when the sanctions come up for renewal later in 2015.

But the German concern was and is about more than just Crimea or the European Neighborhood Policy. More clearly than many other observers, Merkel has understood that there is a linkage between the Ukraine crisis and the German ability to shape and influence the world. Since 1949, German policy has been based on the existence of effective international organizations and established norms and principles rather than on military capabilities.

It’s not only the Ukraine crisis that has preoccupied the Merkel government in recent years. One of Germany’s more strategic diplomatic endeavors has been its leading role in the negotiations with Tehran on Iran’s nuclear program. That role should not be underestimated. Berlin initiated the talks together with Paris and London back in 2003 and has been a driving force behind them ever since.

This strong, constant engagement can be explained by the combined background of Germany’s commitment to the security of Israel, its general interest in furthering arms control, and its firm economic and political relationship with Tehran. Being a key trading partner of Iran certainly furthered Germany’s interest in finding a diplomatic solution to the dispute over Iran’s nuclear program.

The Middle East in general has always been an important policy field for Germany. The region may even become a priority in the years to come, simply because of the domestic consequences of the current unrest there. Germany has constantly supported European and U.S. efforts to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, occasionally trying—albeit without great success—to provide new ideas or mediation. The now-defunct Middle East Quartet, established in 2002, was the brainchild of the then German foreign minister.

Berlin kept the Europeans together on sanctions.
 
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However, it has always been clear to German politicians that the United States would have to sit in the driver’s seat to make peace in the Middle East possible. Germany lacks the necessary weight in the region to provide the incentives, let alone the security guarantees, to accomplish a comprehensive and lasting agreement.

More recently, the worsening situation in Iraq and Syria has spurred the Merkel government to adopt a more active, multipronged approach to this part of the region. This includes the acceptance of more than 70,000 Syrian refugees into Germany; support for transborder humanitarian support into Syria; and increased efforts by the German security services to monitor and stem the flow of foreign fighters from Germany to Syria and Iraq and back.

In an unexpected turn, Berlin also decided to provide arms and training to the Kurdish peshmerga forces to help contain the expansion of the so-called Islamic State without directly engaging militarily. However, this support lacks the necessary strategic underpinning: the military as well as the political goal remain unclear.

The decision to supply arms to the peshmerga was remarkable in that it meant Germany taking sides and building up its influence in a regional conflict. But it also reflected the reluctance of the German government to engage the country’s own armed forces in any large-scale military operation.

Instead, Berlin is advocating a subsidiary policy that amounts to supporting other countries and regional organizations in providing security and stability in their respective environments. Germany was one of the driving forces behind the agenda of the December 2013 European Council meeting of EU leaders, which emphasized the importance of empowering global partners to take more responsibility for regional security.

In 2013, the then minister of defense, Thomas de Maizière, presented a proposal to develop a “framework nations concept” aimed at building integrated military capabilities within NATO. The main question Germany has to answer in this context is how it will make sure that German troops who are supposed to constitute the “framework” for such an integrated force would be reliably available for common European or NATO operations.

As a major trading power, Germany has a strong interest in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Although the European Commission conducts the negotiations on behalf of the EU, member states have decisive influence. In Germany, the TTIP file is in the hands of the economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, who is also the leader of the Social Democratic Party. His party members, along with trade unions and environmental and consumer protection groups, tend to be wary of the negotiations, to say the least.

Indeed, TTIP has become more a domestic than an international challenge for the coalition. What is interesting is that Merkel has taken a low profile over this important issue, which will have immense implications for the transatlantic relationship and global trade whether the deal succeeds or fails.

Berlin must realize that foreign policy begins at home.
 
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And here is the crux of German foreign policy. It is all very well for Berlin to take center stage in trying to end the Ukraine crisis or to recognize the importance of TTIP. But a bolder, more active German foreign policy requires not only the whole range of political instruments and the will to use them but also—and more importantly—strategic orientation, commitment, patience, and the will to engage others. That means strong political leadership, domestically as well as internationally.

Germany has not arrived at that point. If Germany is to live up to international expectations of its power and responsibility, then Berlin has to realize that foreign policy begins at home.

 

Volker Perthes is the director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).

Markus Kaim is the head of the international security research division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP).