In the think tank business, we tend to be slightly obsessed with review processes. Think tankers will always defend the value of a long, all-encompassing strategy process at the end of which stands a document that will provide clarity, guidance, and answers to the complex challenges ahead.
When such a review is conducted by Germany, the attention for this kind of process goes beyond the think tank class. Eyebrows are also raised in diplomatic circles, across the EU institutions, and in the international media. Berlin’s fundamental orientations and beliefs are too relevant for everyone—including for many powers outside the Old World—to be ignored.
On March 16 at Carnegie Europe in Brussels, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier presented the findings of Review 2014, a year-long assessment of German foreign policy he had conducted inside and outside the German Foreign Office. The process sought to find out what the new demands on Berlin’s diplomacy were, how Germans looked at those demands, and what the Foreign Office could do to deal better with the country’s new international role.
First and foremost, as with all strategy processes, the German review was part of a domestic power struggle. After Steinmeier had taken over again as foreign minister in late 2013, he realized he needed to change the culture inside the Foreign Office.
The ministry was not only steeped in an outdated West German culture of passivity, lack of strategy, and adversity to a more exposed role for Germany in the world. It was also a place that had been thoroughly traumatized by the lackluster performance of Steinmeier’s predecessor, Guido Westerwelle, who personified this old culture (often described in Germany as “Genscherism” after the long-serving former foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher) and who was clearly out of his depth in foreign affairs.
On reentering office, Steinmeier felt that the prevailing attitude inside the building did not fit the new demands Germany faced as a leading global player. He believed he needed to embark on an educational crusade to rally the internal agents of change behind a new culture of outward and forward thinking on Germany’s role in the world.
The internal purpose of the review also had another dimension. Steinmeier needed to regain some of the influence that the Foreign Office had lost to the Chancellery, where Angela Merkel’s tightly managed team of foreign policy advisers had concentrated power at the expense of Steinmeier’s Auswärtiges Amt.
The review process, with its strong public component, was one way to underline the Foreign Office’s ambition to get back in the game. The project also served the desire of Steinmeier’s Social Democratic Party to bolster its standing within the grand coalition run by the all-dominant chancellor.
#Review2014 underlined @AuswaertigesAmt's ambition to get back in the game.Tweet This
This competitive relationship with the chancellor reveals the second message of the review. Both the document and Steinmeier’s speech were eager to stress one point again and again: that Germany needs to be tightly embedded in the EU and that Berlin’s foreign policy can only be a European one. Steinmeier calls this Germany’s European reflex. It is a direct response to the foreign policy temptations of some nationally minded eager beavers who think that from a position of strength comes Germany’s ability to go it alone if needed.
This Europeanist stance is also a not-so-subtle distancing from Chancellor Merkel, whose European instincts are clearly more intergovernmental than integrationist. Steinmeier positioned himself as the advocate of Germany the good European, a role the country had traditionally played before former chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Merkel at least partly abandoned it.
Many Europeans will happily register Steinmeier’s message. Its value, however, remains unclear. Germany’s European strategies are still primarily conceived in the Chancellery, not in the Foreign Office. The power struggle continues.
The third takeaway is that Steinmeier is just as much a slave to public opinion as is anyone else in Germany’s political class, including Merkel. The foreign minister invoked again and again the results of an opinion poll that was conducted alongside the review process: that roughly 60 percent of Germans believe that the country should not take on more responsibility internationally.
Steinmeier mentioned this statistic three times during the Carnegie event in Brussels, and it became very clear that he considers the finding a serious limitation on what German leaders can get away with at home.
I have long thought that such an obsession with numbers is unhealthy. Results like these have frequently been mentioned specifically in the debate about Germany’s role as a military power. Time and again, real life has proved that these figures are worth very little. German governments have not been damaged by deploying troops abroad or by being active in foreign policy.
The suspicion won’t disappear that German elites, when pressed to lead on foreign and security affairs, still feel they need to hide behind the alleged attitudes of German voters, as measured in opinion polls. This is a bothersome phenomenon, and it needs to change.
It is striking how weak the #Review2014 final report is on actual substance.Tweet This
Finally, it is striking how weak the Review 2014 final report is on actual substance. Global developments, risk assessments, German interests, strategic conclusions—none of this features prominently in the document compiled after one year of deliberations.
Granted, this report was not meant to be a grand foreign policy strategy. And yet, it is a disappointment that the project has only superficially addressed the major blind spot in Germany’s foreign policy culture: Berlin’s failure to put the nation in the wider context of today’s dramatic global power struggle and ask what that struggle means for Germany’s interests, alliances, values, and responsibilities.
On balance, Steinmeier and the Foreign Office have done a very valuable, even admirable, thing. Let’s hope it marks only the starting point of a truly new culture of strategic thinking in Germany.