Does Germany Need a Plan B?

Thomas Bagger is one of the most thoughtful diplomats of his generation.  Currently the Director of Foreign Policy in the Office of the Federal President, he has previously served as Head of Policy Planning (among other important postings) in the German Foreign Office.  He has also been an important analyst of Germany’s role in the world, publishing thoughtful articles and creating the concept of Germany as a “Shaping Power.”[1] His latest contribution, published in The Washington Quarterly, is “The World According to Germany: Reassessing 1989.” In it, he provides an overview of how German expectations of 1989, a form of German End of History, have been overturned and what it all means for its foreign policy.

Germany’s Great Expectations

Bagger cites two major expectations Germans had coming out of the end of the Cold War and the unification of the country. The first is the idea of convergence, “in which countries around the globe would gradually transform into open market, liberal democracies.” German unification—and European integration—were seen as a model for other regions. The second expectation “was perfectly captured by a line then-Chancellor Helmut Kohl often used after unification was achieved: ‘For the first time Germany is surrounded only by friends and partners.’”  These assumptions allowed Germany to pursue a policy based on the tenets of globalization including multilateralism, economic growth, open borders and open societies, and a downgrading of security concerns and of military instruments of state power.

These assumptions allowed Germany to pursue a policy based on the tenets of globalization including multilateralism, economic growth, open borders and open societies, and a downgrading of security concerns and of military instruments of state power.

“Militarily weak, instinctively pacifist after two world wars, Germany was more dependent and invested in a rules-based international order where its soft power carried substantial weight,” writes Bagger. One example of a move toward “a ‘Weltinnenpolitik’—an international system with highly constrained exercise of the use of force and a legitimate authority to arbitrate—was the establishment of the International Criminal Court 20 years ago.”  Germany and Europe were the models of an inevitably globalizing world: “Europe was the global avant-garde—and Germany, having thoroughly digested its historical and geographical lessons—thought of itself as the avant-garde within the European Union.”

The End of the End of History

The Russian intervention in Ukraine was a turning point that ended this optimistic world view and brought into question the assumptions upon which Germany’s policies were founded.  China and Russia were not being transformed into open societies, authoritarian strong men were replacing consensual democratic leaders, and the pillar of the world order, the United States, now seemed to be embracing a zero-sum nationalism. While these changes were unsettling throughout the West, they had an existential meaning for Germany. Bagger notes, “The Trump challenge goes much deeper than just policy disagreements—his approach pulls the rug from under the feet of German foreign policy thinking since the foundation of modern Germany in the late 1940s, a rug woven by far-sighted American policy after the war […] the world no longer conforms to German expectations. Germany has ‘lost its moorings.’”

What Is to be Done?

Bagger sees a choice for German policy moving forward: “Should Germany continue to push for the spread of liberal democracy and for a rules-based world order—without or possibly even against a United States that is turning away from its own ideals formed in the 1940s and 1950s? Or is the gravest risk for Germany to remain the guardian of a status quo that has ceased to exist? Should Germany adapt to the politics of retreat and resentment, and stop underwriting the European regional order just as President Trump’s United States is no longer willing or interested in underwriting the international liberal order it created decades ago?”

“The history of unification represents hope even under the most adverse circumstances. The unthinkable can happen.”
– Thomas Bagger

He closes with a degree of realistic or measured optimism: “The real lesson of 1989 was never about history’s inevitable path, but rather its opposite. The history of unification represents hope even under the most adverse circumstances. The unthinkable can happen. The future is open and its shape depends on our own actions. We should not expect the inevitability of a better future, but should never discard its possibility—including the emancipation of those who today suffer the consequences of authoritarian rule.”

German policymakers will be wise to follow this advice.  Strong men have a history of failing and authoritarian systems, unlike democracies, are not self-correcting and do not provide for an orderly transfer of power. Playing on fears has a short and disastrous shelf life and trying to isolate societies from the stimuli and challenges of the outside result in versions of North Korea. On a different level, the debate the UK is having with itself over Brexit is clear evidence of the costs of the delusions of insularity.

There are also reasons to think the Trump fever is beginning to break in the United States. The U.S. House of Representatives recently passed a bill, with bipartisan support of 357-22, stating that it is U.S. policy to remain a member of NATO and prohibiting funds from being used to withdraw from the alliance. In the wake of the government shutdown, Donald Trump is looking more like a one-term president and his anti-European and anti-German views are not likely to outlive his time in office as they do not go deep into American civil society. Putin’s Russia remains contained in Ukraine and is facing growing discontent at home, and there is a growing recognition in the transatlantic world that it needs to unite against the growing economic, political, and strategic threat posed by China. The recent report by the Federation of German Industry on German business concerns on China, highlighted by a recent workshop convened by AICGS, all indicate that rather than a Pacific Pivot, China may revitalize the transatlantic community.

To be sure, problems in the German-American relationship will continue even after the Trump presidency, but these will be managed within the larger context underscoring the importance of this relationship to both sides.

To be sure, problems in the German-American relationship will continue even after the Trump presidency, including the issue of low German defense spending and the German current accounts surplus, but these will be managed within the larger context underscoring the importance of this relationship to both sides. Having stepped to the edge of the precipice, it is to be hoped and expected that America will have learned the value of having friends and allies. For Germany, the implications of Brexit and of weakened partners in Europe will have to be assessed.  Bagger is right to argue that, “the EU’s continued success needs a more active German role, both conceptually and materially. With its current passivity and its narrow focus on a strict fiscal rule-book, Germany risks failure.” However, there are still few signs the German leaders recognize this and are prepared to move along these lines.   All this implies that Germany might want a revised Plan A if not yet a Plan B and underscores Bagger’s wise advice.


[1] Thomas Bagger, “The Networked Diplomat,” Internationale Politik, 3 August 2013.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.
Steve Szabo

Stephen F. Szabo

Senior Fellow

Dr. Stephen F. Szabo is a Senior Fellow at AICGS, where he focuses on German foreign and security policies and the new German role in Europe and beyond. Until June 1, he was the Executive Director of the Transatlantic Academy, a Washington, DC, based forum for research and dialogue between scholars, policy experts, and authors from both sides of the Atlantic. Prior to joining the German Marshall Fund in 2007, Dr. Szabo was Interim Dean and Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and taught European Studies at The Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. He served as Professor of National Security Affairs at the National War College, National Defense University (1982-1990). He received his PhD in Political Science from Georgetown University and has been a fellow with the Alexander von Humboldt Stiftung, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the American Academy in Berlin, as well as serving as Research Director at AICGS. In addition to SAIS, he has taught at the Hertie School of Governance, Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Virginia. He has published widely on European and German politics and foreign policies, including. The Successor Generation: International Perspectives of Postwar Europeans, The Diplomacy of German Unification, Parting Ways: The Crisis in the German-American Relationship, and Germany, Russia and the Rise of Geo-Economics.