Explaining German Foreign Policy: A Difficult Undertaking

*Danny Cooper

Brisbane,  June 15 2015 (Alochonaa): In the history of the twentieth century, Germany looms large. It was at the centre of the two world wars that tore Europe apart, it was one of the most important fault-lines throughout the Cold War, and its future was endlessly debated when the Berlin Wall was demolished and the country reunified in the early 1990s. After the Cold War, some feared that Germany’s reunification and economic rise would once again encourage great power balancing in Europe as Germany’s neighbours watched suspiciously as German ambitions grew. Yet these concerns proved exaggerated. German strategic culture vacillated in the twentieth century between the aggressive conquests of the Third Reich to the “culture of restraint” that prevailed throughout the days of the Federal Republic. Put simply, Germany became a country haunted by its past – determined to act as a model international citizen that was reluctant to employ its power abroad, a country committed to working through multilateral institutions, and a country eager to become a leading advocate of the non-proliferation regime. It moved seamlessly into what Robert Kagan called the Kantian world of perpetual peace, a world where military power was no longer seen as a legitimate instrument of statecraft and where international law prevailed.

For American policy-makers of the early Cold War era, this was their goal. Germany needed to be integrated into the liberal international order – an order built on economic openness and liberal democracy – without once again becoming a revisionist power hell-bent upon overturning the status quo. Countries such as Germany needed to be convinced that they could achieve their interests peacefully and prosper within the order that U.S. and Western policy-makers were seeking to devise. The order itself would be underwritten by U.S. power and supported by a host of international organizations, including the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization (as it is known today). In Europe, Western policy-makers attempted to create a European identity that would co-exist alongside national identities, institutional evidence of which is found today in the European Union and Eurozone. To some extent, U.S. policymakers of the early Cold War era, from George Marshall to Dean Acheson, succeeded beyond their wildest imaginations. Germany has become an economic powerhouse, its rise accelerated by running persistent trade surpluses and embracing a low corporate tax culture. Some even speak of a “Berlin Consensus” that should serve as a model of economic growth, a consensus built upon the importance of unceasing exports and national savings. Many today, therefore, see Germany as the inevitable leader of Europe, as the country to turn to when things go wrong.

Such expectations of German leadership, however, are deeply misguided. First, these expectations fail to take into account Germany’s recent past. As I suggested above, Germany was groomed to be a thriving member of the liberal international order following WWII, not a leader of it. This expectation is simply at odds with the country’s strategic culture. Germans today do not think of themselves as leaders of anything. The country’s decision making elites are trapped between international expectations of German leadership and the every-day realities of German politics. Trying to fulfil these expectations is a difficult undertaking when the broader electorate demands that German decision-makers prioritise the national interest above any over-riding commitment to the “European project.” Germans, inflamed by a hostile media, are deeply suspicious of any German politician seeking to extend German largesse to fiscally “irresponsible” Greeks (or any other fiscally irresponsible member of the Eurozone for that matter). While German politicians, including Angela Merkel, insist that they remain committed to the European project in the abstract, don’t expect German elites to back down when it comes to debates about austerity. They have neither the inclination nor the domestic support to pursue such a course.

Second, when it comes to “use of force” decisions, German foreign policy is wildly unpredictable. Some scholars interpreted German support for military interventions in Kosovo and Afghanistan as the inauguration of a new era of self-confident German activism in the world. Again, these arguments don’t amount to much. Gerhard Schroder’s government barely survived the decision to send a modest number of German troops to Afghanistan. There was widespread opposition to the decision, especially among the left wing base of the Social Democrats, the party led by Schroder. When it came to the 2003 Iraq war, Germany’s position has been vindicated somewhat, although the stridency with which Schroder opposed the war, making it a key issue in his 2002 bid for re-election, is revealing. Many Germans recoiled at President Bush’s “black and white” view of the world and his administration’s unilateralism – which everyday Germans equated with aggressive imperial war (something they themselves are intimately familiar with!). It was not a coincidence that a senior minister made the unsavoury comparison between Bush and Hitler, arguing that both leaders were trying to divert attention from domestic troubles at home by waging aggressive war abroad. This is a somewhat questionable interpretation of the origins of these two wars, to say the least, but still demonstrates the enduring concern, however extravagantly expressed, of Germans eager to embrace a world of multilateralism and non-intervention. In fact, no German government could have survived politically if they supported the 2003 Iraq war. To the extent that there was a domestic debate, it was over the manner in which the war should have been opposed.

Even more curious was the German decision to sit out the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya, abstaining to vote in the UN Security Council when Gaddafi was threatening a massacre in Benghazi. Here was an opportunity, if ever there was one, to demonstrate one’s commitment to evolving “norms” of international politics. Germany, putatively led by the more pro-American party, did nothing. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, didn’t budge and neither did the vast majority of anti-interventionist Germans. This was somewhat surprising for several reasons. First, it was not unreasonable to expect German participation in this intervention since the country did participate in the war in Kosovo, helping the coalition (which was not backed by the UN Security Council) to suppress Milosevic’s planned misdeeds against ethnic Albanians. There was also a growing expectation that Germany would seek to make amends for its strong opposition to the 2003 Iraq war, looking for opportunities to support future (and more defensible) U.S. efforts against unsavoury regimes. This, however, has not been the case.

What, then, explains these ad-hoc foreign policy decisions? First, it should be noted that no country runs a consistent foreign policy. Indeed, this may be a good thing since a good foreign policy requires judgements to be made on the facts of the case, not some universal application of moral principle. But Germany has certainly excelled in recent years in confusing foreign observers. There are many reasons for this. From the collapse of the Soviet Union to the dynamics of German party politics, from the increasing importance of the German Bundestag in foreign policy decisions to a public opinion that remains deeply skeptical of foreign entanglements, there is no shortage of reasons as to why German foreign policy has had no discernible pattern since the end of the Cold War. This is frustrating for those wanting a strong Europe with Germany at its centre, but given the country’s past, we may be entitled to also think that a Germany that is reluctant to employ its power abroad, a Germany that is more concerned about flexing its economic muscle, is a Germany that should be celebrated not condemned. We may even be entitled to think of this as one of the great successes of U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II.

*Dr. Danny Cooper is the Editor, American Foreign Policy ,Alochonaa. He is a senior lecturer at Griffith University in American Politics and American Foreign Policy. His book Neoconservatism and American Foreign Policy: A Critical Analysis was published in New York by Routledge in 2011. His review article Lessons from Iraq: the agony and ambivalence of an American liberal was published by the Australian Journal of International Affairs.

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Categories: Europe, Foreign Policy

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