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Understanding Germany

I am a big fan of The Economist, but the latest article on Germany's foreign policy "The unadventurous eagle" leaves me a bit confused. The title suggests that Germany is not going on foreign policy adventures. That's good, right?

The subheading, however, is negative and asserts cautiously "Europe's biggest economic power seems reluctant to have a foreign policy to match." So what? Japan, China, South Korea, Brazil do not match their economic power with foreign policy commitments either. Besides, the US and especially Greece have a disproportionately high defense spending considering the current state of their economy. If the Economist would accuse Germany of lack of NATO solidarity and burden sharing in Afghanistan and defense capabilities and readiness, I would agree.

I would reject, however, an accusation of security free-riding in any debate about the Libya mission, because Khaddafi is not a threat to any NATO ally. The Economist does not make that accusation but points to several other theses and leaves me confused as to what the paper thinks about Berlin's policies. They might not know what to make of Germany. That's probably the point of the article.

The Economist refers to a paper by the European Council on Foreign Relations, which asserts that Berlin is pursuing a new "non-aligned foreign policy." Actively? That's a bit rich. I am siding more with Jan Techau from Carnegie Europe, who opines that the pro-West consensus that has underpinned European peace since the second world war is "slowly dissolving." The Economist adds "some analysts even speak of a Sonderweg, a new version of the 'special path' for Germany advocated by 19th-century reactionaries."

Then come wise words from Hanns Maull of the University of Trier: "The problem is not that Germany has made a strategic decision to downgrade its commitment to old alliances. (...) It is that Germany has no real 'grand strategy'. Instead, it reacts to situations as they arise." Yes, I think Prof. Maull gets to the bottom of Germany's foreign policy problem.

Let me explain to you in one paragraph what's going on in Germany:

In contrast to the Cold War, most Germans do not perceive any significant security threats and risks right now. They don't consider Berlin as capable of shaping international developments anyway unlike the "leader of the free world" and "la grande nation". We are also busy with domestic issues and getting our budget and economy in shape in order to maintain living standards for future generations considering our demographic troubles. Therefore Berlin does not have a foreign policy grand strategy and instead follows political instincts, which are against any kind of military mission and foreign policy adventures. This leads (passively) to a slowly dissolving pro-Western consensus, especially since liberal interventionism is en vogue again in London, Paris and Washington DC. From the outside this might look like a Sonderweg or non-aligned foreign policy, but that certainly is not our plan, because we don't have a plan. Just gut instincts, which is sad. Germans are not pacifists, but are tired of war after starting and losing two world wars. Germany is a huge arms exporter despite all the rhetoric of arms reduction, which is bad.

So, it's pretty simple, really. Germany is predictable. Though, the Anglo-Saxon press will probably continue to write op-eds about "the German question". Yawn.

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Daniel Antal on :

I think you have picked a too easy target with the Economist article to refuse a valid argument easily. I think you are right in claiming that Germany is not actively undermining its military alliances and it not actively pursuing “non-aligned foreign policy”. Your smart article refutes a not-so-smart one but I think it fails to bring foreigners closer to “understanding Germany”.Even if Germany’s critics have not been able to make their case properly “in the Anglo-Saxon press”, I think they rightly point out that Germany starts to behave like Sweden during the cold war with its creative neutrality concept and non-aligned foreign policy. You are right to claim that Germany is “busy with domestic issues and getting our budget and economy in shape in order to maintain living standards for future generations considering our demographic troubles”. I think this is exactly what Sweden was doing for decades while becoming one of the most competitive industrial countries, and also compared to her size one of the biggest players in the defense industry. The current answers to Germany’s domestic issues lie in fighting a respectable economic rivalry with a 20 times bigger China to remain the biggest exporter on the world and compensate declining domestic macroeconomic demands of an aging population with conquering foreign markets. I think that Germany has run into a situation that Sweden could much better manage as a formally neutral country: that you have to avoid liberal nterventionism on your export markets. However, when you are making business in countries where your military allies make war, there is a very strong conflict of interest. And I do not see how Germany manages this. Seeing things from the East and not from the West compared to Germany, it looks to me that your country has a very active foreign policy that is pursuing not militaristic but international trade goals. I know that one example does not prove anything, but maybe it makes you think: how was the case with the North Stream natural gas pipeline? Do you know that it is not only the EU but also the NATO that must deal with the consequences?

Joerg Wolf on :

Daniel, thank you for you insightful comment! "However, when you are making business in countries where your military allies make war, there is a very strong conflict of interest." I agree. I don't think trade with Libya was the reason for abstaining at the UN vote. You are right, trade policy is foreign policy as well. In general, our trade policy seems to dominate other foreign policy considerations. Not re Libya, but re Russia, China and until recently Iran. I disapprove. And I hate that Germany is being such a big arms exporter.

Daniel Antal on :

Joerg, I almost agree with you on Libya, I do not think that Germany was lead this time by economic interests. But when Germany abstained in the UN Security Council together with India, Brazil and Russia, well, it gave the wrong impression anyway. I took another example just because I think that the Economist argument is not good at all in the Libya case. Yet Germany puts economic interest above all other foreign policy goals (probably with the exception of Israel and Palestine) and this is conflicting with other's views who believe that international relations are not only about free trade.

