Fragile Position Berlin’s untenable foreign-policy strategic vacuum

Berlin can no longer afford to float ideas that have no practical consequences, and keep muddling through, writes a policy expert.
Time to breathe life back into Europe with some empowered German policy.

There is a striking contrast between the magnitude of change in Germany’s foreign policy environment and the triviality of the country’s strategic debate. This change has three dimensions that fundamentally challenge the current position and practice of German foreign policy.

Firstly, the European Union, though a principal framework of German policy, is more politically fragmented than ever and lacks a stable center. The bloc appears ever less able to act as the lever of German strength that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, during his tenure as foreign minister, believed it could be. The permissive consensus on Europe is long gone, and “sovereigntism” is shaping the discourse on the EU in many countries, including Germany.

Secondly, great power politics is transforming the multilateral system. Global powers and influential regional states increasingly see both Europe and Germany as movable pieces on the geopolitical chessboard, and are exploiting their weaknesses. Thirdly, Europe’s and thus Germany’s neighborhood has lost the fragile stability it once had.

Muddling through

The German strategic debate has yet to adapt to any of these challenges. Admittedly, neither Germany nor Europe has broken down under the pressure. But to take this as a guarantee for the future would be utterly naïve. Since reunification in 1990, the question of Deutschlands neue Außenpolitik (Germany’s new foreign policy) has repeatedly cropped up in the German policy debate, only for the political class to sideline it – without suffering a public backlash – each time. As has been particularly apparent since the onset of the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the discourse has largely oscillated between idealization of Germany as a benevolent leader of Europe and demonization of it as the continent’s hegemon. German political leaders have continued to muddle through – always fearful of overreacting or overspending – and lamented the deficiencies of the status quo while preserving it in the everlasting hope that things will work out.

As great power politics supersedes the rules- and values-based multilateral order, Germany cannot take even the responsive milieu of the EU for granted. Berlin needs to engage in an intense debate about how to protect its interests and shape its environment. German political leaders must set clear goals and identify means to tackle the challenges that lie ahead. This requires them to formulate a strategy that distinguishes between what Germany should do nationally and what it should do through Europe, and that identifies changes to the EU that would empower German foreign policy.

Berlin can no longer afford to float foreign policy ideas that have no practical consequences – as is the current practice. For instance, the agreement Germany’s ruling coalition signed in early 2018 laid out several measures to strengthen governance of the euro zone and “respond” to the plans for reforming the currency union French President Emmanuel Macron has put forward. Although Berlin and Paris both want Europe to become stronger and more integrated, nothing much has happened since then.

Rhetoric versus action

In summer this year, Chancellor Angela Merkel laid out an ambitious plan for a common European immigration and asylum policy, as well as a European asylum agency, border force, and coastguard. This long-term vision also appears to have few practical consequences for policy – in a style reminiscent of the famous commitment to a European army (or “army of the Europeans” as the coalition agreement put it). Similarly, Germany has often talked up the Permanent Structured Cooperation initiative, while doing little to actually build a “defense union” – as Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen calls it – in the apparent hope that one will emerge out of nothing.

The gap between rhetoric and action is evident almost everywhere. In a call to balance against US unilateralism, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas announced that Germany would build an alliance of like-minded multilateralists. Yet this would essentially require massively strengthening the EU as a foreign policy actor and achieving a close strategic consensus between Germany and France – neither of which Berlin seems to have pushed for. Ms. Merkel has spoken about using Germany’s non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council as a “European seat.” But, so far, the German government has not committed to basing its coming term on the body on positions agreed with its EU partners.

In Berlin, there are plenty of ideas about “more Europe” but few practical plans for achieving this. Underlying doubt about the EU’s unity only intensifies the strategic inertia – if put to the test, the bloc may fall apart. A reluctance in Germany to commit significant political and financial resources to long-term goals only exacerbates the problem.

Germany’s political class has no workable ideas for applying German strength to European and international affairs; it fails to energetically build a strategic link with France and it neglects to forge a coalition of capable players inside the EU. Its big concepts for Europe are so disconnected from the EU’s shape and capabilities as to be meaningless. Furthermore, the political class is clueless about how much power it wants for Germany. Should it seek to become a minor player in the major league of geopolitical actors, or should it accumulate power to drive the emergence of the EU as a global player? Keeping one’s options open and avoiding major commitments seems to be the rule of the day in Berlin – and it is a recipe for stasis.

For all parties in the German government, the current coalition was Plan B. Berlin’s current European and foreign policy preferences appear to also follow such a plan – which usually means just muddling through. If its grand strategy centers on pragmatic engineering to control risks and avoid costs, the government risks failing on both counts.

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