Germany Embraces Realpolitik Once More


The recently released German defense white paper, or Weissbuch, represents a significant step forward in Germany’s ongoing transformation to a “normal” power. Although it has received limited attention in the Anglophone media, the Weissbuch marks a fundamental shift in several respects. Whether and how Germany follows through on the potential embodied in this historic document will determine the degree to which Europe is able to play a role in security and defense commensurate with its economic strength and its transatlantic responsibilities.

The 2016 Weissbuch is the first German national security and defense strategy produced in a decade. The last iteration, published in 2006, was very much a product of the circumstances confronting German policymakers. At the time, Germany possessed a relatively short track record of exercising power abroad in the post-Cold War era, including participation in multinational interventions in Bosnia and Kosovo. Both of these occurred under the mandate of international organizations — the United Nations for the former, and NATO for the latter.

These experiences informed Germany’s decision to participate in NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, which was also sanctioned by the United Nations and well underway by 2006. However, like several other allies, Germany imposed strict caveats on where and how its forces in Afghanistan could be used. This amounted to an incremental acceptance of Germany’s shifting role in the world. It evinced a readiness to see that role broadened through, for example, participation in military missions far beyond Europe, but an unwillingness to do so outside the confines of multilateralism and the legitimacy conferred by international sanction. This careful balancing act is manifest in the 2006 White Paper.

In many respects, the 2016 Weissbuch is similarly a product of its time. Yet the times have changed dramatically in the last decade, and with them so too has Germany’s perception of its role in the world. The seeds of these changes were planted two years ago, when Germany’s president, foreign minister, and defense minister each argued that it was time for their country to take on greater responsibility in international security. Those important initial rhetorical steps clearly found a more detailed articulation in the 2016 Weissbuch, which repeatedly emphasizes the themes of responsibility and leadership.

More specifically, the 2016 Weissbuch represents a paradigm shift in two important respects. First, the latest Weissbuch acknowledges the possibility of Germany joining in coalitions of the willing in response to collective security crises. Indeed, the Weissbuch acknowledges an increasingly obvious reality: “ad hoc cooperation will continue to gain significance as an instrument of international crisis and conflict management.” What is perhaps most significant is the declaration that Germany will be willing to not simply participate in but also to initiate such coalitions. This is a major departure from the past, in which Germany consistently sought to exercise hard power solely through established multilateral institutions.

In some ways, we have already seen this change put into practice. For example, witness German action since 2014 to arm and train Kurdish forces in Iraq or participating in the anti-ISIL coalition, admittedly with caveats but outside the scope of a U.N. mandate or a NATO mission. These are emblematic of the major changes underway in both the theory and practice of German security policy.

These changes are tied to the second significant element of the paradigmatic shift in German security policy: an increasing focus on the role of interests. In 2006, the Weissbuch noted that “German security policy is driven by the values set forth in its Basic Law and by the goal of safeguarding the interests of our country.” In contrast, the 2016 Weissbuch states, “German security policy is tied to values and guided by interests.” This may seem like a relatively minor change in tone, but the altered formulation is actually quite noteworthy. The 2006 language clearly subordinates German interests to German values by noting that security policy is “driven” (“geleitet”) by values. In 2016, that relationship has flipped — now, German security policy is “guided” by interests (“interessengeleitet”), and merely “tied” to values (“wertegebunden”).

There is a constant tension in many liberal Western democracies between interests and values.  For instance, the United States likes to think of itself as a champion of democracy and freedom the world over. And while there are plenty of examples of Washington promoting democracy abroad — promoting its values in its foreign policy — it is equally true that the United States counts, and has counted, a variety of authoritarian governments among its allies and close friends. For the United States, as for many countries, protecting interests often means checking values at the door. The 2016 Weissbuch makes it clear that Germany is now joining that club, committing itself to a more pragmatic role in the world.

Just as Germany is becoming a more “normal” country, it is also confirming its role as the European Union’s prime mover and indispensable country. Whether these two entities can fulfill their usually complementary and often shared ambitions remains unclear. On the one hand, German security policy remains hobbled by a lack of adequate resourcing that no amount of “efficiencies” through multilateral collaboration can overcome. Meanwhile, although the sovereign debt crisis is largely fading in the rearview mirror, the European Union nonetheless seems intent on several more years of navel-gazing. For instance, managing Britain’s withdrawal from the Union, ensuring external borders are more than merely a cartographer’s construct, and re-litigating whether and how an EU military headquarters may duplicate what exists elsewhere are sure to occupy far too much time in 2017 and 2018. Leveraging the paradigm shift inherent in the 2016 Weissbuch’s approach to German security policy — which should ultimately go far in promoting the interests of both Berlin and Brussels — will require focused and courageous political leadership.


John R. Deni is a Research Professor at the US Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute (SSI).  On 21 September, SSI is partnering with the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies and the German Marshall Fund of the U.S. in organizing a roll-out event for the 2016 Weissbuch in Washington, DC.

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