Foreign policy

Germany’s Strategic Frivolousness

Gabriel with sunglasses dpa Picture-Alliance-60224878-HighRes
Strategy? What strategy? Sigmar Gabriel, German tourist and foreign minister. Credit: DPA Picture Alliance

One of the problems with German foreign policy today is that it is strategically frivolous. This frivolity is a stance of comfort and convenience. Germany prefers to leave the tough decisions and dirty work of foreign and defense policy to others, in order then to criticize its allies from a moral high horse in a tone of smugness and complacency.

The reason lies in Germany’s post-World War II culture. The partitioned country only slowly regained its sovereignty, while big strategic questions were often decided by others, primarily the war’s four Allied victors. And Germans learned to like the relative convenience of standing on the sidelines.

But the result was that Germany lacks a sober, analytical approach when discussing foreign policy concepts such as power, military force and national interest. Germans instead lurch into an emotional, excited and moralistic mode to condemn notions they view as politically contaminated. The upshot is that the nation that gave us the world’s most important strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, no longer does strategy.

Debates in Germany are first and foremost moral debates because Germans are — understandably, given their seven-decade effort to atone for the Nazi past — pre-occupied with staying morally clean. But foreign policy is rarely about moral clarity. It’s usually a choice between bad or worse. Germany finds it harder to make such tough moral choices than others. Here are nine examples:

The nation that gave us the world’s most important strategist, Carl von Clausewitz no longer does strategy.

First, Germans lack a historic understanding about how unstable Europe is. They fail to grasp that the past 70 years of peace have been the exception to the rule of violent conflict in Europe over the last 1,000 years. They take the current situation as given and are unaware of the permanent political, diplomatic and military investments needed to maintain both the inner balance of Europe and protect it from external enemies.

Second, Germans underestimate the importance of the United States for Europe. They don’t understand or brush off Europe’s dependence on protection from America’s army, intelligence services and anti-terror operations. Too many Germans have delusions of adequacy regarding their limited efforts to ensure the continent’s security. Germans also underestimate the level of trust that the presence of Americans in Europe has created since 1945 by defusing old European rivalries.

Third, Germans, while mistrusting Vladimir Putin, are too often willing to make excuses for Russia. They refuse to recognize Moscow’s goal, which is the disintegration of the Western-liberal order and the preservation of the corrupt and violent regime in the Kremlin. Approaching Russia only with soft power – a policy popular across party lines but not with Chancellor Merkel — is a misreading of history and a perverse obsession with softness when hard policies are needed. Real Ostpolitik means cooperation from a position of strength.

Fourth, Germans dismiss the role of the military in the success of diplomacy and protection of the liberal democratic order. As a result, they haven’t protested against spending cuts over the past quarter century that have ruined the German army. The default German position in every international crisis is “military force is not the answer.” This is usually correct but rarely the full truth – and it masks the fact that diplomacy backed by military clout has a better chance of success.

German leaders need a plan against nuclear blackmail.

Fifth, Germans naïvely deny the importance of their own intelligence services. Spying is seen as morally objectionable and dishonorable. Germans need to grow up about the world’s second-oldest profession. Berlin not only spies actively, it is also the target of spies, even from — shock, horror – its own allies. The answer to the American tapping of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone isn’t moral grandstanding. It’s more money for the German intelligence services.

Sixth, Germans underestimate the importance of free trade and globalization for their own economic success. This is the only way to explain the huge demonstrations last fall against the EU’s proposed TTIP trade deal with the US. Germany would probably benefit most from TTIP, but a satiated, self-indulgent society fails to grasp the basis for its prosperity.

Seventh, Germans have no idea about the importance of Asia for global stability and European prosperity. Too often Asia is simply seen as a place to sell BMWs and Audis. But any conflict between the US and China would force Germany and Europe to pick sides.

Eighth, Germans have misdiagnosed the migrant crisis. They blame the US invasion of Iraq and the colonial powers’ carve-up of the Middle East after World War I. In reality, the main cause is the brutal despotism and economic misgovernment of many Arab and African rulers following independence. No doubt, the West has often played a less than illustrious role in the region. But failing to identify what has caused these failed states undermines any effort to help them.

Ninth, Germans deny the role of nuclear deterrence. They feign astonishment at Berlin’s nuclear sharing with the US and ignore the importance of the American nuclear umbrella in staving off Russian nuclear blackmail. Now the question is whether President Trump will maintain NATO and the nuclear umbrella for allies. Germany needs a discussion on what it will do if it’s dumped by its nuclear protector in Washington. Can British and French nuclear weapons serve as a European deterrent? If not, the “unthinkable” will happen: the nuclear arming of Germany. Either way, German leaders need a plan against nuclear blackmail.

This is, collectively, what we mean by strategic frivolousness. It is dangerous because America has since 1990 been withdrawing from Europe and new threats, from terrorism to Vladimir Putin, have risen. Strategic frivolousness creates uncertainty and mistrust and, potentially, a power vacuum in Europe. Germany is too important and the other European states are too weak. Germany cannot be strategically frivolous and lead. And without German leadership, Europe’s future is dark.


By Leon Mangasarian and Jan Techau, authors of “Führungsmacht Deutschland, Strategie ohne Angst und Anmassung“ (Leadership Power Germany, Strategy Without Fear and Hubris), published by dtv Verlag in Germany on May 5.

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