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Future of Germany’s Policy of Active Diplomacy

Viewed 1642 times 2015-3-4 21:09 |System category:Others| Germany, active diplomacy

Li Chao

(Li Chao is Assistant Research Professor at CICIR Institute of European Studies.)

When the German Grand Coalition formed by the two major parties of the Bundestag came to power in December 2013, the new government discontinued its constrained foreign policy profile and, by sending out signals of adjustment, expressed its“big power ambition.”The reality of German proactivity became obvious to the international community during the Ukraine crisis and the U.S. hacking incident. Although factors from German history will slow the full implementation of this policy in the near future, the country cannot but succeed in developing its position among big powers.


Germany has for many years concentrated on economic development, even as it kept a low profile in diplomacy and security to ward off misgivings from other nations. Although the rationale was to avoid historical issues of nationalism, its“inaction”has been questioned as avoidance of responsibility. The new government, after coming to power, announced a new direction,“a policy of active diplomacy,”of actively assuming international responsibilities consistent with its national strength. Chancellor Angela Merkel stressed, when speaking at the Bundestag on January 29, 2014, that“one of German government’s major responsibilities is to assume the due obligation of Europe and the world. Germany’s long-term‘absence’in international affairs has not only done damage to its own interests and values, but also been to the disadvantage of its partners’political and economic development.”


In following an“active diplomacy,”Germany intended transform itself from a consumer of global security to a“provider.”First would be in the role of an active coordinator and mediator of crises and conflicts. In the previous four years under Liberal Democrat Guido Westerwelle, foreign policy since 2009 was rather conservative and rigid, failing to mobilize action or to influence crises in the Middle East, Iran and Syria. The strategy lost domestic public support and aroused murmuring discontent among European allies and the U.S..2 After Merkel’s reelection, faced with a more complicated international situation and mushrooming international conflicts, she signaled a change when in January 2014 she met with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. She said flatly that“in the face of international crises, Germany should intervene actively and promote the final solution of the crises.”3 Foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier echoed,“Germany is too big, and it should not be content with‘finding fault with’international affairs, but instead take more timely and resolved actions as well as more substantial measures in them.”4 While participation would not be in the U.S. style of “unilateralism” and “forceful involvement,”it could engage in positive mediation of existing conflicts. Its post-war tradition of pacifism had emphasized civil and diplomatic power, balancing, proposing compromise, and promoting cooperation between concerned parties during global crisis. As President Joachim Gauck said, Germany did not intend to show“muscles”abroad, but rather to more actively promote reconciliation and international cooperation.1 In the lingering, intense Ukraine conflict, it played mediator just as this new diplomacy dictated. Since the outbreak of the crisis, Merkel has communicated with Russia’s Vladimir Putin more than 30 times in phone calls and meetings and, as the situation accelerated, called Putin every other day, as she has never done with other leaders. Merkel advocated keeping the“G8”as one of the few platforms for communicating directly with Russia. Germany was the first in the West to propose establishing an international contact group under OSCE’s leadership, which was supported  by the U.S., UK and France. Under Merkel’s persuasion, Putin agreed to it, making it possible for an international organization to oversee and secure a ceasefire. Steinmeier led a series of diplomatic actions to stabilize the situation, including by personally traveling twice to Kiev to mediate as well as by inviting the U.S. secretary of state and the foreign ministers of France, Russia and Ukraine to meet in Berlin for three times. This created direct communication between parties at critical times, contributions that prevented even greater intensity. Acting as“lubricant”and“link”between nations with different values, the German-type intervention lays great store by its job of coordination, conflict resolution, and reconciliation through dialog. A research report, jointly written by well-known think tanks GMF and SWP under the sponsorship of the Foreign Ministry, pointed out that “assuming responsibility”required that Germany“be good at investing in maintaining long-term relationship”and“try to understand diversified appeals of interests."


