A selection of leading experts answer a new question from Judy Dempsey on the foreign and security policy challenges shaping Europe’s role in the world.
Germany rediscovered strategy in foreign policy twenty-five years ago.
After World War II, Germany had to come to terms with its past. European integration, transatlantic relations, and nonintervention became the country’s founding pillars of foreign policy. The fall of the Berlin Wall allowed for new political scenarios. The reunited Germany was ready for a more proactive phase in world politics, supported by the country’s international economic weight.
When NATO intervened in the Western Balkans in 1995, German soldiers were deployed abroad for the first time since World War II. Subsequently, Germany sent soldiers to Kosovo, also on a peacekeeping mission. By 2007, Germany had become one of the top contributors to international missions.
#Germany is in the perfect position to be a key negotiator on Ukraine.Tweet This
In Afghanistan, the Germans were initially told their soldiers would spend their time helping with development projects. In 2010, however, then German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle formally reclassified the Afghan war as “an armed conflict under international law.” In 2011, together with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he decided to opt out of the NATO intervention in Libya, fearing an uncertain outcome on the eve of regional elections.
In the Ukraine crisis, Germany is in the perfect position to be a key negotiator and has a major interest in doing so given its intertwined economic interests with Russia. Merkel’s knowledge of Moscow and her fluency in Russian, coupled with her credibility in the West, make her the ideal—if not the only—leader who can convince both Russia and Ukraine to agree on a peace deal. Should she succeed, she will hail Germany as a major actor in world affairs.
Strategy is about the future, whereas current German policy is determined by the past and the present. German Chancellor Angela Merkel essentially concentrates on preventing, not solving, problems. German philosopher Ulrich Beck even gave this kind of political behavior its own name: Merkiavellism.
Faced with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive moves in Eastern Europe, Berlin now shows the same weakness it displayed in the eurozone crisis in recent years, namely a lack of strategic action. Merkel’s reactions are purely about solving emergencies and preventing future crises. Thanks to that approach, the euro has been protected from collapse, but none of the significant problems that underpinned the crisis has been dealt with. Germany’s lack of strategy led to the creation of Greece’s new far-left and right-wing coalition government.
#Germany's stance is driven by a fondness for Ostpolitik.Tweet This
In its attitude toward Putin, Berlin wants to save what is left of past relations between Europe and Russia. Germany’s stance is driven by a fondness for the foundations of the former Ostpolitik. This conciliatory policy was justified when Putin acted in a predictable way. Nowadays, however, when Moscow is interested not in negotiations but in territorial conquest, Merkel’s ad hoc, preventive policy only convinces Putin that the West is weak. That allows him to play on the differences between the EU and the United States. The danger in the East is growing instead of decreasing.
What used to look like Merkel’s policy advantage, namely her patience, seems to be working against her in the current circumstances. Strategy implies the ability to surprise, to make intelligent use of the argument of power, and to envisage alternative scenarios. If Germany’s only goal is not to make things worse, then all these elements of strategy are lacking in Berlin’s policies.
The foreign policy of any government . . . is a prolongation of its domestic policy. This is all too often forgotten in a period of “summit” meetings, when the public is led to believe that three or four Big Men solve, or fail to solve, the world’s predicaments according to whether they have or do not have the wisdom, the good will, or the magic wand needed for their task.
― Isaac Deutscher, The Great Contest: Russia and the West
#Germany is formulating its strategy based on domestic policy.Tweet This
Germany is not discovering strategy; rather, it is tactically formulating its strategy based on its domestic policy. German domestic policy, well reflected in the country’s grand coalition government of Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, was—until the twin eurozone and Ukraine crises—a relatively self-satisfied and consensus-based endeavor, shaped by public opinion and requiring little strategic thought.
Unfortunately, Germany has awoken abruptly from its economically complacent, elite-driven slumber and has stumbled into a period of policy disorientation and isolation. The world refuses to conform to Germany’s utopian vision of an orderly universe in which European economies follow the rules and Russia is a strategic partner rather than a revisionist power.
Through a distorted lens of its history, Berlin attempts to address this disorder by returning to old mantras of détente and “more Europe,” but these mantras are failing. Masking its policy strength, Berlin instinctively reaches out to traditional partners, such as France, to prevent its isolation and make its leadership more appealing. But Germany has no equivalent European peer and must make decisions according to its national interests.
As their frustration over this deteriorating state of affairs grows, Germans are directing their deepening confusion, anger, and anxiety toward the United States. For them, Washington is the source of the economic crisis that has profoundly challenged European monetary union, the instigator of NATO enlargement that “humiliated” Russia into annexing Crimea, and the power that is seeking to pervert European standards through the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
It is in this strategic environment that Germany is slowly formulating European and Russian policies, which are in sync neither with the rest of Europe nor with the United States.
If Germany is discovering strategy, it is not for the first time. Think back to the nineteenth century, when chancellor Otto von Bismarck managed to unify the Germans and won the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.
In the middle of the Cold War, there was Ostpolitik, a policy launched by then chancellor Willy Brandt to improve relations with the Eastern European Communist countries. West Germany’s goals after World War II were very different from the traditional objectives of power. The country did, however, have a sophisticated, strategic long-term vision: to seek redemption after Nazism, preserve the prospect of unity, improve the lives of divided German families, and build a strong, multilateral framework.
What about the 1990 reunification negotiations with the four Allied powers? In the eleven months following the fall of the Berlin Wall, Germany surpassed its goals: in October 1990, the two Germanys became a single sovereign state with safe borders and allies of its own choosing.
