German foreign policy Reentering the Ring

Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier is right to rethink Germany's historic reluctance to intervene in foreign affairs, argues a Handelsblatt editor responsible for international coverage.
Quelle: Handelsblatt
Who's in charge? Angela Merkel at talks to agree Ukraine ceasefire.
(Source: Handelsblatt)
Quelle: Handelsblatt
Who's in charge? Angela Merkel at talks to agree Ukraine ceasefire.
(Source: Handelsblatt)


German foreign policy has a real problem.

Crises are erupting everywhere: The murdering and plundering terrorist bands of the Islamic State in Iraq. The increasingly dramatic disintegration of Libya. Ceaseless bombardment of Ukraine.

The world, and above all Germany's European neighbors, are demanding more involvement from Berlin to help resolve these crises. Germany's importance on the world stage is growing.

But almost 70 percent of Germans say they are against greater German involvement. Fear of war is in the DNA of post-war Germans. This doesn't make foreign policy easy, but it does guard against simplification.

Germany is unlikely to rush into a military conflict.

But against this historic backdrop, Germany's foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has presented a new strategy. He isn’t simply running for cover or going with the flow of mainstream opinion that opposes foreign intervention.

He considers the strategy to be an effective third way between, as he puts it, “inconsequential talk and military action.”

Germany cannot simply look on.

As a relatively small but economically strong nation, Germany is globally networked like almost no other country in the world.

As a major exporter, it must insist on binding international rules. And, it is clear that Germany will have to intervene when the rules are broken. Looking the other way or simply talking is not enough.

The concept long advocated by the United States of reacting to crises with military interventions has reached its limit — just look at Afghanistan or Iraq.

At any rate, the German army, long under-funded, is not in tip-top condition anyway.

Germany’s foreign policy is adorned with the principle of military restraint. But this economic powerhouse has profited mightily from its militarily strong allies.

German foreign policy has to engage more vigorously, but in a new way in a polarized world, as shown by the conflict with Russia over Ukraine.

A NATO mission against separatist bands and Russian soldiers was discarded in favor of negotiations.

But in Ukraine — as in the case of weapons deliveries to Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq — it remains to be seen whether Mr. Steinmeier's alternative to talk or foreign intervention will produce results.

In Ukraine, it’s yet to be proven that negotiations, the search for new opportunities for cooperation, and the attempt to see the situation through the eyes of the opponent can bring about a feasible solution.

If no solution is found, then the hawks in Washington will not calm down and it won’t be possible to stop the Russian steamroller crushing once respected rules.

Germany’s post-war foreign policy has been shaped by military restraint.

But this economic powerhouse has profited mightily from its militarily strong allies. The country’s tradition of military restraint has created trust, and that’s an asset Germany can and must use to deal with difficult partners — always with its friends in the European Union.

Mr. Steinmeier's newly announced strategy is worthy of respect.

His goal is to recognize flash points early, become involved in high-risk regions to prevent armed conflict and, above all, seek peaceful alternatives.

But building the necessary diplomatic resources for this type of activist foreign policy is as important as nation-building after conflicts have ended.

The Foreign Office must insure that civilian advisors, after their terms of service abroad, find jobs in Germany and — as too often is the case— are not fobbed off with redundancy packages.

Above all, Mr. Steinmeier's new strategy must not be seen as a categorical refusal of all military intervention. The focus remains on detente, the German foreign policy pursued by former chancellor Willy Brandt.

But Mr. Brandt's policy toward the East, which ultimately brought down walls, functioned only within the NATO alliance. Detente and credible deterrence must again become two sides of the same coin in a new, more pragmatic German foreign policy — with plenty of room for prevention and nation-building.


Mathias Brüggmann is head of Handelsblatt's foreign desk. To contact him: [email protected]