A second policy issue lies in getting moderately tougher by no longer tabooing economic sanctions or military intervention. In the complicated international situation with violent regional conflicts, diplomatic mediation alone can fail to bring about ideal effects; exerting external influence, Germany now accepted, called for additional support to create an effective deterrent. Steinmeier stated that“diplomatic means remain the chief tools to resolve conflicts, but restraint does not mean standing aloof, and when political means fail, economic sanctions and military intervention will be inevitable.”


On three levels, Germany has made adjustments to diplomatic policy to boost its external influence—taking a tougher stance, economic sanctions, and military pressure.


The tougher stance is apparent on many fronts. On July 11 and 14, 2014, BND and the Ministry of Defense successively“found”American spies, after which the government demanded publicly that the representative of the U.S. intelligence service to Germany leave the country. This was the first time since the two countries established diplomatic relations that Germany openly expelled American embassy staff. Another signal of a toughened position was its July 16 statement condemning Israel for launching rockets into Gaza that killed civilians. For historical reasons stemming from the war, Germany and Israel have had a“special relationship,”with Israel receiving political backing almost“without a bottom line.”Until now, Germany has almost never criticized Israel despite serious differences. The significance of this unusual exception, a statement denouncing Israel, is large and shows the German display of diplomatic independence.


Applying the pressure of economic sanctions, Germany is now saying, is an effective“weapon”mid-way between the carrot and the stick, or between political dialog and military action. The departure from the attitude of old was clear when Germany supported the West in economic sanctions against Iran, holding that“stern sanctions have brought Iran to the negotiation table.” Besides admonishing and pacifying during the Ukraine crisis, Germany stood up to Russia several times. On March 6 when the effort to establish an international contact group temporarily failed, Germany joined some EU members in applying initial sanctions against Russia, going so far as to say that should Russia make no effort to stabilize the Ukrainian situation, Germany at the cost of its own economic benefits would increase those sanctions. As conflict between Ukraine’s national military and pro-Russian opposition intensified in July, German attitudes toward Russia became harsh, since Merkel supported the intensification of anti-Russia sanctions.


No longer viewing military action as“a forbidden zone”is a third departure from past practice.“Pacifism”has deep roots in German psyche, as shown in 2002 when the Gerhard Schroeder administration opposed the U. S. war on Iraq and, again in 2011, when Merkel’s administration refused involvement in Libya. Nonetheless, the government came to realize the problems inherent in this anti-war ideology, recognizing that the complexities of an international crisis might demand military“hard power” to maintain global order and guarantee the safeguarding of national interests. Merkel pointed out clearly that“Germany’s foreign and security policies depend heavily on the organic integration of civil and military means.”1 The new defense minister Ursula von der Leyen stated that “stubbornly maintaining military restraint would end up in defeat in the international competition for power.”2 Since early 2014, Germany significantly increased its military footprint. On February 20 the Bundestag upped the limit in an EU-Mali training operation from 180 to 250 German soldiers, and on April 9 ratified Wehrmacht to send to the Mediterranean a destroyer to support the destruction of Syrian chemical weapons. On May 21 came the new African strategy, which now states Germany can send more military to the continent when necessary. What is astounding is the September 1 resolution the Bundestag passed consenting to sending non-lethal military equipment (including armored vehicles, mine detectors and bulletproof vests) to the Kurds in northern Iraq; this breaks the Germans’70-year taboo against sending arms to a war zone. Participation in NATO’s deployment in Eastern Europe, responsibility for NATO lightning forces at the Baltic Sea, and joint NATO air surveillance have all occurred since September. After the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 2014, Germany agreed to continue to send military personnel there to help train Afghan troops.


