Last year, German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier requested a review of Germany’s foreign policy by a wide range of German and non-German foreign policy experts. The results of that review are to be presented this week in Berlin. After Steinmeier pronounced that Germany needs to steer its policy to be engaged “earlier, more decisively, and more substantively,” the question inevitably was posed: What does that mean in practice?

Germans and non-Germans are still not totally clear what the answer might be. But the past year has offered several occasions to identify the parameters of Germany’s responses to the challenges and choices it confronts in this twenty-fifth anniversary year of unification.

Two-Leveled Germany

Germany has been gradually evolving at two levels. On the one hand, the political elites have recognized the importance of German leadership in responding to the crises within Europe—be they the challenges surrounding the euro, the crisis in Ukraine, or the continuing violence in the Middle East and Africa. Full voice was given to that importance by Chancellor Angela Merkel, Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, and Foreign Minister Steinmeier at the Munich Security Conference three weeks ago.

But at the level of the public at large, there is more hesitation and even fear concerning Germany’s foreign policy engagements and responsibilities. There is greater ambiguity surrounding the need for Germany to assume the burdens of leadership. This is in part why Steinmeier wanted to orchestrate the foreign policy review. It was not only to satisfy the policy communities. It was designed to facilitate a larger domestic debate within Germany.

Whether that will get traction is unclear. The pace of events during the last year alone has been accelerating—not necessarily conducive to broad-minded public discussion. It is needed nevertheless. There is a widespread criticism that Germany has not effectively facilitated a security policy dialogue out of reticence to face up to the expectations surrounding its increased stature and influence. Poland’s former Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski once framed the critique by saying he feared Germany’s power less than its inaction. However, Germany balances its power with its own expectations of its use and it cannot be done successfully without public support. That is the case for all democracies, but Germany’s challenge emerges from a particular path.

While Germany was divided before 1990, its choices were limited. On both sides of the Wall, Germans were not sovereign in their foreign policy options. After unification, the Federal Republic of Germany had more choices, and it has regained its sovereignty. However as a price for that sovereignty, Chancellor Helmut Kohl immediately signaled that Germany’s choices would still be firmly embedded in the European arena. One of the most significant signals was the decision to move forward with the euro. German unification and European integration were to be linked as two sides of the same coin, literally and figuratively. Unified Germany was not going to be a threat; it was going to be a facilitator for its European partners to build a European House together.

Those were all well-intentioned choices. They also in many ways succeeded in achieving the goals of post-1990 Germany: a unified country surrounded by friendly neighbors in a peaceful, integrated European Union.

Twenty-five years later, Germany’s spectrum of choices has broadened along with its power and influence. There is no doubt that Berlin occupies the driver’s seat of European economic affairs. It is also a leader on the world stage among the global economic powers. It impacts the climate policies of the European Union and its voice is heard in a large range of international regimes well beyond the EU. Germany has taken on the role of a leader in partnership with others, including with the United States.

Berlin is taking a more proactive posture than the earlier capital in Bonn. It assumes more readily that it has influence, along with agenda-setting and convening power. And its leadership ranks have been learning to exercise both. That is particularly well illustrated in the current debate over Greece and in the Ukraine crisis.

But there are still caveats.

The Devil in the Details: Economic and Military Power

Foreign Minister Steinmeier has stated that Germany’s economic strength must parallel greater responsibility in the security arena. But how to do that, and with what tools and resources, remains a contentious debate.

At this year’s Munich Security Conference, Defense Minister von der Leyen defined Germany’s policy as “leading from the center”—a formulation that emphasizes a core value of German foreign policy thinking, i.e., being a chief facilitator. That approach is a product of the past and the present. It reflects the hesitation of asserting too much leadership in light of Germany’s past, but it also reflects the present in terms of the gap between Germany’s intentions and its resources. Its anemic defense budget is just one metric of that gap, although it is not unique among its European partners. Just as Steinmeier ordered a comprehensive review of foreign policy ends and means for 2015, von der Leyen has announced the preparation of a review of German defense policy for next year.

Germany’s core belief in facilitating the cooperative pooling of defense resources reflects the recognition that its own stock is limited—as is much of Europe in general.

In fact, the German approach to its foreign policy has consistently been defined by multiple tools, which include not only defense capabilities, but also many other forms of engagement in dealing with both conflicts and cooperation. In this dichotomy, cooperation is Germany’s preferred alternative. That involves many channels of aid and development support to other countries as well as defense assistance. It also involves emphasizing the instruments of diplomacy to resolve conflicts when and where possible. The current engagement in negotiating ceasefire agreements in Ukraine illustrates that strategy, even if it has been unsuccessful to date.

Yet in times of extreme danger, military force as a tool must be available and also used when it can be effective, a point emphasized by Federal President Joachim Gauck in his recent speeches.

Since unification, Germany has in fact joined in several military actions, most prominently in the Balkans and in Afghanistan. Indeed, in 2015, Germany marks its fiftieth anniversary as a member of NATO and its Article 5 commitment to defend any alliance member, should they be attacked. That is not an abstract commitment; it was a real possibility during the Cold War, when Germany was the frontline of the East-West stand-off, and invoked after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Now, new threats are testing the limits of Article 5, and the German public is struggling with that test.

