The main feature – and the main problem – of German foreign policy is its ambiguity. In none of the key areas of foreign policy does Germany present an image of complete reliability and predictability. This is clearly inconsistent with the perception of the Germans themselves, who generally feel that they are particularly good partners.

While such a revelation is painful for other foreign policy players, it is dreadful for a country of Germany's size, economic power, geographic location and history.

Jan Techau
Techau was the director of Carnegie Europe, the European center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Techau works on EU integration and foreign policy, transatlantic affairs, and German foreign and security policy.
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Predictability and reliability are core foreign policy virtues, particularly for a country that has so much direct and indirect influence, upon which so much depends, and which is looked to with such expectation.

How does this ambiguity manifest itself? In none of the key areas of German foreign policy does Germany demonstrate the commitment, resolution, investment or creativity that are actually required.

This applies to Germany's European policy and the relationship with NATO. It can be seen in the relationship with Russia, on trade issues, and in the particularly vital bilateral relationship with the United States.

Germany needs to become a model European once more

In terms of European policy, Germany enjoyed a considerable degree of credibility over many decades because it behaved in a way that was particularly pro-integration. Germany thereby indicated that it was more willing than others to compromise its own narrow self-interest for the sake of Europe as a whole.

Germany was always willing to concede a little more and step back a little earlier than others. This made Germany a "servant leader" and the indisputable buffer power that was greatly trusted and whose occasional unilateral activities were pardoned more swiftly than those of other member states.

Since the late 1990s, under both Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel, this image and the trust dividend have been constantly eroded and further damaged by some of the positions Germany has adopted in the EU.

This ranges from its excessive austerity policy during the euro crisis, through its obstructive policy in the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP) and the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), to its undermining of the joint trade policy with relation to China. With regard to energy policy, too, Germany is suspected of protecting its own energy companies to the detriment of a joint internal market policy and external stance vis-à-vis Russia.

Its position on the question of the underlying political reform of the EU is also unclear. The fact that so few other member states have adopted a stance on this issue is also linked to the fact that Germany has not taken the lead.

Germany ought to do everything possible to get back to its role as a model European, even if this is more difficult to sell at home than it was in previous decades. The European unification process is largely based on the fact that Germany was willing to concede more than others. Despite some additional costs in specific cases this has, on the whole, been of enormous benefit to the country and enhanced its influence. Since Germany became a "normal European", the integration process has faltered and mistrust of Berlin has grown.

In a dramatic global political situation that will generate a new order in the coming decades, European integration is again becoming a future issue. If Germany fails to invest now, Europe will suffer an unprecedented decline in importance.

Western Alliance still a vital issue

The same applies to the Atlantic Alliance. Despite a nominally strong military commitment, Germany has developed a reputation within the Alliance for being unreliable. Despite the recent advance with the Framework Nation Concept, Germany is felt to be only moderately interested in strengthening NATO. It is seen as a country favouring the status quo, which neither wishes to get more closely involved in collective defence and Article 5, nor is interested in developing a flexible alliance to protect member states’ global security interests.

Germany's planned reform of its armed forces has also been to a large extent uncoordinated and done in isolation. Its supposed requirement for parliamentary approval for armed foreign deployments is perceived as what it really is, i.e. the approval of the executive is required (there can be no such requirement in the parliamentary political system). And its constant concern for Russian sensibilities, most recently on the issue of how much reassurance and deterrence is provided within the alliance in the Russia/Ukraine crisis, call into question its reliability as a defence partner.

On top of this there is the armaments policy, nationally oriented on a grand scale, which, despite minor initiatives, is regarded as one of the main reasons for the lack of cooperation on procurement projects. The German veto of the EADS-BAE Systems merger greatly reinforced this impression.

All this would not be so damaging if Germany did not have such a special role in both NATO and the EU. NATO membership is the most visible evidence of Germany’s ties with the West. The Western Alliance, in turn, is the key political and strategic issue for Europe.

Whether or not peace and stability will reign in Europe in the medium and long term depends on whether Germany, against some of its instincts, stays firmly in the camp of the democratic, market economy-based, constitutional nations of the West, or whether it succumbs to its dreams of neutrality and equidistance (which have again been revealed in the most shameful manner in the Ukraine crisis).

