Geopolitical Relations

The Enemy of My Enemy

merkel and erdogan
Ms. Merkel needs the autocratic Mr. Erdoğan to help control the flow of refugees into Europe.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany’s dealings with authoritarian regimes it needs to reach political and economic success have recently received criticism worldwide.

  • Facts


    • Recent controversies have included praise of Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi by German economics minister and vice chancellor, Sigmar Gabriel.
    • Chancellor Angela Merkel has come under fire for making a deal to stem the flow of refugees with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
    • Most recently, the chancellor raised eyebrows in how she handled a spat with Mr. Erdoğan over a German comedian’s obscene poem about him.
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It could have been a good day for Sigmar Gabriel, the eternally unredeemed head of the Social Democrats, the junior members of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition government. Finally, Germany’s vice chancellor and economics minister was meeting Ms. Merkel as an equal. But sadly, they were equals on a very low level.

The political cartoon circulated through German papers last week shows the chancellor bowing deeply, kissing the shoes of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, wannabe sultan and eager consumer of German satire. Kneeling next to her is Mr. Gabriel, kissing the shoes of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Egypt’s strong man, a general who seems to think the Arab Spring was a freak weather occurrence. The caption: “Impressive German diplomacy.”

The caricature sums up a noteworthy week in Germany’s diplomatic history, one that saw the refugee crisis clash with globalization and sparked worldwide criticism. It has long ceased to be a question of whether Ms. Merkel betrayed her principles in the spat with Mr. Erdoğan over a German comedian’s Jan Böhmermann’s obscene poem about him. Or whether Mr. Gabriel did the same during a state visit to Egypt when he called Mr. Sisi an “impressive president.” There is a lot more at stake here. It’s a matter of how much moral authority Germany can afford to assert when it comes to foreign affairs.

What if Germany actually requires a new kind of economic and political Realpolitik that is in its own interests?

As always, opposition politicians have found something to criticize. “I don’t know what impressed Mr. Gabriel about President Sisi more: Is it the torture, the suppression or the censorship?” Green party leader Cem Özdemir said. Even the co-chairman of the socialist Left Party, Bernd Riexinger – who has actually had trouble denouncing Stalin – advised Berlin against becoming a “despot fan club.”

Internationally, criticism was also curiously shrill. The New York Times railed against Ms. Merkel’s decision to allow Mr. Erdoğan’s lawsuit against comedian Mr. Böhmermann, saying it was tantamount to paying ransom to a kidnapper. “Now the question is what Mr. Erdoğan – or some other miffed potentate – will demand next,” wrote the paper. It was as though Mr. Böhmermann had been extradited or convicted.

But is the outrage just a cheap shot? What if Germany actually requires a new kind of economic and political Realpolitik that is in its own interests? Otherwise, how will the country manage to get ahead in the face of multiple global crises?


Germany's Trading Partners 2-01


Political leaders seem to have agreed on suitable responses to such criticism. Mr. Gabriel, for his part, has made a point of using the economics ministry to show that social democracy can reach other groups of voters, such as those within various business circles. But he quickly realized he cannot serve two masters. Heads of industry, about 100 of whom accompanied him to Egypt, regard him as the top German trade representative. But at the same time, he has so often denounced human rights violations worldwide that the Federal Foreign Office has taken notice. He even spoke with Mr. Sisi about human rights directly before he made his controversial comment, and again afterwards. But in the end, the words that made him sound cynical are the ones that will stick.

And Angela Merkel? Sources close to her said that early in the refugee crisis she was already considering a deal with Turkey, but hesitated because she predicted the outrage over an agreement with a presumed despot. Eventually she dared to take the step because that was the only way she saw that progress could be made. Should she now backtrack, the criticism will be over how no progress is being made on the refugee issue.

Shifts in political power are placing narrow limits on values-driven foreign policy.

Both politicians are experiencing a new form of the classic political contradiction between idealism and reality, between what is viable and moral.

Bernard Kouchner, human rights activist and co-founder of the aid organization Doctors Without Borders, once disbanded the Under-Secretariat for Human Rights when he was France’s foreign minister. He soberly summed it up by noting that foreign policy cannot be determined by human rights alone.

