Search engine: why Germany’s foreign policy flounders
Europe’s economic colossus is crippled by identity politics and self-obsession. It exports instability
A joke in the German security community circulated after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014: if Russia invades the Baltic states, Germany will of course honour its Nato commitment and defend them—once the German public approves this in a binding referendum.
The bleak humour perfectly reflects the mood among German policy-makers and security experts when it comes to Germany’s international obligations. Just over 30 years after the fall of the Iron Curtain and—maybe more importantly—75 years after the end of World War Two, the German political establishment, de facto, rules out military solutions. Not just in a traditional kinetic sense, and not even when it comes to backing political demands through a credible use of force. No, Germany went a step further; over the past five years it decided not to risk situations where it might eventually be forced to make demands that would result in meaningful political consequences for Germany—or the opposing side.
As a consequence, the ever-empty phrase “there is no military solution” as the principal descriptor of German foreign policy was widened to other unrealistic and even paradoxical phrases. Political adversaries became “key players”, rogue nations “important security partners”, war criminals and assassins “actors with a special responsibility” and Russia or Iran “Syrian regime backers” or “Syrian regime allies”.
Russia’s invasions of neighbouring countries, attacks on hospitals and schools in the Middle East, or political assassinations in Salisbury, Berlin and Lille demand tough reactions. But rather than recognise the threat, Germany has limited its reaction, and hence itself, to “dialogue” as the sole means of responding to any sort of crisis worldwide. This comes with catastrophic consequences: emboldening rogue nations in their criminal behaviour, generating multi-million-strong waves of refugees to Europe, and requiring billions of German taxpayers’ euros to ameliorate the consequences of these (in)actions.
Why is this so? To understand German foreign policy, one has to understand the domestic political setting and the underlying mindset which turned from rational political behaviour to purely identity politics-driven strategies and action. The dividing lines run through every local, regional and national political debate, pitting left against right, Atlanticists against neutralists, pacifists against those who still believe in the potential utility of military force.
Angela Merkel’s CDU, part of the governing coalition with the Social Democrats (SPD), is trying to find a position in the centre ground, chasing the presumed preferences of its ever-shrinking electoral base. Many of its former voters turned to the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) which adopts a Germany-first (but also, oddly, pro-Russian) stance, abandoning European solidarity and transatlantic relations. While the national CDU shuns such ideas, many of its leading politicians are endorsing them to win regional elections. Almost every CDU minister at regional level demands a “new Russia policy” and the lifting of sanctions as soon as possible.
At the same time, the chancellor’s party is haemorrhaging voters to the Left—not to the Social Democrats, but to the Greens. To regain these voters, the CDU believes it must adopt a more global approach, fighting climate change and rising sea levels. The united global effort these problems require leaves no space for traditional political conflicts—however pressing they may be. The idea that mankind’s behaviour presages its extinction demands putting “less important” questions (like aggressive dictatorships and human rights abuses) aside.
The co-governing SPD lost more than a quarter of its electorate since the last federal elections in 2017 and now stands at only 15 per cent in the national polls. Still, the party remains important for Berlin’s foreign policy as its traditional fief (since 2013) is the foreign ministry. As well as trying (also) to “greenwash” its policies, the SPD is searching for a new left-wing spirit. Disastrously in foreign policy terms, it believes this new approach is rooted in its old Ostpolitik (the policy of eastwards rapprochement pioneered by Willy Brandt after 1969), not realising that the political landscape has fundamentally changed since then. Worse, it believes that it can project the Ostpolitik approach onto dealings with Iran, China or Libya. Passively “approaching one another” replaces active countering of malign activities. This misunderstood fundamentalism is accompanied by a rising anti-Americanism, deeply rooted in German left-wing ideology—but fuelled by the rhetoric of the current US President.
So much for the theory, but what does it mean in reality? Two recent examples demonstrate why Germany has become an impotent great power.
In October 2019, the newly appointed German defence minister, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK for short) raised the idea of a “safe zone” in northern Syria, shortly after the US withdrew from the area and a Turkish operation drove out more than 150,000 Kurdish citizens. Within hours the foreign minister Heiko Maas rebuffed the idea, citing alleged “irritations within Nato” and “many open questions”. What followed over the next days was an identity-politics-driven dispute. The CDU argued that Germany should fulfil its responsibilities as a major power and one of the main (humanitarian aid) sponsors in the region. The SPD and the left-wing opposition party Die Linke (The Left) argued (among other things) that Germany should not get involved in “Erdoğan’s genocide” and “Trump’s stupid decisions”. For its part the AfD argued that the whole area should go back to “president” Assad and German soldiers should not be “sent to the slaughter” for “so-called Western values”. The result of the blame game was that Germany did nothing and Russia took control of most of the areas the US
Another example is the murder of Zelimkhan Khangoshvilli, a Georgian assassinated in Berlin on August 23, 2019 by a Russian with the help of that country’s military intelligence service, the GRU. For months, the German government made no comment on the murder. It took damning media reports that proved the involvement of the Russian state before the German general prosecutor released evidence confirming the investigations and Germany expelled two Russian “diplomats” (GRU agents). In numerous encounters with Russian diplomats the foreign minister did not condemn the killing. The reason, of course, was that this would lead to a deterioration of relations with Russia, which the German left wants to avoid at any price. Merkel, who talked to the Russian leader Vladimir Putin face to face in December and January, also failed to mention the murder in any of her public statements, prompting widespread criticism. Markus Söder, the leader of the CSU, the Bavarian party in the governing coalition, did raise the issue when he met Putin in Moscow. Not because he was particularly interested in the matter, but because he wanted to be seen as the stronger and “more conservative” personality within the CDU/CSU alliance.
There is more. Germany has zigzagged on its use of products made by China’s Huawei for its 5G network, threatening European Union policy on energy security with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that delivers Russian gas through the Baltic Sea (bypassing Ukraine), snails-pace progress towards Nato’s 2 per cent of GDP target for defence spending (for fear, supposedly, that the armed forces might become too powerful) and its hosting of a conference on Libya, which resulted in a 55-point paper, widely praised but ignored by every relevant country and utterly without impact.
While Germany says it wants to “fill emerging vacuums” and “take over more responsibility in the international sphere”, its big words are rarely followed by action. Not because Germany cannot become a more relevant—and after Brexit maybe even the most important—security actor in Europe, but because the country is caught in internal ideological left/right, past/future, eastern/western-oriented struggles that reduce its opportunities for action to near-zero. Five years after Berlin saw “no military solution” to the war in eastern Ukraine, “dialogue” is its only answer to each and every potentially military conflict worldwide. The largest economy in Europe reduces itself to a political Liechtenstein, failing to fill the widening security vacuum in and around Europe as it claims to, and in fact doing the exact opposite. Berlin’s inaction actively contributes to the rise of authoritarianism and erosion of a rules-based global order. Germany is a great exporter. But when it comes to security policy, it exports instability.