Rethinking German Foreign Policy: The Long Road Ahead

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German members of the Stabilization Force (SFOR) Bosnia. Photo: USAF/Wikimedia Commons.

At last: Leading German politicians, first and foremost the Federal President Joachim Gauck, are setting the tone for a more engaged and higher-profile German foreign policy.

In his well-received – perhaps historic – speech at the opening of the Munich Security Conference President Gauck called for Germany to play a more responsible role in the international community – commensurate with its economic standing and political influence in the world.

Even more remarkable is that it is a well-coordinated approach by the German government and not simply a Sunday’s address by a figure-head President devoid of any legislative powers.

In the run up to the Security Conference, well-timed comments by both Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of the SPD and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen of the CDU served as a prelude for the debate. At the Security Conference itself, Minister von der Leyen expanded on her previous remarks by indicating broader German engagement in military missions abroad, too.

Politicians involved in foreign policy and German diplomats were longing for a re-positioning of Germany within the international community. Officials in the Foreign Ministry are admitting – albeit only in private – that the last four years achieved little with one missed opportunity following another. Germany’s two years as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council in 2011 and 2012 were an ideal, yet essentially lost opportunity. Conversely, these years even harmed Germany’s credibility and influence following its abstention in the decision on international military action during the civil war in Libya.

Now the government and President Gauck are not only (re-)introducing Germany into the international game; they are calling for a change of its position in the team.

Mr. Gauck told the audience in and outside the banqueting hall of the Hotel Bayerischer Hof in the Bavarian capital Munich that Germany “must be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others have provided it with for decades.”

Asking rhetorically whether Germany had “shown enough initiative to ensure the future viability of the network of norms, friends and alliances which has brought us peace in freedom and democracy in prosperity?” he offered a clear response: “In my opinion, Germany should make a more substantial contribution, and it should make it earlier and more decisively if it is to be a good partner.”

The President found the balance between the necessary deduction from Germany’s dark history and the need for a more active international policy commensurate with its current economic strength and moral standing.

Touching upon all instruments for international action – namely development cooperation, Germany leading the world into a resource-efficient future and its promotion of international institutions – Gauck made clear that “more responsibility” does not mean “more throwing our weight around”, nor does it mean “more going it alone”!

Though Gauck’s speech was applauded from (almost) all relevant sides, even the most ambitious and optimistic commentators agree that it will take intensive discussion within the political system and even more with civil society to move from elegant rhetoric to tangible action. And it will certainly take some time.

The President indicated a number of issues where Germany needs to re-set its compass to prepare itself for a leading role on the international stage.

The following three very different aspects demonstrate – pars pro toto – how challenging it will be for Germany to take on the role the international community might expect of it.

1. The capacities of the Bundeswehr

When senior officers are asked what German forces are able to contribute to multi-national missions, they talk about “Fähigkeiten”, capabilities. Here and there, the Bundeswehr has units which do make a difference in international mission – albeit to a limited extent.


Paramedic services are deployed quickly. Especially the Medevac Airbus, the flying intensive care units taking heavily wounded soldiers back home, are swiftly deployed by the German government and parliament, and are highly appreciated by partners.

But when it comes to evacuating wounded troops out of combat zones by helicopters, the Bundeswehr needs to call the American allies for help – a well-established praxis in Afghanistan.

Germany’s Special Forces (KSK) have earned a high reputation from their American and British colleagues from Navy Seals, Green Berets and SAS, not only in the Hindu Kush. Though their precise numbers are classified, it is safe to assume that more Special Forces are needed if Germany wants to reach eye level with American, British and French Allies in first hand engagement.

Finally, the Bundeswehr’s transport capacity. The new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen recently offered increased engagement in Africa, delivering relief goods to where they are needed most. The job is done by two, maybe three Transall aircrafts and their crews. This plane was developed in the 1960s and the last line of production ended in 1985. Until today, the Bundeswehr is still waiting for the replacement of the Transall with the new Airbus A400M. However, after massive delays during the development process of the new aircraft, the first German A400M will (theoretically) be in the air this year.