Germany needs to invest hugely, both politically and financially, in its NATO membership, and contribute more to the Alliance’s dwindling operational capabilities. German foreign policy makers need to focus far more openly on the centrality of the Western Alliance as an issue, and inform the public far more clearly of the growing military security risks in Europe's proximity and globally. If this fails to be done, the public will not provide political support when the Government requires some leeway to make decisions in times of crisis.

Moving the debate away from morality to responsibility

To publicly protect these political investments, there needs to be a sea change in the debate over foreign and security policy in Germany. This debate still focuses mainly on moral issues, but Germany needs to talk primarily about responsibility.

After the Second World War traumatised, morally bankrupt Germans developed an enormous hunger for moral clarity on all political issues. There was great uncertainty over whether they might fail yet again, so moral analyses of every political issue became the key characteristic of Germany's political culture. This culture still dominates in every area of politics, and an insecure society uses it as reassurance that it is on the right side.

In terms of foreign policy this approach is limited, for moral clarity is something rarely found there. Foreign policy and security policy decisions almost always have to be taken in a moral grey area that requires a choice between unsatisfactory options. Moral dilemmas can rarely be resolved.

Because of their excessive need for moral clarity, Germans find these balancing acts almost unendurable. This causes them to compulsively attempt to avoid choosing. The result is a culture of passivity, fence-sitting and rejection of any active role in international politics, particularly on issues concerning military deployments.

In this debate German foreign policy makers have the duty to remind the German people that the moral considerations are necessary and that the country can face them with serenity and optimism. Germany is a strong democracy with stable institutions. It has a stable democratic culture. It can cope with these considerations. And if they occasionally turn out wrong, it does not mean the end of civilisation as we know it.

This message was the reason behind the speech made by the German President at the 2014 Munich Security Conference. Joachim Gauck sought to get to the root of the problem, namely German trauma and the resulting need to be morally blameless.

More German foreign policy makers should copy Gauck. Only when Germans come to understand that they have long been able to trust themselves will there be the leeway within foreign policy for a responsibility which is no longer simply responsibility for their own conscience, but for principles, peace-making and rule-sets whose implementation cannot be left to goodwill alone, but which often come at a price.

What can be done?

  • Pass a law making it a Federal Government obligation to present a report every three years on Germany's plans for foreign policy and security policy. In parallel with this, a report, to be updated every three years, on the Federal Republic of Germany’s strategic situation, incl. an analysis of global trends;
  • Create an integrated planning and analysis tool for German foreign policy and security policy, along the lines of the USA's National Security Council, in the Federal Chancellery;
  • Present a plan for developing the EU into a political union after the euro crisis as a follow up project based on the Treaty of Lisbon;
  • Greatly strengthen Europe's foreign policy capabilities, incl. fundamental reform of the EEAS, the division of labour between the EEAS and the Commission, extend civil and military CSDP missions, and an ambitiously led EU strategic process based on the December 2013 Summit mandate;
  • Call a halt to all German unilateral trade policy activities;
  • Present a German strategy paper for making NATO more flexible internally in order to adjust to the more complex security situation in Europe (enable institutionally protected "coalitions of the willing" within the Alliance);
  • Fundamentally reform the German military procurement management system in the Federal Ministry of Defence, reopen the merger of EADS and BAE Systems, abandon Germany’s delaying tactics in the European Defence Agency;
  • Resolutely convert the so called German "parliamentary caveat" into a Bundestag recall entitlement (reject anticipatory resolutions);
  • Substantially improve the German secret services' technical resources;
  • Integrate the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development into the Federal Foreign Office;
  • Upgrade the BAKS (Federal Academy for Security Policy) and make it into a world-class school for strategy (so called level 4 education); under civil service careers law, make it obligatory that "political" federal civil servants and officers with the career objective of General Staff Officer are trained at the BAKS. Bring the BAKS under the control of the National Security Agency;
  • Make the German Institute for International and Security Affairs into a modern, policy-oriented think-tank with a far larger role in public debates;
  • Upgrade the German international broadcaster Deutsche Welle, which is disconcertingly provincial, and make it into a professional radio, TV and online organisation operating at an international level;
  • Upgrade Germany's international cultural policy, particularly the Goethe-Institut.

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