The DNA of German Foreign Policy

26.02.2015 - Interview

Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the presentation of the conclusions of “Review 2014 - A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy”. Published by www.project-syndicate.org (26.02.2015).

Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier on the presentation of the conclusions of “Review 2014 - A Fresh Look at German Foreign Policy”. Published by www.project-syndicate.org (26.02.2015).


The harsh reality of the past year has created unprecedented challenges for Germany and its foreign policy. The crisis in Ukraine spiraled out of control, with Russia's annexation of Crimea, followed by military escalation in the eastern Donbas region, calling into question the post-1945 European order. And, though the measures agreed in Minsk earlier this month offer an opportunity to enter into a political process, other crises – for example, the Ebola epidemic in West Africa and the advance of ISIS – have presented new, urgent challenges.

Whether Germany should assume greater responsibility for seeking to resolve such issues is a hotly debated question, both inside and outside the country. During a year-long “Review 2014,” experts, officials, and the wider public discussed challenges, priorities, and instruments of German foreign policy, and tried to define Germany's role in the world. At the end of the day, outcomes are always concrete. In some areas, we have been successful over the last year; in others, we can and want to do better.

Germany is widely appreciated for its commitment to promoting peaceful conflict resolution, the rule of law, and a sustainable economic model. Yet it is abundantly clear from the Review that our partners expect a more active – and even more robust – German foreign policy in the future. Expectations are high – perhaps too high at times. So it is up to Germany's people to answer the difficult questions: Where do our interests lie? How far do our responsibilities extend? What, in short, is the “DNA” of German foreign policy?

The basic tenets of Germany's foreign policy – close partnership with France within a united Europe and a strong transatlantic alliance in terms of both security and economic cooperation – have withstood the test of time, and will remain a cornerstone of our approach. But now we must address three key challenges: crisis management, the changing global order, and our position within Europe.

For starters, we must face the fact that globalization has made crises the rule, not the exception. Though globalization and digitization are driving rapid economic growth, they are also putting pressure on governments worldwide to meet citizens' rising expectations – even as they constrain in unprecedented ways governments' ability to act.

In our globalized world, many people feel a growing desire for the clear answers and timeless validity offered by straightforward and clear-cut identities. When these identities take the form of nationalism or rigidly defined religious or ethnic categories, the consequence, all too often, is brutal and unrestrained violence, whether through terrorism or civil war.

In confronting crises, German foreign policy must strengthen its focus on reconciliation, mediation, and prevention – or risk being left with no other option but damage control. Germany is willing to do more in this area internationally. We want to act sooner, more decisively, and in a more substantial manner – not just when crises become acute, but also by focusing on conflict prevention and post-conflict management. This requires that we hone our tools and develop new ones, ranging from early-warning mechanisms to enhanced means of international cooperation.

We will review how we can help the United Nations more significantly in safeguarding and building peace. We must address, with restraint and prudence – rather than with a reflexive “nein” – the difficult question of whether military means are necessary to safeguard political solutions. We do not know when and where the next crisis will erupt, but we do know that it will – and that we must be better prepared when it does.

But foreign policy must not focus exclusively on crises. It must also prepare for future scenarios. And, because Germany is connected to the rest of the world like few other countries, a commitment to a just, peaceful, and resilient international order is a fundamental interest of our foreign policy. That means adjusting to the long-term changes in the existing order's parameters – changes that have been wrought, above all, by China's rapid rise.

As the tectonic plates of world politics shift, Germany must be more precise in defining its own contributions to maintaining existing structures of international order and establishing new ones. We must think more deeply about ways to safeguard valuable public goods: the seas, space, and the Internet.

As a result, we must strike the right balance between reinforcing indispensable structures and organizations like the UN and developing new norms and institutional means of minimizing long-term risks. The key challenge is to develop a proactive foreign policy that invests in order, international institutions, and the intelligent strengthening of international law.

Then there is Europe, which remains the foundation of Germany's foreign policy. But here, too, new challenges require new answers. Above all, we must prevent a strategic dilemma in which Germany felt forced to decide between its competitiveness in a globalized world and European integration. Europe should benefit from Germany's strength, just as we benefit from Europe's. As Europe's largest economy, we must invest in integration. That is the source of our strength.

At the same time, we must withstand the temptations that come with Germany's current stature. In very different ways, the US, Russia, and China are offering Germany a privileged relationship. But, though we want to maintain and strengthen bilateral ties with important partner countries, when it comes to shaping global development, Germany is capable of acting effectively only within a solid European framework.

We have no reason to shrink from these challenges. Even under the pressures of a globalized world, democratic systems that champion the rule of law are more resilient than the illiberal regimes that many – including some in Europe – are praising nowadays. But this does not mean that we can defuse any crisis by means of preventive action or clever intervention. Now more than ever, understanding the limits of one's capabilities is an essential part of a viable foreign policy.

This does not mean embracing moral relativism. Our foreign policy must retain its hopefulness and ability to act responsibly. Yet holding firm to our moral precepts must go hand in hand with a realistic assessment of constraints. Germany's global inter-connectedness, which has long been vital for our prosperity and security, does not allow us to pretend that we are either an island or a world historical force.

Within any effective peace strategy for the twenty-first century, foreign policy must simultaneously focus on crisis prevention and diplomacy, and bolster efforts that support transformation. For Germany, all of these objectives must be pursued within the framework of a strong and integrated European Union in which we assume our leadership responsibilities for global peace and prosperity. Germany has much to offer to the world, and we will do so with self-confidence and humility.

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