After German leaders presented a battery of speeches at the Munich Security Conference advocating for a more active role in international security, Director of the European Council on Foreign Relations Mark Leonard dissects what this change in direction means for the German public and policy elite. This opinion essay appeared on February 4, 2014 in Thompson Reuters and is reprinted here with the author’s permission.

This week, Germany’s foreign policy establishment struck back against a public they say has become increasingly insular, self-satisfied and pacifist. In surprisingly blunt language, German President Joachim Gauck took to the stage last Friday at the Munich Security Conference to declare: “While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness or a desire to disengage from the world.”

Gauck asked if Germany’s historical sins mean that it has more, rather than less, responsibility to defend the fragile foundations of an economy and a peaceful world order from which it has disproportionately benefited. In the speech, Gauck was attacking without naming the former Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, whose talk of a “culture of restraint” and strong opposition to euro zone bailouts were attempts to channel Germany’s public mood of disengagement.

Westerwelle’s doctrine reached its apotheosis in March 2011, when he stood in the U.N. Security Council with Brazil, Russia, India and China to oppose an intervention in Libya that was being pursued by the United States and its European allies.

History is “dialectical,” as Germans like to say. It rarely advances in straight lines. It usually takes jagged swings between opposites. One senior diplomat explained to me that if Westerwelle had not embraced the “culture of restraint” so proudly, it would be impossible for the current players to throw it overboard so comprehensively.

The president’s remarks had an impact because they seemed to be part of a broader campaign by the German foreign policy establishment. The new foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has talked about “reactivating the German foreign ministry” and has offered to destroy Syrian chemical weapons in Germany.

Steinmeier met with his French counterpart and announced a revival of a Franco-German co-operation policy — starting with joint trips to Moldova, Georgia, Libya and Tunisia. At the same time, the new German defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who has been discussed as a possible successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel as CDU leader, said that “indifference is not an option.” In recent press interviews, von der Leyen pledged an increase in the German deployment to Mali and her support for a European army.

The challenge now is public opinion. A senior official told me that “eighty percent of the elite agree with this activism while eighty percent of the public oppose it. The gap between the two is becoming unbearable. These speeches are about trying to close it.”

So will it work? And if it does, what kind of foreign policy will Germany promote?

Germany’s newly-elected chair of the foreign affairs committee, a former energy and environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, conceded to me in an interview that so far there has been “more rhetoric than substance,” but he hopes that this will change the public debate. He worries that too much talk is about the use of force, the one area that will meet the most public resistance. “In order to close the gulf with the public, we should talk less about military involvement and more about how more active diplomacy, development spending, and economic policy can help in Syria, Ukraine, Iran and on the NSA,” he said.

Germany is not the only country to deal with questions of introversion. A recent Pew poll showed that 80 percent of Americans think Obama should pay more attention to domestic problems. But Germany is unique in the way that a reluctant public has paid a price for the strategic visions of its elite — from bailing out former East Germany to shoring up the Greek economy; both causes many Germans did not support. On the other hand, Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister, showed that political leaders can shape public opinion when he garnered popular support for the use of force in both Kosovo and Afghanistan.

The nations that have complained the most about Berlin’s inaction may paradoxically find German activism equally uncomfortable. As Berlin reactivates its policy, it will also more clearly define German interests. Germany’s reaction to the NSA affair shows a widening divide between the geopolitical ambitions of the U.S. and Germany’s geo-economic agenda. Germany’s stance on global economic issues, on intervention and on the balance of power in Asia will also continue to be out of sync with Washington, D.C.

The consequences within Europe could be equally disruptive. In the past, many assumed that while the EU’s economic policy would be run by Germany and France, its foreign policy would be led by France and Britain (which are both trying to compensate for lost economic power with foreign policy activism). However, Röttgen says that Steinmeier’s outreach to Paris could one day lead to a “merger of economic and foreign policy” under a re-invented Franco-German motor. As uncomfortable as it may be to find a compromise between Germany, France and Britain on military activism, it will be increasingly vital if Europe’s voice is to be heard on the world stage. “We have a choice between being as relevant as Europeans on global issues, or irrelevant as national players,” said Röttgen.

The one voice that has not yet been heard is the most important one — Chancellor Merkel. Many accuse her of being complicit in Westerwelle’s shrinking of Germany’s foreign ambitions (in fact some speak of a “Merkel doctrine” of avoiding participation in interventions while selling weapons to dubious regimes). Moreover, they suspect that she deliberately put her two successors — Steinmeier and her CDU colleague von der Leyen — into rival positions as foreign minister and defense minister so that they cancel each other out. But now the two of them — with help from the German president – seem to be circling Merkel and trying to drag her on to more activist ground. Will she wear this new mantle and satisfy the German elite, or continue pandering to the public that rewarded her in the last elections?

  • Christian Schulz

    Well, if Merkel “assumes” the mantle and satisfies the “elite” then a clash between politicians and the voters will be unavoidble. A few “crashdives” in the coming elections (i.e. the EU election this year) will put these foreign policy activists under enormous pressure from peers within their own parties and that will stunt any developent towards a policy style that Germany’s international partners would like.

    The bottom line is while ordinary germans could countenance a more active foreign policy they will continue to oppose military engagements of any kind. Foreign interventions? After nearly 1 1/2 decades of trial & fail in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya whatever openness for that kind of thinking within the german society has evaporated. Meaningful increase in defense spending? Fails at the first hurdle: answering the question “What for?” remains an insurmountable hurdle for the policy makers because none of NATO’s two potential strategic outlooks (“global NATO” or “Article V vs Russia”) really appeals to them or the constituency. It’ll remain a tempest in a tea glass and while german diplomacy may be a bit more active from now on I don’t see anything but symbolic participations where military means are concerned.