The late American ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, intellectual idol of U.S. President Barack Obama, warned that the irony of American history was that the country aimed to do good but often created evil in the process.

His words sound wiser than ever in an ever more complicated world in which democracy is statistically in decline. It’s also a world in which Western ideals have begun to crumble – politically since Iraq and Guantanamo, economically since the world financial crisis.

“The West is sitting in a glass house,” says Eberhard Sandschneider, director of the Research Institute of the German Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin.

This means that shifts in political power are placing narrow limits on values-driven foreign policy. How could it be otherwise in a multipolar world with many different value and economic systems?

Mr. Sandschneider has been trying for some time to start a debate on the issue. “Germany cannot respond efficiently to global problems and suffers a competitive disadvantage when it cultivates unrealistic values and fosters moral qualms that are all too large,” he says.

According to the Financial Times, European governments can no longer just sweep aside threats from countries like Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Russia or China. But does this mean that we have to deal with them? And how does an “applied pragmatism,” a balance between values-driven foreign policy and sweet-talking autocrats, actually work?

If we break down the individual cases, the difficulties that arise from this kind of policy are easy to see along the Macedonian border, where thousands of refugees have been persevering in a muddy camp since the Balkan route to Europe was closed.


Germany's Trading Partners-01


The Turkish president is fully aware of his strategic value in the refugee issue. He is virtually sitting on the floodgates. “We can open the doors to Greece and Bulgaria anytime and put the refugees in buses,” Mr. Erdoğan supposedly told a European Union representative in February.

In the wake of Turkey’s deal with the European Union to stem the flow of refugees in mid-March, Mr. Erdoğan restricted the freedom of the press. Last week, he had the German ambassador summoned not once but three times to complain about the German media, and not just Mr. Böhmermann.

But at the moment Ms. Merkel has no alternative but to work with the touchy Turkish leader. The only thing that could have prevented her from kowtowing to him would have been a united front of all 28 E.U. member states.

The Germans are similarly acting alone in Egypt, where Mr. Gabriel made his controversial comment. As welcome as German companies are there, it isn’t the Germans who have an influence on Mr. Sisi, it’s their Saudi friends. It is rather telling that local media didn’t even consider Mr. Gabriel’s statement about the impressive Mr. Sisi worth mentioning.

One the other hand, when Germany exerts international pressure, there is no guarantee of success. Take, for example, the Western sanctions against the Iranian nuclear program. After years of boycott, a couple of months ago the ayatollahs promised to put their nuclear armament program on ice for 15 years. There is now the chance for a peaceful change in the country. But just the chance – because so far the accords haven’t brought the Iranian people the tangible economic benefits as promised. The United States’ anti-terror sanctions continue to be in effect even though the anti-nuclear sanctions have been removed. Because of it, international banks must avoid business with many Iranian companies. In May, Mr. Gabriel will once again set off for Iran, with businessmen in tow, to deliver on this promise of an economic upswing. Fresh outrage at home is a given.

The question remains as to what helps Germany achieve more – defending moral values or creating material values?

The Saudis, as well, want to change. The youthful Saudi deputy crown prince has announced a comprehensive modernization program. Of course, the country will stay a three-class society of princes worth billions, pampered but voiceless subjects, and an army of millions of exploited foreign workers. However, it is, at the same time, a kingdom with the world’s largest oil reserves that is promising to effectively fight terrorism in the Middle East and is counted among the players in the international world of finance that are intent on world economic stability.

Under Mr. Obama, the United States has been rapidly emancipating itself from the kingdom, even if the president traveled there this week. But isn’t doing that even pushing such an important country, right in the midst of change, into dangerous isolation, instead of offering a hand to help speed up this change?

And shouldn’t that hand also be extended to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, despite his Ukraine invasion and mega-corruption? The current policy of boycott has done little to change Mr. Putin’s course, only damaged both sides economically. And yet the Germans are hesitant. According to a poll by the Bertelsmann Foundation, a majority of German citizens are in favor of the restrictive Russian policy. Some 46 percent supported upholding the sanctions, 16 percent were even for tightening them.

