Germany will not emerge as a leader of EU foreign policy unless it overcomes some of the weaknesses that hold it back, writes Charles Grant
During the euro crisis, Germany has become Europe’s unquestioned leader on economic policy-making. Both the strength of its economy and the demands of others for its money have given Germany a pre-eminent role. In foreign and security policy, Britain and France have generally set the EU agenda. The Ukraine crisis, however, may allow Germany to lead in this field, too. Germany has a special relationship with Russia, geographical proximity to Ukraine and strong economic ties with both. Meanwhile France is busy with two wars in Africa, and Britain is constrained by its europhobic domestic debate, as well as its post-Afghanistan, post-Iraq fear of foreign entanglements.
Nevertheless Germany will not emerge as a leader of EU foreign policy unless it overcomes some of the weaknesses that hold it back. President Joachim Gauck identified two specific problems in an important speech to the Munich Security Conference on January 30th: Germany has tended to evade some of the responsibilities that other Western powers have borne; and it suffers from a dearth of strategic thinking. Gauck did not refer directly to a third problem: in Germany, foreign policy is more commercially-driven than in some EU countries.
The horrors of World War Two left Germany understandably more interested in an economic than a strategic approach to foreign policy; and unwilling to intervene militarily in other parts of the world. Although those traits have shown remarkable longevity, the various post-war chancellors have had their own priorities. Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, tried – with the help of Joschka Fischer, his foreign minister – to make Germany more ‘normal’ in the way it handled security crises. Thus German forces took part in NATO’s bombing of Serbia and Kosovo in 1999, joined the NATO mission in Afghanistan and acted as peacekeepers in many parts of the world.
But under Angela Merkel foreign policy became more cautious, particularly from 2009-13, when the anti-interventionist Guido Westerwelle was foreign minister. This shift may have reflected the public’s lack of enthusiasm for both the Schröder-Fischer activism and the US-led invasion of Iraq. Thus during the Libya crisis of 2011 Germany lined up with Russia and China in abstaining on a UN Security Council resolution (backed by the US, Britain and France) that authorised the use of force.
Gauck’s Munich speech – supported by later interventions from Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Defence Minister Ursula Von der Leyen – argued that Germany’s foreign policy should be more like that of other countries. The president said that when others regarded Germany as a shirker, they had a point. He urged the Germans to be ready to do more to guarantee the security that others had provided it for decades. He pointed out that Germany had benefited greatly from the open global order, and warned that “the consequences of inaction could be just as serious, if not worse, than the consequences of taking action”. He said that Germany should be prepared to spend money, and as a last resort, to send in troops. He noted that “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”. He said the Germans should not make special rules for themselves.
To many foreign observers, Gauck was stating the obvious. Germany contributes less to European security than Britain or France: in 2013 it spent 1.4 per cent of GDP on defence, while France spent 1.9 per cent and Britain 2.3 per cent. Nor does Germany compensate by spending more on softer sorts of security: it spent 0.37 per cent of GDP on development aid in 2012, while France spent 0.45 per cent and the UK 0.56 per cent.
Germany has provided large numbers of peacekeepers and trainers for NATO and EU missions in places such as Afghanistan, Bosnia, Kosovo and Mali, but the caveats applying to them have often impaired their utility. In Afghanistan, for example, German troops and aircraft stationed in the north could neither undertake offensive operations nor assist NATO allies fighting in the more troubled south. France and Britain are usually more willing to send their soldiers into harm’s way (although 54 German troops died in Afghanistan).
Alongside a reluctance to use force, German foreign policy is characterised by the strongly-held principle that any problem can be solved through negotiation. Though an admirable starting point in foreign affairs, negotiation without a credible threat of sanctions or force cannot always be the solution. Negotiation tout court is a ‘post-modern’ concept that generally works well within the EU, but is less effective in dealing with the very ‘modern’ (that is to say, realist) powers in other parts of the world.
The recent history of the Germans’ dealings with Russia shows how much they believe in engagement. From Vladimir Putin’s ascent to power until very recently, they believed in Wandel durch Annäherung, change through rapprochement. They wanted the EU and its member-states to negotiate ‘modernisation partnerships’ with Russia, based on the assumption that its leaders could be persuaded to strengthen the rule of law and reform the economy.
That was probably a reasonable strategy for the EU, at least for a while. Barack Obama’s ‘reset’ with Russia produced real results on Iran, Afghanistan and arms control, when Dmitri Medvedev was president (in 2008 Putin became prime minister when the two men swapped jobs). Medvedev seemed keen to modernise Russia.
However, dark forces of atavism, nationalism and militarism were building inside Russia. Rather few Germans noticed. Merkel focused her efforts on cultivating Medvedev; like many Germans (and Obama), she over-estimated his chances of pushing aside Putin. With hindsight, some of the Germans’ faith in engaging Russia was over-optimistic or even naïve.
Since Putin returned to the presidency in 2012, anti-Western paranoia has increased its grip on Russian foreign policy. His behaviour since the autumn of 2013, when he started putting pressure on Ukraine (and other countries) to shun the EU’s Eastern Partnership, has been an unexpected and disagreeable cold shower for many Germans. Some of them now recognise that there has been too much wishful thinking in Germany about Russia.
