German foreign policy is in dire straits, if we believe experts at home and abroad. Germany is criticized for being too passive on an international level, and for being unwilling to shoulder the kind of international responsibilities that would seem to be commensurate with its greater size. It does not display enough solidarity with its allies, and is unwilling to take risks. Furthermore, its cautious approach to military issues continues to be shaped by the memory of its murky past. Such criticism emanates from various parts of the political spectrum. Sometimes Germany is accused of being no more than a larger version of Switzerland, a country which shirks its security policy responsibilities, and a free rider, a state which does not deem it necessary to map out its own national security strategy. Or it is criticized because it is a trading power which promotes economic activity without reference to the nature of its trading partners, and is now the world’s third-largest arms exporter.
Despite the emphatic manner in which this criticism is sometimes voiced, the political establishment in Berlin and the general public remain largely indifferent. When it comes to German foreign policy, there is an unbroken continuity and consensus. The main reason for this is that neither the political class in particular nor the citizens of the Federal Republic in general see a pressing need for German action with regard to international politics. Whether the recent rhetoric by the Federal President, the foreign minister or the minister of defence will be underpinned by real action, remains to be seen. The most important actor in foreign policy, Chancellor Merkel, has remained conspicuously absent of this debate.
Nowadays Germany has practically no enemies. And in fact, if the BBC is to be believed, it has become the world’s favourite country. There are, it seems, no serious threats to German security. So far, despite of the crisis in Ukraine, Russia is not considered a threat. And people are not very interested in the fact that a number of terrorist attacks have been thwarted only as a result of the vigilance of the security authorities and, quite frankly, because Germany had luck on its side. To many Germans, the all-embracing NSA spying activities seem to be far more dangerous.
The German economy is in good shape. Foreign trade is booming, and exports have reached all-time highs. Germany has managed to weather the euro crisis rather well. It is true, of course, that the Federal Republic has granted large financial guarantees in order to prevent the collapse of the crisis-ridden states. However, they have not as yet been needed. In fact, the issuance of bonds on which the government has to pay little or no interest means that the Federal budget has saved billions of euros. But Germany has also become more significant in terms of political power, and since the advent of the euro crisis many observers in other countries have started to see it as the most important country in Europe.
Moreover, the historical dislike for anything to do with the armed forces fits in neatly with how Germany as a trading power sees itself in terms of foreign policy. Scepticism about the effectiveness of military interventions and whether they can provide sustainable solutions will for the foreseeable future continue to be a central feature of Germany’s political culture, and it is one of the reasons why many countries see the Federal Republic in a positive light. And all this area can be backed up with some very cogent arguments. First, the balance-sheet of the recent military interventions is rather ambivalent. Second, by adopting a defensive approach in security and defence matters Germany minimises the risk of overstretch. It is doubtful whether the much greater ambitions of its main allies, that is, the US, France, and the United Kingdom, can be sustained. The fiscal pressures have forced all three countries to repeatedly cut back on their foreign policy goals.
Germany has not as yet fallen in line with the international trend to draw up national security strategies and to establish national security councils. In any case, a national security strategy is far easier to understand by studying the structure and contents of the defence budget than by reading such documents. And here we come across some surprising facts. Berlin is involved in numerous military operations throughout the world. It has abolished compulsory military service, which a few years ago was still treated as sacrosanct. Berlin is also systematically turning the Bundeswehr into a professional and operational army. Once the German Army reforms are in place, Germany will be in a much better position in military terms to become involved in the world’s crisis hotspots. In absolute terms Berlin has still one of the largest defence budget in Europe and NATO, (even though in per capita terms it is one of the smallest). Thus the trading power is expanding its military capabilities, so that it will be in a position to react to future challenges for Germany’s security and prosperity.
The crisis in Ukraine has forced Germany to leave the comfort-zone. It is a fundamental test of the German foreign policy model. By default, Germany’s special relations with Russia put Berlin at the center of crisis diplomacy. It is clear, that Germany cannot do business as usual after the annexation of Crimea. And it cannot ignore the worries of its allies in Central Europe. On the other hand, Germany is largely dependent on Russian energy imports and has enjoyed thriving economic relations with Russia for many years. Not surprisingly, the majority of Germans have little enthusiasm for sanctioning Russia. Rather than putting pressure on Russia and increasing the security footprint of NATO in Eastern Europe they support a policy of dialogue and moderation. What Germans fear most, is a new Cold War in Europe. Those who favor a harsh reaction to Russia’s annexation of the Crimea, should not count on Germany. However, if President Putin does not stop at the Crimea and continues the policy of imperial expansion in Eastern Europe, Germany will have no choice but to stand firm with its allies. A German “Sonderweg” has no supporters among the political leadership in Berlin.
Thomas Paulsen is Executive Director International Affairs at the Körber Foundation in Berlin. A German version of this article was published in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung.”