Priorities in German Foreign Affairs

Germany is facing a set of serious questions about what it sees as its priorities, its choices, and indeed its role in using all its strengths and resources to pursue and defend its foreign policy and security interests again in Europe. The crisis in Ukraine has helped to bring that into sharp focus.

Today, Germany is expected to deal with threats and dangers beyond its own borders in its alliances. As other countries do, Germany faces hard choices regarding those responsibilities and capabilities. It must allocate sufficient resources to the capacities it chooses when they are needed and to make them credible. Yet in a democracy, there needs to be sufficient political support for those decisions, particularly when it comes to the use of force to defend interests. That is as true in the United States as it is in Germany.

Based on public opinion polls, the majority of Germans are having difficulty thinking how to operationalize that responsibility. They are particularly skeptical that a greater military dimension of engagement is required. The current clash with Moscow has brought into focus a potential clash between Germany and the United States over tactics and strategy on Ukraine, but it also illustrated something else. Part of the German hesitation has to do with the legacy of Germany’s twentieth century experiences with war. Yet that alone does not explain it. There is also a broadly held skepticism about the effectiveness of military force, drawing on more recent examples—Iraq, Libya, Syria, and Afghanistan—in which military engagement is seen as unable to effectively solve the long term sources of conflict. While military engagements in the Balkans were seen as part of the efforts to stop and prevent genocide, within the German public there remains a reluctance to use military force and for Germans not to be involved if possible.

Apart from the fear that a military escalation of the conflict would cause it to spiral out of control, there is a skepticism about the viability of Ukraine as a state. The German debate over the Russian annexation of Crimea was less about whether there is a justifiable Russian claim on that peninsula, and more about the use of Russian military force to violate international borders in the European framework set down in the Helsinki Treaty four decades ago and affirmed in all European accords and treaties since then.

Yet, despite that objection, Germany had no capacity to prevent the annexation, nor does it have military capabilities to halt the violence in eastern Ukraine—for that matter, neither do its EU and indeed its NATO allies. The main option Germany has is to use its diplomatic tools to persuade Russia to cease its assistance to the rebels challenging Ukraine’s stability. Those tools include economic sanctions on Russia, which may also take their toll on some of Germany’s economic strength. Germany has the capacity to lead those efforts precisely because it has leverage with them in Moscow. That said, sanctions have not kept Vladimir Putin from supplying those who seek to fragment and destabilize Ukraine, thereby preventing Ukraine from attaching itself more closely to Europe and the West.

While Germany debates and decides its foreign policy priorities, how to engage in them, and with what resources, the developments on the ground in Ukraine and elsewhere are shaping other choices to be confronted in northern Iraq, Syria, Yemen, and across other terrorists networks and turmoil-filled regions.

Conclusions

Germany is not unique in struggling with these threats and the need to confront them. Yet, Germany’s path and debate is shaped as much by a perception of itself and its role as it is by the real world developments around it. One nation’s autobiography cannot be easily adopted by another. Germany wants to lead, but from the center. It wants to engage, but primarily as a facilitator. It wants to be a “partner in leadership,” but will not easily act as leader alone.

Ministers Steinmeier and von der Leyen are both engaged in helping their fellow citizens with forming new narratives about Germany’s vision of foreign policy and defense leadership. Yet the test of both will be in the ability to translate the narratives into real policies with the public support they need to be implemented. It is in that testing period where Germans find themselves now. It may take some time to decipher the real meaning of words like “decisive, substantive, earlier” in foreign and defense policy. But events will demand answers, sooner rather than later.

  • csthor

    “Ministers Steinmeier and von der Leyen are both engaged in helping their fellow citizens with forming new narratives about Germany’s vision of foreign policy and defense leadership.”
    Actually, they don’t. The Review 2014 process doesn’t really reach the masses, discussions remain limited mostly to those already entangled with foreign policy (politicians, think tankers, pundits, journalists) or those knocking on the door (students). I, as a simply citizen without connections to said groups, have stumbled across the website and project rather by accident … As such the process doesn’t really reach the masses and real debates – ones that actually go beyond the usual moderated semi-monologue of the key people at an event – don’t take place (one student criticized this in a blog @ review2014.de).

    “Yet the test of both will be in the ability to translate the narratives into real policies with the public support they need to be implemented.”

    The best von der Leyen can hope for is indifferent tolerance. People simply do not perceive the Bundeswehr as for anything but strict self defense (in general terms) and given the lack of a palpable threat (germans do not feel one, as opposed to Balts or Poles) there is no societal support. Besides vdL is under severe criticism of doing too much PR-hullaballoo, her slogans are said to be too populist and too hollow/empty while the real problems of the Bundeswehr like structural underfunding, a totally nutty equipment planning, too much political interferance in questions of military affairs (i.e. basing concept) and the total absence of anything even remotely comparable to a culture of military realism (as opposed to the current culture of subserviance and political compliancy) are being avoided. Von der Leyen is obviously more interested in surviving politically until 2017 than in tackling the challenges of her portfolio.