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[Wolfgang Ischinger] Germany’s same foreign policy

Dec. 2, 2013 - 19:40 By Yu Kun-ha
MUNICH ― More than 10 weeks after its general election, Germany continues to be without a new government. But, though the post-election coalition negotiations have been unusually prolonged, there is little disagreement between the parties over foreign and security policy.

Indeed, when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Social Democratic Party finally presented their coalition agreement on Nov. 27, the working group on foreign and security policy had been finished with its job for two weeks. Except for a few tweaks that generally resonate more at home than with Germany’s European and international partners (such as requiring the government to be more transparent concerning arms exports to autocratic regimes), continuity and caution will remain the watchwords of German foreign and security policy.

Observers may disagree about whether German leaders’ stance provides a welcome sign of reliability or reflects a lamentable lack of diplomatic ambition. Those who hope for more active German leadership may well be disappointed by the new government.

Big ideas, or even big questions, are notably absent from the coalition agreement. This is very much a reflection of many Germans’ views about themselves and their future: they are comfortable with the status quo, see no need for further reform proposals, are not interested in grand strategy, and would largely prefer to be left alone.

Consider NATO policy. Successive German governments have maintained that the alliance should be, or even is, the place to discuss and decide on key security challenges. But Germany has at times been rather reluctant to take crisis issues to NATO headquarters. And when it comes to provision of military and civilian security beyond what the coalition agreement calls “our geographic neighborhood,” the incoming government will favor enabling other regional organizations to do the job.

Or consider the question of Turkey’s accession to the European Union. Continuing disagreement between the coalition partners will not permit a proactive German role. Instead, the compromise solution will be no solution: neither yes nor no.

At the same time, some interesting new perspectives appear in the coalition agreement. For starters, the United States’ strategic “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region is described as an opportunity for Europe to assert a coordinated foreign policy that finally plays a role in the development of cooperative policies in the region.

Moreover, to encourage this outcome, the coalition agreement promises that the government will “adopt new initiatives to strengthen and deepen the Common Foreign and Security Policy” after the EU summit in December 2013. It includes a call for an annual European Council session on security and defense, as well as for a strategic debate about the purpose of EU foreign relations. In addition, the German government will support European defense integration and maintain the establishment of a European army as a long-term goal. This may not amount to much in practice, but the language in this section is much less tepid than elsewhere.

Finally, the coalition agreement responds to concerns about Germany’s ability to be a reliable partner in NATO and EU military missions in a potentially more integrated EU defense organization. According to a 1994 ruling by Germany’s Constitutional Court, the German parliament has the final say when it comes to deploying soldiers. However, Germany’s partners will hardly agree to integrate forces further if the German parliament were to retain a veto over their deployment.

The coalition partners disagree about how urgent it is to sort out this issue. Nonetheless, they have agreed that, within a year, a commission will provide different options and models to protect the German parliament’s rights while providing assurances to Germany’s European partners that the country will be a reliable contributor to troop deployments.

Should the SPD, which will vote on the coalition agreement in early December, block the formation of the new government (an unlikely development but not entirely out of the question), disputes over security and defense affairs would not be the culprit. Aside from a few minor particulars, consensus prevails.

For some, that is a cause for ambivalence. “I do not like the idea that Germany plays itself up to impose its will on others,” German President Joachim Gauck said recently. “Yet neither do I like the idea that Germany plays itself down to eschew risks or solidarity.”

Whether German foreign policy can and should do more is a reasonable question. To some degree, the new coalition will feel the pressure and consider the necessity to assume more responsibility for international leadership. But it will respond ever so slowly and ever so carefully.

The bottom line is this: Expect no surprises from Germany. Considering how difficult it has been for some, if not most, other EU countries to deal with the challenges of the last five years, that is actually rather good news.

By Wolfgang Ischinger

Wolfgang Ischinger, former state secretary of the German Federal Foreign Office and a former German ambassador to the United States and the United Kingdom, is chairman of the Munich Security Conference and global head of governmental relations at Allianz SE. ― Ed.

(Project Syndicate)