German attitudes to Russia in particular or foreign policy in general will not change rapidly. Visiting Berlin in April 2014, I found that a number of senior thinkers and officials were making excuses for Russian conduct in Crimea. They more-or-less blamed not only NATO enlargement but also the EU for some of Russia’s actions, arguing that Brussels should have tried harder to consult Moscow over the Eastern Partnership (in fact, EU officials made repeated efforts to discuss the partnership with Russia, which showed no interest in the matter until the spring of 2013).
Since Germany is a profoundly democratic country, its politicians cannot ignore public opinion. Many Germans do not want to see their soldiers deployed anywhere – and are happy that they cannot be without a parliamentary vote. The Social-Democratic Party (SPD) has always contained pacifist elements and, ever since the Ostpolitik that it led in the 1970s, has tended to favour a soft approach towards Russia. German hostility to military intervention sometimes blends with strains of anti-Americanism – perhaps because the US has several times supported interventions that proved disastrous. The recent scandal over the National Security Agency’s spying on Europeans has strengthened America’s critics across the continent, and especially in Germany, where people care deeply about civil liberties.
Gauck’s Munich speech highlighted a second problem that contributes to an over-reliance on soft power in foreign policy: insufficient strategic thinking in Germany. In this context I take strategic to mean the ability of a country to define its interests in ways that are not exclusively commercial and economic; and to set out its long-term objectives and the means by which it hopes to achieve them (even if the means involve short-term costs or commitments to deploy force).
Compared to some countries, Germany’s universities, think-tanks and ministries are weak in strategic thinking. Berlin has some fine foreign policy think-tanks, but lacks the equivalent of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies or Paris’s Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. As Gauck noted, “A security conference in Munich once a year….is not enough”.
A third constraint on German foreign policy is its economic orientation. Every European country tries to balance commercial objectives with concerns over human rights and broader strategic goals. But they do not all strike the same balance. Germany’s industrial and commercial interests sometimes drive its foreign policy more strongly than is the case in Britain or France.
During the Ukraine crisis, Brussels officials have complained about pressure from Berlin to “de-escalate” the EU’s relationship with Russia. That pressure is not surprising: German companies have invested more than €20 billion in Russia, which also provides about 30 per cent of Germany’s gas (however, only 3 per cent of German exports go to Russia). The Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations, a body that represents German industry, has lobbied the German government against EU sanctions on Russia throughout the Ukraine crisis. British firms involved in Russia have similarly lobbied their government, but arguably with less impact.
Berlin has often been reluctant to criticise Russia and China on human rights. Over the past few years, German policy on Russia has evolved, at least at the level of rhetoric, to become more critical, but the same cannot be said of its China policy. Germany’s commercial priorities were evident in the summer of 2013, when Merkel received Chinese leaders in Berlin and then visited them in Beijing. German solar-panel manufacturers had complained to the European Commission about Chinese panels being dumped on EU markets. The Commission had investigated and was threatening China with penalties. China then warned the EU about possible retaliation against exports of polysilicon (a material for solar panels) and luxury cars, which would have hit Germany. The German government criticised the Commission and undermined it by leaning on other member-states to oppose a tough response to the alleged dumping. As a result the Commission backed down.
Germany’s emphasis on commerce can therefore make its policies appear ‘anti-EU’. Many Brussels officials believe that, since Germany accounts for about 45 per cent of EU exports to China, it would rather have a strong bilateral relationship than a united European policy towards the country. German officials sometimes appear to think that, because most member-states do not have much manufacturing industry, the EU cannot be trusted to speak for German companies in countries like China. Similarly, Berlin has generally opposed a greater role for the Commission in managing the EU’s external energy relations, worrying that it might disregard the interests of German energy companies, many of which are active in Russia.
But is Germany any worse than its partners? When David Cameron, the British prime minister, went to Beijing in December 2013, he said proudly that he would be China’s advocate in Europe. He also said nothing (in public) about either human rights or tensions in the East China Sea – though US Vice President Joe Biden, in Beijing at the same time, spoke out on both issues. Does that not prove that all European leaders are commercially-driven? Not quite. Cameron was widely criticised in Britain for his handling of the Beijing visit, including (in private) by the Foreign Office. Britain’s response to the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko, in 2006, is a counter-example. When the Russian authorities refused to co-operate with the British investigation, Prime Minister Gordon Brown reacted strongly. He imposed visa restrictions on government officials and cut off intelligence co-operation – despite the potential threat to BP’s and Shell’s massive investments in Russia.
At the time of his Munich speech, Gauck seemed to be setting out some long-term objectives for his country. But soon afterwards the Ukraine crisis escalated, presenting some immediate tests for Germany.
Though Gauck did not say so directly, he implied that in order to lead, Germany needed to be able to act – and sometimes against its own immediate economic interests. Germany would then have the credibility to win the respect of its fellow EU member-states.
In Berlin, senior officials and politicians understand that Germany cannot lead its partners on Russia policy if it is on one side of the spectrum of EU opinion on how to handle Moscow – the soft side. Rhetorically, Merkel’s tough words on Russia in recent months have positioned Germany close to the middle. As for a possible shift on substance, it is too early to tell where Germany will end up. The pressures on Germany to remain Russia’s special friend in Europe – from business, sections of the SPD (as well as some Christian Democrats) and much of public opinion – are immense. But Germany’s partners, in the US as well as in Europe, hope that the Gauck speech marks the start of a new era in Germany foreign policy – one that is less commercially-driven, more favourable to common EU policies and more willing to take on greater responsibility for European security.
Charles Grant is director of the Centre for European Reform.