lead on Europe Remains an Anchor of German Foreign Policy

With the U.S. no longer serving as model of democracy, Germany could be forced to assume a greater leadership role. In order to succeed, it still has a lot to learn, writes a foreign policy expert.
For the first time, Germany will not be able to follow America's lead when it comes to democratic leadership. Photo: REUTERS/Jim Urquhart

Since 2014, Germany has been going through a learning process regarding foreign policy and defense. This has included a tense relationship with Russia and the breakdown of order in the Middle East, as well as the expectations of European partners that Germany assume a leadership position in the alliance.

Still, Germany has faced vehement criticism of its refugee policy, and terrorist threats have made it clear that the borders between foreign and domestic policy are becoming increasingly blurred. Moreover, in light of the upcoming elections, Germany is realizing for the first time that it won’t be able to count on U.S. leadership.

Of course, not everything will change: The European Union will remain the most important framework for German foreign policy, and the U.S. will still be the strongest partner in the E.U.’s trans-Atlantic alliance. European security cannot be guaranteed outside this alliance, and is also only conceivable for Germany in pan-European terms – including Russia and eastern Europe. Also, the United Nations will remain the most important platform for joint action, particularly in an increasingly multipolar order.

But this structure has been disrupted: Following the election of Donald Trump, the U.S. has become an unpredictable protagonist, replacing orientation with uncertainty. And we in Germany and the European Union have always previously depended on the U.S. as a guide, despite various differences of opinion in political and military spheres.

For this reason, we need an E.U. capable of strategy and action. Currently, the E.U. has turned its gaze inwards due to Brexit, and the uncertain outcomes of upcoming elections in France, the Netherlands and Italy. This is compounded by a possible resurgence of risks in financial markets and controversies regarding solidarity and minimum democratic standards. Nonetheless, the E.U. provides Germany with more international weight – something that is often overlooked here at home. And even if there are major problems to be addressed, the E.U. strengthens the security of all its members.

Germany’s necessary strategic capabilities are less a matter of deciding on headquarters and weapon systems than of defining its own interests and priorities.

A common E.U. policy regarding security, defense and foreign affairs would meet the genuine interests of Germany.

However, a common E.U. policy regarding security, defense and foreign affairs would meet the genuine interests of Germany. And the support of German citizens for the E.U. could be expected to increase if the organization clearly contributed to foreign and domestic security. This doesn’t mean Germany needs to depend solely on institutions in Brussels. Other member states will continue to expect leadership from Berlin, and German policy has done well when it has undertaken European initiatives in close collaboration with other individual E.U. countries.

Donald Trump’s presidency will alter the style and content of international politics as a whole. Currently, liberal values have been put on the defensive; autocrats and advocates of an illiberal democracy find confirmation for their positions. And even within the E.U., greater efforts will be required to fend off attacks on fundamental liberal values. Internationally, there will once again be less talk of promoting good government leadership.

This is a serious problem, as good, responsible government is not only a standard to be maintained, it is also regarded by such diverse protagonists as the World Bank and the African Union as a prerequisite for political stability and economic growth. Because of the style of the new U.S. president, the personalization of politics and populist forms of leadership can be expected to proliferate in the international arena, as well. Mr. Trump has made it clear that he attaches little importance to fixed alliances and is more concerned with bilateral deals than with multilateralism. America will become more protectionist and will be less inclined to see itself as a liberal hegemon who takes the lead in maintaining the international order and promising security.

But even President Trump will be affected by events outside of his control, and he will require influential allies to help him manage them along the way. The best way for Europe to convince the new U.S. president of the advantages of the trans-Atlantic alliance is to strengthen its own security capabilities.

Indeed, the Trump presidency may very well force the E.U. to actually implement what it has talked about for so long. And in light of the personalization of international politics, there is an opportunity in the fact that the first G20 summit that Donald Trump will attend will be chaired by Germany this summer. As a well-networked country, Germany can demonstrate its capacity to bring together diverse interests in order to meet existing and impending challenges through joint action – from risks and growth to fighting terror and increasing digitization.

While Germany is affected by crises and conflicts in distant parts of the world, it cannot be equally present everywhere. Especially with regard to active crisis management, German contributions must give priority to Europe and regions adjoining the E.U., including Russia, former Soviet states, the Middle East and Africa. Practically speaking, Germany and its partners can accomplish more in their immediate surroundings than elsewhere, and this also makes clear how intertwined the relationships have become in regards to domestic, European and international concerns.

Without a doubt, Europe will have to readjust its policy toward Russia, not least because of the expected policy changes in Washington. Handling Russia is unlikely to become easier, but in international politics, difficulty is relative: There is a chance that, compared to Donald Trump, President Putin might seem like a reasonable statesman. And an easing of tensions between the U.S. and Russia is fundamentally in Europe’s interest. It is important, however, that such a change be safeguarded by a return to shared basic principles and not only by the mutual admiration of the American and Russian presidents.

Without the U.S., the E.U. will scarcely be able to maintain its sanctions against Russia. Still, there is no reason to retreat from the principles of a common European order that are embodied in the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). These include the inviolability of national borders and the peaceful resolution of conflicts. Germany and other countries will have to probe whether Russia is ready to stop supporting the separatist forces in eastern Ukraine, while also taking Russian anxieties about Ukrainian membership in NATO seriously. This will entail coordinating with Russia in crisis areas to the south and east of the Mediterranean.

We may very well reject Russia’s manner of conducting war in Syria. But it is not illegitimate for Russia to seek to establish itself as a regulatory presence in the Middle East, nor does that thrust contradict basic European interests – especially as long as the E.U. is incapable of ending wars and conflicts in the region. Europe has had to learn the hard way that it can’t curtail conflicts such as the one in Syria. And at least some of the crises in the region will reach Germany through the migration of refugees, as well as through terror.

Europe will have to readjust its policy toward Russia, not least because of the expected policy changes in Washington.

It will also continue to be necessary to combat the so-called Islamic State (IS) militarily. But the ideology of IS cannot be beaten without a political solution in Syria, or inclusive governments in Damascus and Baghdad. The same goes for the easing of tensions between the regional powers. Not only for this reason will Europe need to deepen its partnership with Turkey, despite its many differences. The E.U. won’t change Turkish policies by neglecting the relationship to Ankara. Instead, we should openly investigate cooperation regarding security policy, as well as perspectives on integrating Turkey into the E.U. In terms of the latter, there are options other than full membership, which are both interesting and feasible.

That said, setting geographical priorities doesn’t mean ignoring other regions. A further deterioration of U.S.-Chinese relations would also negatively impact European interests. Accordingly, Berlin and Brussels will have to use their influence in Beijing and Washington to reduce friction between the two powers. At the same time, there will be issues of global policy – for example, climate protection – where China is more likely to become a greater strategic partner for Europe than the U.S. Currently, it is only in regard to trade policy that China takes the E.U. very seriously. Otherwise, China tends to give priority to bilateral relationships with other great powers and significant intermediate powers. This means that Berlin should deepen its political relations with Beijing. At the same time, Germany’s interest in peace, stability and international law calls for a deeper form of cooperation with like-minded regional powers such as Australia and South Korea.

Germany is gradually becoming accustomed to the leadership role expected of it by its neighbors, but it still has to learn that it isn’t enough to merely do “what is right” when indispensable allies are ignored. This applies both to other E.U. member states as well as to Germany’s own citizenry. Ultimately, global respect for the liberal, democratic and inclusive model of the European Union can best be buttressed by Germany practicing and cultivating it.


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