In the 21st century, #Germany is keen to lead on certain issues.Tweet This
In the twenty-first century, Germany is keen to lead on certain issues. This it does with great care, as in Ukraine. Berlin is still reluctant to use military means. But this is not simply because it lacks a sense of strategy. When a NATO ally such as Greece asks for German World War II reparations, does it help the German people to look to the future?
Yes and no. Germany’s foreign policy has long displayed a strategic approach in seeking to shape a political and economic environment responsive to the nation’s interests and needs. Chancellors like Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt, and Helmut Kohl successfully pursued a strategy of building a Germany at peace with all its neighbors, firmly embedded in integrated structures, respected for what it is, and not feared for what it was.
In light of today’s challenges, these policies appear to be “little strategy” as opposed to the grand strategy that is now required of German foreign policy. Berlin’s foreign policy elite is faced with decisions of war and peace, with no great power in the lead in whose shadow Germany could position itself.
On Ukraine, Merkel represents the West in the absence of leadership elsewhere.Tweet This
On the war in Ukraine and the standoff with Russia, German Chancellor Angela Merkel in effect represents Europe and the West in the absence of strong leadership elsewhere. By ruling out military assistance to Ukraine, which would have shifted the burden to the United States, she has moved even further into the lead, with all the risks associated with that role.
Strategy is about linking various issues, interests, and instruments to overcome zero-sum conflicts. Dealing with Russia now requires the opposite approach of what was needed in the eurozone crisis: comprehensive instead of selective, policy-driven instead of technocratic, power-based instead of rules-based.
More than ever before, Germany is facing the resource constraints of grand strategy. Berlin does not possess sufficient assets across the entire spectrum of foreign policy, and others know its limitations. Germany needs to align partners in the EU to wield economic power, which delays and dilutes resolve. After all, Germany and the EU perform best on sunshine policy—rewarding cooperation and supporting postconflict reconstruction and multilateral engagement.
For some time, one of Germany’s main weaknesses has been its lack of a strategic culture. Werner Weidenfeld, a German political scientist, has described the dangers of Germany’s “situational culture,” which has only one goal: to keep the present safe and stable. This characteristic can be seen throughout the country’s government, politics, and industry. It keeps Germany strong but also suppresses innovation and the formation of longer-term strategies.
One of #Germany's main weaknesses has been its lack of a strategic culture.Tweet This
The initiative launched on February 5 by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande to resolve the Ukraine crisis demonstrates that little has changed. The effort seems to have emerged at the last minute, after Russian military advances became too obvious to ignore. But it also seems to have been launched with one goal—and only one goal—in mind: to make peace. At least, protecting the EU’s credibility, saving democracy in Ukraine, or stopping Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior were not mentioned as objectives.
This is classic situational thinking. It presents Putin with a perfect tool to exert leverage over the EU and to dictate the final settlement. By foreclosing even nonlethal military aid to Ukraine, the Europeans gave up their one new piece of leverage. That is not a signal of new strategic thinking.
It depends on your tone. If this is the slightly patronizing question of whether Germany is learning to think like a grown-up country, like the United States or the UK, then no—Germany will always struggle with the idea of strategy as a narrow, means-versus-ends calculation based on national interests. But if you’re asking whether Germany is inventing new ways of making strategy in the modern world, then yes—I’m rather more hopeful.
#Germany is inventing new ways of making strategy in the modern world.Tweet This
U.S. grand strategy has instinctively rested on global trade plus national representative democracy. Berlin’s approach is probably based on regional liberalization plus federalism. But if the U.S. recipe of global reach and national sovereignty oversimplifies the formulation and realization of strategy, Germany’s mix of regionalism and decentralization will hugely complicate it—not least in the relationship between Berlin and Washington.
So, is the United States itself ready to rediscover strategy? The administration of President Barack Obama certainly seems ready to rely on others but finds itself pushed into either nonintervention or narrow unilateralism. Will Russia permit the shift? Such a transition might play out in the Kremlin’s favor, but the temptation to act as spoiler seems simply too strong.
Germany, as one of the world’s leading exporters, is a geo-economic power that pursues a strategy based largely on its economic interests. The country’s diplomatic tools are instruments of economic, and certainly not military, hard power.
#Germany pursues a strategy based largely on its economic interests.Tweet This
This does not mean that Berlin lacks a strategic outlook, only that its approach to the world has been guided by a geo-economic strategic culture. This culture reinforces the successes of engagement and the rapprochement-driven Ostpolitik, rather than confrontation.
The German position is well suited to the context of globalization. Many in Berlin see the country’s stance as more compatible with the new conditions of global relations than the realpolitik approaches of traditional military powers such as France, the UK, Russia, and the United States.
Russia’s return to an old-style strategy based on military power, nationalism, and spheres of influence has challenged the assumptions of what a globalized world order demands. Germany’s response to the Ukraine crisis has questioned Berlin’s approach but has not, as yet, fundamentally altered it. Germany continues to avoid the military option but has come to rely on economic instruments like sanctions. This is a major step for a country that has consistently resisted the use of sanctions or any form of economic warfare.
As German Chancellor Angela Merkel argued at this year’s Munich Security Conference, strategic patience and reliance on the long-term impact of economic and political interdependence will prevail—albeit with an element of containment of Russia. Germany has taken the lead, as it promised to do at the 2014 Munich Security Conference, on Ukraine and Russia. In doing so, it has shaped the larger Western strategic approach.
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