International Relations

Amid Expectations of a Bigger Global Role, a Stubborn Foreign Policy Vacuum

Außenminister Steinmeier in Mexiko
German Foreign Minister Frank-Waltersteinmeier, during a July 17 trip to Guanajuato, Mexico, surveys the town with a local development official. Source DPA
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    If it’s to become a stronger leader on the worldwide stage, Germany must decide where it stands and determine a direction for the future.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The U.S. spying scandal has reopened debate in Germany about its relationship with the West.
    • The downing of the Malaysian plane in the Ukraine cooled ardor for Russia, and China is a political impossibility.
    • In the absence of other big allies, the United States is the most important partner for Germany, the writer argues.
  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister, started a debate in May on his country’s future global role with the slogan, “Thinking ahead about foreign policy.”

The reason? A rising expectation around the world that Germany show stronger economic and political leadership. But this requires the nation itself to know where it stands and in which direction it should lead.

There begin the problems facing Germany’s foreign policy: There is no discernible position, no direction.

While Germany’s post-war integration with the West might have answered any questions about its orientation, the U.S. spying scandal seems to have reopened the debate. Half of the German population would like “a position halfway between the West and Russia,” according to a poll in April by policy research company Infratest Dimap.

This opinion may well have shifted back in favor of the West after the recent downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 at the hands, as current evidence suggests, of pro-Russian separatists.

The silence of “Putin apologists,” from former German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder to Sahra Wagenknecht, a leader in Germany’s Left Party, are two who naively spoke out in favor of sitting on the fence. Even Mr. Steinmeier, who did whatever he could to build bridges with Moscow, to the point of self-denial, has now announced a harder line toward the Russian president.

What about Europe? It’s geographically and politically the natural place for Germany's foreign policy. But that’s not helping us right now. No common European foreign policy exists.

Equally naive is the belief China could be Germany’s strategic pole in the increasingly complex world. This has more to do with the commercial aspirations of German managers than cold political calculation.

China is and will long remain a party dictatorship with an aggressive stance — internally and externally. President Xi Jinping has increased pressure on regime critics and is inciting dangerous nationalism in the country’s conflict with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.

Change through trade might still be a legitimate hope for dealing with China. But from a political standpoint, Beijing cannot be Berlin’s ally.

What about Europe? It’s geographically and politically the natural place for Germany’s foreign policy. But that’s not helping us right now. No common European foreign policy exists. The heads of states and governments can’t even agree on a new European Union foreign minister. That’s why European partners increasingly regard Germany as the economically — even politically — dominant power in Europe.

But we are a long way from a “German century” predicted by the American magazine Newsweek after Germany’s victory in the recent soccer World Cup.

Germany is and will remain a medium-size power. Without a strong ally, Germany will struggle to protect its interests as power shifts globally toward emerging markets. As long as Europe continues to get in its own way, this partner can only be the United States.

“The Americans of all people,” will be the indignant cry from many who feel betrayed by the National Security Agency’s spying. The first lesson of political growing up, however, is foreign policy should not be determined by emotions.

“Nations have no friends, only interests,” said Otto von Bismarck, the former German chancellor.

 

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics, during a press conferenc in Berlin on July 21, 2014. Source: DPA
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics, during a press conferenc in Berlin on July 21, 2014. Source: DPA
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and his Hungarian counterpart, Tibor Navracsics, during a press conferenc in Berlin on July 21, 2014. Source: DPA

 

This guiding principle remains valid in the 21st century.

What are the German interests?

Basically, we want to live in peace, freedom and affluence. For that to remain, we have to be prepared to defend these values. More than we have up to now.

Not just against internal and external threats, but also in competition with autocratic governments such as those in China and Russia.

This makes America our natural partner, whether it is about the struggle for human rights in Africa, more democracy in Asia, peace in eastern Europe or global free trade.

The relationship doesn’t exclude political disputes.

But justified criticism of NSA methods changes nothing about the interests we have in common with the United States.  So if we are “thinking ahead” about our foreign policy, as Mr. Steinmeier advocates, we shouldn’t be led astray by talk of a “multipolar era.”

For Germany in the foreseeable future, only one political pole in the world can exist and that is in the West. And it has nothing to do with old friendship, everything to do with judicious self-interest.

Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. He can be reached at: riecke@handelsblatt.com

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