German power under the spotlight

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, German institutions, politics and values still present formidable obstacles to real change

Simon BulmerIt is 25 years this coming weekend since the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9 November 1989.  The opening of the border set off complex international and internal German negotiations that enabled unification to take place swiftly in October 1990.  The ‘Chancellor of German Unity’, Helmut Kohl, sought to allay partners’ concerns through closer integration, leading to the Maastricht Treaty.  Yet the British minister for trade and industry at the time, Nicholas Ridley, interviewed in summer 1990, declared that the proposed European Monetary Union was ‘all a German racket designed to take over the whole of Europe’.  He swiftly resigned.

German power was back in the spotlight.  So what has happened this last quarter of a century?  Has unification led to a resurgent Germany in Europe and beyond?  Being based at the moment in Germany’s Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (SWP), its leading foreign-policy think-tank, gives me the opportunity to reflect.

Four key points will be made here.  First, Germany built on its established foreign policy character incrementally.  Second, a steady international critique has developed of Berlin’s unwillingness to play a bigger part in global affairs.  Third, domestic politics are an important explanation.  Finally, there seems to be a moment for potential change arising from a review inside the German Foreign Office.

Unshackled from the constraints of its division and Berlin’s special status, no significant upscaling of German foreign policy ambition or action ensued.  The term ‘civilian power’ was coined in 1990 by Hanns Maull, currently a colleague, to encapsulate the character of German foreign policy.  Its three key features were: ‘never again’, ‘never alone’ and ‘politics before force’.  In other words: no more nationalism or expansionism; instead, multilateralism via various international bodies, including the EU, UN and NATO, and avoidance of the foreign deployment of troops.

This policy has served Germany’s interests well, promoting peace, stability and a strong trading environment.  EU enlargement to the East is an excellent example.  By 2010 Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovenia and Slovakia all shared Germany as their main trading partner.  Politically, as the EU member with the most state borders (9), Germany has the most stable relationship with its neighbours since the first Reich’s creation in 1871.

The principal adjustment to German foreign policy came (after a 1994 Federal Constitutional Court judgment) in relation to deploying armed forces outside the NATO area.  But consent for the ensuing military interventions – from Bosnia to Afghanistan – seems to have declined.  A symbolic turning point came in 2009 when German forces called in US air support after the Taliban captured two fuel tankers in Kunduz.  Some 90 civilians were killed and the political fallout in Germany was serious, doubtless influencing Chancellor Merkel’s reluctance to get involved in further adventures, such as intervention in Libya in 2011.

Criticism of Germany’s position focuses on its failure to take on sufficient responsibility for the global order.  Its military has been slow to adjust to the post-Cold War challenges. Defence spending was 1.4 % of GDP in 2013, down from approx. 2.75 % in 1989, and was criticised by allies as insufficient.  Recently, German press attention has focused on an apparent result: striking equipment deficiencies.  Military supplies to combat Islamic State and relief equipment to combat Ebola were delayed due to equipment breakdown.  Drones promised to monitor the fragile Ukrainian peace reportedly cannot function in winter conditions.

German development aid in 2012 was only at 0.4 % per cent of GDP, well below the 0.7 % benchmark and ranked twelfth amongst European states. Germany’s reluctance to exercise leadership during the Eurozone crisis is thus part of a wider pattern.  Germany was criticised for its slow response and failure to act as ‘hegemonic stabiliser’ of the Eurozone.  Its (low-cost) ordo-liberal policy response placed adjustment costs onto the debtor states, as Berlin uploaded its domestic rules and norms to EU level via the Fiscal Pact.  German banks accordingly escaped a potential crisis.

In short, for a state whose trade surplus was €189 bn in 2013, the picture continues to be resemble an economic giant but political dwarf.  It has led one observer, Hans Kundnani, to term Germany a geoeconomic power.  Semi-sovereign until unification and multilateral in orientation, it is committed to non-nuclear weaponry and experienced constraints upon troop deployments until 1994.

Political constraints also reflect the pacifism that has been the German public’s response to the past.  Domestic opposition in the early 1980s to the stationing of US Cruise and Pershing missiles on German soil was a major challenge for Helmut Schmidt’s coalition.  Governments wishing to curry favour in public opinion can play to the pacifist tendency, as SPD Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Green Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer did in the 2002 election campaign in relation to Iraq.  Libya can be seen in this light as well. The result is that foreign policy leadership focuses mostly on economic diplomacy (for example, in China and India), on which all agree.

What, then, about change?  The September 2013 election outcome has triggered reflection on German foreign policy’s adequacy.  A 2013 report, New Power, New Responsibility, started the ball rolling.  Speeches at the 2014 Munich Security Conference by the Federal President and two senior ministers – Frank-Walter Steinmeier (Foreign Office) and Ursula von der Leyen (Defence) – raised the stakes.  Steinmeier called for a review, with invitations to contributors – national and international – to critique Berlin’s foreign policy.  The papers, largely in English, present a very frank assessment for Frank-Walter.

If all the recommendations are followed, Germany will play a much more influential role in the world, and already there seems a new esprit in the Foreign Office after the lacklustre leadership of Free Democrat Guido Westerwelle (2009-13).  ‘Now we have a foreign minister’, a senior diplomat told me caustically.

But will change really happen?  On the positive side, 25 years after the Wall’s fall Germany is finally thinking about foreign policy from basic principles.  Yet scepticism is still warranted.  First, this is a Foreign Office exercise undertaken in a coalition government.  It doesn’t bind Chancellor Angela Merkel or any other ministry.  Second, there is the matter of money.  The coalition has committed itself to a balanced budget across the period to 2017, thereby placing serious constraints on policy.  In this context German officials are already worried about incoming Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s proposed €300 bn investment plan for Europe.  Third, despite a nationwide roadshow to take ‘Review 2014’ to the German people, changing their pacifism will be a tall order.

In sum, German institutions, politics and values present formidable obstacles to real change.  On its big anniversary, Germany remains a very reluctant power.