German Foreign Policy is Stuck in Neutral


Editor’s Note: This is adapted from an article that was published in German in Süddeutsche Zeitung.

Last summer I moved to Berlin. I was excited to escape Washington’s divisive and small-minded politics and focus on someone other than President Donald Trump, who seemed to be permeating every aspect of my life. A year in Berlin, my thinking went, would serve as a much-needed breath of fresh air. No more talking about Trump’s latest tweet at children’s birthday parties. No more circular and heated debates about state of American democracy. In Berlin, I would spend my time on bigger questions of grand strategy. I’d interview Germans and other Europeans grappling with the future of Europe and the future of the rules-based order. I’d attend thought-provoking conferences and debates. I’d be inspired.

Fast forward seven months. I’m not inspired. I’m worried.

Don’t get me wrong. Living in Berlin has been wonderful on many counts. But Berlin’s political stasis in the face of so many profound and, in the view of some, existential questions about Europe’s future is unnerving. So is its inability to craft policy responses to challenges posed by China, Russia, and yes, even the U.S. government. That’s not to say that there is a dearth of fresh thinking across Berlin’s national security community. As in any other national capital, German think tanks, academics, journalists, and industry groups regularly churn out papers full of policy proposals. But moving those ideas from theory to practice often feels insurmountable.

There are many reasons for Berlin’s policy paralysis. To start, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s leadership style is rooted in consensus building or, as her defense minister put it in 2015 “leading from the center.” There’s no doubt that the chancellor appreciates Germany’s unique role, but she is also attuned to the lack of enthusiasm for German leadership among some of the smaller countries in Europe. As a result, Merkel never wants to rock the boat, even when the boat is sinking.

History plays a role too. Despite the fact that Germans are increasingly comfortable talking about national interests and deploying troops to faraway places, German foreign policy is still constructed in the shadows of its past. And then there’s the political fragmentation of Germany’s centrist parties, which has left the Christian Democrats and Social Democrats clinging to life. In that political climate, no one feels like taking a chance on big, bold policy proposals.

Beyond Merkel’s leadership style, Germany’s past, and German politics, there’s another issue hindering this country’s ability to respond to today’s rapidly evolving global landscape: Germany’s national security architecture lacks a body for strategic debates, prioritization, and coordination. Thanks to a constitutional mandate, Germany’s foreign policy still rests almost exclusively with the Foreign Office. Germany doesn’t have a National Security Council that can routinely convene ministers to review, weigh, and establish strategic priorities. These types of statecraft problems may seem inconsequential but as governments today struggle to cope with threats that blur the lines between domestic and foreign policy, process matters. Process is what can turn lofty rhetoric into policy. Process is what can pair policy decisions with actual resources.

The end result of Berlin’s policy paralysis that one of the most powerful countries in Europe — if not the most powerful — is missing in action at a time of transformative change and disruption. German voices are simply absent from the big debates of our time. Let’s look at a few examples. In the wake of the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the INF Treaty, Germany can’t find its voice. Even in 2014, when President Barack Obama officially declared that Russia was violating the treaty, Germany responded with silence. Other than a few opinion pieces from Foreign Minister Heiko Maas suggesting a new arms control initiative, no one knows where Germany sits on the question of whether and how NATO should counter-deploy. That’s not the case for other European countries like the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Denmark, and Romania.

Or take China. Germany has heard U.S. warnings about the dangers of doing business with Huawei and is thinking through whether it wants to heed such warnings. But where are German policymakers looking holistically at the wider set of challenges associated with China’s rise? Now that we know that China is not going to develop into a market economy, what is Germany’s strategy to compete with China’s alternative political and economic model? Where can German leaders come together and weigh individual, tactical decisions against a broader set of strategic objectives? I’ve spent months asking policymakers these questions and have yet to hear a reassuring answer.

The increasingly urgent debates over the future of Europe are also sorely missing German input and leadership. Merkel defends the European project every chance she gets. She has also, somewhat grudgingly, expressed support for Eurozone reform and a European army. But there’s no indication that even in her last term as chancellor — when she’s free from the constraints of a reelection campaign — that she’s willing to take big risks. That’s bad news for Europe as it battles challengers on two fronts. Internally, the European Union is trying to defend itself from populist leaders and candidates that are intent on undermining European unity and resolve. Externally, the European Union is fending off attacks from Russia and China (and occasionally Trump) that want to weaken its cohesion and economic strength. As Thomas Bagger so eloquently wrote in his recent article in the Washington Quarterly: “Germany’s answer to the existential question of the EU’s future cohesion and convergence will determine the fate of the European project.” Germany’s answer should therefore be more than silence.

History has shown us many times the dangers of hubris in the international system. States that consistently overestimate their power and influence easily drift into policy quagmires. But what I fear we are witnessing today is the exact opposite. Germany is a country with immense wealth, economic power, and diplomatic heft. Yet it consistently underestimates its ability to shape outcomes. No, Germany alone can’t solve the conflict in Syria, diffuse tensions in the South and East China Seas, or push Russia out of Crimea. But it could certainly do more to strengthen its strategic dexterity, raise its voice in today’s consequential debates, and provide a much-needed steer on the European continent.



Julianne Smith is spending a year in Berlin as a Weizsäcker Fellow at the Bosch Academy. She is the former deputy national security advisor to Vice President Joe Biden.

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd class Jason Johnston