Zyme on :

Joerg what is to be hated when we are the world's third biggest exporter of arms? When you have customers for your arms manufacturers across the world, you #1 have a total overview of their capabilities #2 have arms manufacturers which can keep growing and spending far more on research than the competition #3 consequently have state of the art equipment at hand in your own country #4 keep the competition at bay from a technological and financial point of view #5 can reduce your own military in size to save a lot of money, as in times of need you can rely on a broadly based arms industry to quickly restock Did I forget something? Now - what the hell is wrong with that?? I say good job by our politicians whenever they lower the export hurdles!

Marie Claude on :

happy guis, some others do your defense ! and if Libya war was about energy prices, and to support the money, the euro, that give nightmares to the Germans !

Bruce Miller on :

Joerg, I like your summary of German foreign policy. Anglo-Saxon analyses of it all too often assume that "good" German policy would be what fits American or British convenience of the moment. And given the broad consensus among Britain's elite since the Suez crisis of 1956 to never get on opposite sides to the US on a major foreign policy matter, British and American convenience in that context are largely the same. American policy, and Beltway Village conventional wisdom reflected in most US press commentary (especially on TV), has a frank bias in favor of military solutions to perceived foreign policy problems. The Obama Administration's entry into the Libya War, and the bipartisan passivity over it in Congress, reflect the irresponsibility among American policymakers in matters of war and peace. I don't see any especially sinister motives behind it on the part of the US. It's easy to underestimate the role pure blunders play in world affairs. So far as I can tell from the publicly available information, the Obama Administration assumed that the alleged magic of American firepower would make this a quick, easy and successful operation. It should be no particular matter of wonderment that Germany wasn't eager to participate in a dumb, ill-conceived policy whose conceivable benefits are miniscule in comparison to the actual costs and likely longer-term consequences. Yet, not completely unlike the Iraq War, American and British opinion see Germany's *reluctance* to support an unnecessary and high-risk military intervention as a dark sign of a German "Sonderweg." That's more of an indictment of the recklessness of US-British policy and the fecklessness of elite opinion in America and Britain than a criticism of Germany. But your comment that German foreign policy doesn't currently "have a plan" also makes sense. For the long-term interests of Germany and of European peace, getting the EU past the current crisis and addressing its very real "democratic deficit" will require actions and vision far more substantial than anything Merkel's government has come up with so far.

Joerg on :

Thank you, Bruce! "American policy, and Beltway Village conventional wisdom reflected in most US press commentary (especially on TV), has a frank bias in favor of military solutions to perceived foreign policy problems." Yes, and neither the huge human and financial costs of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars nor the election of Barack Obama changed that. Obama gave the impression of preferring nation building at home rather than abroad. It is quite surprising that the "elite consensus" on military involvements is sooo strong and more influential than the highly respected Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who opposed the mission. As did Wesley Clarke, who ran the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo. I am quoting a great article by James Joyner here: [url]http://atlanticreview.org/archives/1475-Defending-Germany,-Defending-NATO,-Defending-Definitions.html[/url]

Zyme on :

"and addressing its very real "democratic deficit" will require actions and vision far more substantial than anything Merkel's government has come up with so far." What? Whenever I read comments like this, my hair turn gray. Merkel hasn't come up with a strategy to address the democratic deficit in the EU? Do you want to entertain us? Why is that so many people complaining about the deficit always believe it just appeared, as if by accident, with nobody nurturing it? Did it ever occur to you that the biggest countries' governments might have a very vital interest in remaining in the driver's seat and not let an increasing sceptic public cross all their great long term ideas?

John in Michigan, US on :

Thoughtful post. "Germany has no real 'grand strategy'. Instead, it reacts to situations as they arise" According to the classical doctrine of realism, this should be impossible. Nations always have interests, and they inevitably assert themselves. And yet I think Hanns Maull (and you) are on to something. Perhaps Germany is going through a period in which there is no strong consensus as to the national interest (other than exports, and jockeying for position in the EU). Perhaps there is a slight parallel to the US in the 90's? "most Germans do not perceive any significant security threats and risks right now" Again, I see a reflection of the 90's, when one of our academics foolishly declared it to be the [url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_End_of_History_and_the_Last_Man]End of History[/url].

Michael T. on :

Yep, and in a couple of years something bad will happen and then there will be a movie about it, just like "Path to 9/11" is about mistakes of the 90s.

Zyme on :

Now that we are at it - what do you think would change in Germany, should an event like 9/11 occur here, too?

Marie Claude on :

"Germany has no real 'grand strategy'. Instead, it reacts to situations as they arise" cuz Germans act when they follow a plan that they have designed first ! Nowadays, they have no concern with local wars that aren't directly affecting their life, but if they can't afford to buy oil, and minerals necessary to their industry on the world market, me think that we'll see the german wolf again !

Marie Claude on :

ah I forgot, when the war was in the Balkans, Germans found some interest to press on Washington to interven, must be some underground motivations that were hidden to the good popole of Germany ! http://www.matthiaskuentzel.de/contents/germany-and-the-kosovo http://www.emperors-clothes.com/articles/carr/carr.html

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