29th Nov 2023


Is it goodbye to 'pacifist' Germany?

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German foreign policy thinking changed dramatically on 24 February 2022, but where is it headed?

For a long time, observers complained about a lack of geo-strategic thinking in the German political class, demonstrated most clearly in its underestimation of the Russian military threat and an ever-growing dependency on energy resources from Putin's militaristic authoritarian regime.

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  • Let's hope than that the current crisis will result in the development of a German foreign policy that is less naïve and possesses a clear understanding of military threats and how authoritarian regimes operate

Key decisions of the last decades were based on premises, now revealed to have been naïve at best.

How will Germany change in the face of this debacle? Contrary to perceptions, the country has not really been a pacifist power. It is well integrated in Nato, deploys forces on missions abroad, is the fourth-largest arms exporter in the world and the seventh biggest spender on the military.

Yet, many Germans saw the country as a benign power that will always favours diplomacy and peace-making over the use of force.

For most Germans the army had become a distant institution, especially since the abolition of military service in 2011. Soldiers were viewed as akin to toilet cleaners, doing a necessary job about which you would not want to talk too much.

Discussion about geo-strategy and military matters has been largely absent from political life and hardly figured in policy or think tank debates.

And the pacifist attitude has not gone away, shown recently when a group of influential writers created much controversy with open letters demanding that the government stops supporting Ukraine's army and instead focuses on diplomatic efforts.

Their arguments displayed many of the lazy assumptions and clichés of German public discourse over the years. They described diplomacy as the alternative to military power, as if the two had no connection to each other. Why would the Kremlin ever negotiate if the Ukrainian army was weak?

While such naivety is likely to fade away, its effects partly explain why Germany has not led European support to Ukraine's military efforts.

So how are German attitudes about military power and foreign policy likely to shape up?

Some parties, like the right-wing extremists of Alternative for Germany [AfD], promote an unabashed egoistic, short-term-oriented foreign policy, arguing that it is not worth turning down the heating in winter "just to help Ukraine".

This position at least has the advantage of being honest. It does not pretend that hard choices can be avoided by some miracle of German diplomacy and peacemaking, it just wants to make those choices in favour of Russia.

Two schools-of-thought

Beyond such minority opinions, the question is how wider foreign policy thinking may shape up. Here two schools of thoughts can be discerned.

The first, turning to hyper-realism, goes like this: the Russian attack shows that foreign policy is ultimately always about coercive power, primarily military power and sometimes economic power. Everything else, work on peacemaking, supporting democracy, or human rights is just the feel-good part of foreign policy.

Nice to do, but ultimately a luxury that does not affect serious change.

The opposition leader, Friedrich Merz of the Christian Democratic Union [CDU], hinted at this in a recent parliamentary debate, claiming that increased military spending should under no circumstances benefit ideas like a feminist foreign policy — dismissing a stated government policy as undeserving of serious investment in security.

Foreign minister Annalena Baerbock, from the Green party, responded that the mass rape of women in war had for too long been ignored as a security issue and in international; an omission that would be corrected by a feminist foreign approach (in fairness: Merz later agreed that a feminist perspective on war was important).

Responding in this way, Baerbock expressed the second school of thought that does not limit foreign policy debate to traditional issues like military or economic power and demonstrates a more realistic view of the world, which takes into account how governments deal with their own and other people.

Experts dealing with human rights and democracy in foreign relations have seen for a long time that the Kremlin was on a dangerous, authoritarian path.

From the beginning of his presidency, when he brutally crushed the Chechen uprising, they had a clearer understanding of Putin than many self-styled "realists".

The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen displays similar naivety now, when she calls Azerbaijan a trustworthy energy supplier.

Increasing gas imports from Azerbaijan makes sense in order to diversify away from Russia. But the country is governed by an authoritarian regime which will not hesitate to use gas as a pressure, for example to exact favourable EU positions in its conflict with Armenia.

Let's hope than that the current crisis will result in the development of a German foreign policy that is less naïve and possesses a clear understanding of military threats and how authoritarian regimes operate.

The challenges ahead are huge and debate has barely begun on how to balance the many interests and needs of German foreign policy.

These include keeping the EU together and intact, becoming a leader in European security, engaging globally on climate policy and pushing back authoritarian tendencies around the world.

The refocusing of German foreign policy is happening in the pressure cooker of a series of multiple crises. Let's hope this reality check will make it stronger, sharper and more clear eyed about the dangers of the world.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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