But, on the other hand, according to a survey by the Foreign Chamber of Commerce in Moscow, 60 percent of German businessmen want the sanctions immediately lifted, 28 percent a gradual lifting of the penalties. The Berlin-based Committee on Eastern European Economic Relations has just paid its humble respects to Mr. Putin in Moscow. Many countries are also pleading on the E.U. level for a loosening of sanctions.

But the Germans have already tried more pragmatism with Mr. Putin during Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s first term in office. The idea behind it was to help the Russians overhaul their economic structure – in exchange for more political cooperation. But that didn’t work with Mr. Putin. On the one hand, the Germans overloaded the would-be partnership by also demanding reforms. On the other hand, it turned out that Mr. Putin never had a modernization in mind that included a free market economy and democracy in line with European blueprints. The man simply needed more capital, limousines and customers.

But does that already discredit the profoundly German thought that those who dogmatically represent their own values, actually create something of value? While Americans are still trying to make more of the world’s biggest foreign policy adventure by making it a battle for freedom, German foreign policy has proved to be a strictly rational haggling over interests.

Nevertheless, the question remains as to what helps Germany achieve more – defending moral values or creating material values? Christoph Lütge, a professor of business ethics at the Technical University of Munich, differentiates for that reason between being bound by morals and moralism. When demands ignore the conditions of their implementation, they have nothing more to do with morals. And that seldom ends well. It follows a simple recipe: Democracy against dictatorship. Rich against poor. Erdoğan against Böhmermann.

But in reality, this binary coding of solutions prevents solutions. And those that vehemently insist on Western dogmas often achieve the opposite. The modern autocrat makes capital out of much-publicized criticism and puts himself in a favorable light.

Naturally, this approach has its risks. Realpolitik harbors the temptation of putting stability before change. When held onto for too long, the apparent stability could suddenly turn to chaos. That was the case in the shah’s Iran, with dictators in Latin America and nearly even with the fall of the Eastern Bloc.

Neorealist Mr. Sandschneider urges, “Economic activities are of crucial importance when it comes to promoting stability and state-building in the fragile areas of the political map.” Or, to reword “Ostpolitik”-creator Egon Bahr’s motto, we should strive for “change through rapprochement,” and “change through trade.”

In what way can companies more effectively change the human rights situation toward the positive? By providing services that improve living conditions and seeing to it that Western standards of good governance are introduced, above all in the area of labor laws. Or by submitting to demands not to do business in countries or regions where the implementation of human rights does not yet comply with Western standards.

Mr. Sandschneider argues for discrete government work, open interventions of non-governmental organization and pragmatic stabilization by the establishment of social standards in entrepreneurial areas. Boycotts, at any rate, have continually become less effective in the past couple of years. The resulting gap is filled by politics and business (usually Chinese). In Mr. Sandschneider’s estimation, the result is “significantly lower standards in the areas of corporate and social responsibility.”

Chancellor Merkel summed up this pensive new German thinking in a remarkably open manner in February 2015 at the Munich Security Conference. “I am very much for human rights, don’t misunderstand me,” said Ms. Merkel, “but sometimes when we as Europeans conclude free trade agreement with African partners and also demand the way they treat, for example, homosexuals and women’s rights be handled in the same way as under German law, then we sometimes forget that in Germany there was a law still in force in 1970, according to which a husband had to give his consent for his wife to work … we’ve hardly done away with that law and we have to act as if, from one day to the next, all of humanity must abide by our principles.”

Perhaps a blueprint can be found in these sentences for a new ethical realism in German foreign affairs and foreign trade policy. One in which we preserve the freedom of choice, instead of slipping back to harping about moral principles. By not bowing our heads before dictators, but also not holding our heads too high, we can maintain our values without making them the only valid measure of worth.


This piece originally appeared in economic weekly Wirtschaftswoche. It was written by Gregor Peter Schmitz, Adrian Jagow, Philipp Mattheis, Sven Prange, Florian Willershausen, Hans Jakob Ginsburg and Dieter Schnaas. To contact the authors:

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