The list goes on and on, , but one thing is certain: The German Bundeswehr faces the herculean task of restructuring and modernizing itself if it is to successfully meet the demands of more international operations. To be sure, this assumption is not new. A series of former Defense Ministers have worked eagerly on internal reforms, but military is never easily changed. Now it is Minister von der Leyen’s task to transform the Bundeswehr into an effective instrument for Germany’s new international role. And it seems she is prepared to face these challenges.

2. Anti-Interventionism driven by left-wing pacifism

Germany’s history ways heavy on all political decision making in the international context. It took intensive discussions and a protracted, still ongoing process within the German society to accept Bundeswehr troops abroad.

The international military engagement of Germany (besides short term relief work during large catastrophies) started with paramedic missions in Cambodia and Somalia in the early 1990s. In the same decade, amidst intense controversy that brought the then-governing red-green coalition to the brink of collapse, the Federal Republic deployed fighter planes in the context of the Balkan Wars. And since 9/11 German soldiers are defending our interests on the ground in Afghanistan.

With the growing number of international missions there is a growing sentiment against military interventionism especially among the left of the political spectrum. The Left Party, successor to the East German communists and today the largest opposition faction in the German parliament, stands for a strict ‘no’ to military engagements abroad. An influential and numerous group within the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) is also traditionally adverse to increased military action undertaken by German troops.

At the same time, SPD-leaders are slowly but surely preparing the ground for a possible coalition with the Left Party together with the Green Party. For a short term, it provides SPD Chairman and Vice-Chancellor Gabriel with means to exact political pressure on Merkel in the Grand Coalition. With the perspective of the next Federal Elections in 2017 it might even be a realistic option to become Chancellor with the help of the Left Party. However, this will only happen if and when the two parties manage to find common ground with regards to Germany’s international role. For now at least, it seems as if the divide is widening rather than closing.

3. Germany`s UN engagement and Development Cooperation

President Gauck made it very clear in his speech: More international responsibility does not only mean more military engagement. He explicitly mentioned Germany’s engagement within multilateral organizations and cooperation on development.

Admittedly, Germany is already the third largest contributor to the UNO’s budget. Politicians and journalists point to this figure as evidence for Germany’s commitment to the world organization whenever there is an opportunity.

However, these are measured contributions, deducted from a country’s economic power in terms of its Gross National Income. Hence, Germany has no choice than to pay the third largest amount of money if it wants to be a member of the UN-club.

Consider the voluntary contributions to the UN’s funds and programs, and a very different picture emerges. In the donor ranking of the UN Development Programme (UNDP), the World Food Programme (WFP) or the UN-Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Germany only just makes it into the Top 20.

Politicians defending the German reluctance to provide the UN System with more voluntary contributions for development point towards the country’s bilateral engagement in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Their argument: Since Germany has its own structures and organizations to deliver aid on the ground, it does not need to go through the UN-System.

A valid point. Overall, in 2012, Germany paid €13.1 billion in Official Development Assistance (ODA). But in relation to its economical strength, Germany is doing far less than it pledged to at the UN Millennium Summit in 2000. Here the Developed Countries agreed to pay 0.7 percent of their Gross National Income for development assistance by 2015. Today, Germany is at a rate around 0.4 percent and there is only one year left to meet the target. Government officials already indicated that Germany will fall short to reach the 0.7 percent Millennium Goal. The financial crisis seems to be a good excuse.

Federal President Gauck was right to initiate a debate on the right scope and depth of Germany’s international role. It was high time. Germany is ready for it, but it needs to do its homework. Above all, a broad and inclusive discussion within German civil society and with international partners is necessary. Yet when Germany finally learns how to employ all instruments of international politics at its disposal, pursuing primarily non-military options, it will become an even better partner to the world.

This article was originally published by Atlantic on 10 February 2014.

Markus Weidling is the Director of Interel and served as chief press officer and head of the public relations department of the Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development during the time of Merkel’s first “Grand Coalition Government”. From 2008 to 2010 he was posted as Counselor for Development Affairs to the Permanent Mission of Germany to the United Nations in New York.

For additional reading on this topic please see:
Deutsche Aussenpolitik
The German Police Project Team (GPPT) and the “Capacity to do Capacity Building”
Merkel III in EU and Foreign Affairs – It’s the Spirit, Stupid!

For more information on issues and events that shape our world please visit the ISN’s Weekly Dossiers and Security Watch.

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