In addition to acting as mediator and tough international player, it can exert more influence within the EU. The EU was led gradually out of the debt crisis by Germany and the process boosted Germany’s stature as the locomotive of EU economy. In the debt crisis, Germany forcefully implemented the“austerity”policy despite fierce opposition from heavily indebted countries including France and Italy. Hardening EU financial regulations, challenging tax havens Luxembourg and Cyprus, and rectifying shadow banks happened with German economic pressure. When the European Commission favored punitive tariffs on China during the 2013 photo-voltaic trade dispute with Europe, Germany openly opposed the tariffs so as to preserve economic and trade relations with China, opting instead for dialog to avoid a trade war. In the contest for European Commission president last June, Merkel gave full support to Juncker, candidate from the right-wing People’s Party, despite opposition from the UK and Hungary, and she led the European Council to ratify the nomination. Germany’s confidence is growing, and it has become more involved in remodeling internal and external EU policies to align with its priorities. Germany’s policy orientation significantly impacts the EU’s final decision-making. It has long been engaged in pushing forward the strategy that EU take unified actions as one entity on international affairs. Foreign minister Steinmeier once said, the country would“provide intellectual and operational support for the EU to set up a common diplomatic, security and defense policy, and what is pressing at the moment is to make efforts to raise the EU’s ability of diplomatic operations more creatively.”


Germany is a big power with global ambitions but has had a low profile for many years because of historical factors. Powerful economic strength has provided an important assurance for the nation to become a big political power. It had once been rather weak, even being termed the “sick man” of Europe before the Schroeder administration. Serious structural and economic problems were an obstacle to gaining greater global influence. After years of positive reforms by Schroeder and Merkel, Germany accounts for more than one fifth of total EU total economic volume. In recent years, German unemployment has been at 6.7% , the lowest within EU,1 and the country today is touted as“engine”and “anchor”of the EU. In 2010 to 2013, German GDP grew by 3.6%, 3%, 0.7% and 0.4% respectively, while the economy of most nations in the Euro Zone stagnated. While Italy, France and other European nations demanded the EU relax the 2013 stricture that“financial deficit cannot exceed 3% of GDP,”the Germans could realize the balance of payment (zero deficit). Although second-quarter 2014 economic data is unsatisfactory because of the Ukraine crisis and slack domestic demand in the EU, the government predicted the year’s economic growth rate will be modestly high, at about 1.8%.2 From 2015 on, the government will stop the growth of new debt, and do whatever it can to lower the debt-to-GDP ratio to 70% by 2017.

The German government has transformed accumulated domestic strength into diplomatic power. France, challenged by poor economic performance and the demands of financial rescue, is losing dominance to Germany within EU diplomacy. Gauck has said,“presently, Germany is at its prime time and has the capacity to take more resolute measures to safeguard and help shape the international order based on the EU, NATO and the UN.”1 Germany expects to consolidate its status as a“normal
state”and become a“big political power”on the foundation of economic strength. It seeks to be not only the“engine”promoting economic growth in the EU and the world, but champion of international order as well as craftsman of global regulations.


The open, peaceful, free and cooperative world order brought about by globalization benefits Germany. As its economic model is export-oriented and Germany is one of the most globalized nations,2 prosperity and development depend heavily on the effective functioning of the world order. Since a shock from the outside world could exert negative impact, Germany must involve itself in shaping changes to global order and in maintaining peace and stability.

Emerging economies like the BRICS are undermining that Western-dominated order. Germany has viewed emerging economies with intrinsic value orientation as challengers, asserting that“quite a few emerging economies do not follow the Western democratic mold and have not established civil society, and the human rights and freedom of their citizens are not well protected.”3 Germany wants countermeasures that, while encouraging cooperation in trade and economy, involve a watchdog strategy and international regulations that will make the emerging nations follow Western value systems. With U.S. strategic support for Europe much reduced, Germany has to uplift diplomatic autonomy. Although the U.S. assured its tack is“not to abandon its allies in Europe,”an American policy shift to the Asian-Pacific means it now will“project its forces selectively.”Safe to say, European nations including Germany cannot continue to rely solely on the U.S. for maintaining security. Since 2013 when Edward Snowdon revealed Prism, inside reports of the U.S. monitoring Germany have fermented. It has been made public that Merkel’s cellphone has been monitored over the years and CIA spies have penetrated the BND and German Ministry of Defense, seriously damaging U.S.-German trust. Media opinion has expressed that even traditional allies are not completely reliable. Gauck said“the U.S. has taken the alliance with Germany not so seriously.”1 Faced with American distrust, it is bound to further seek status as a“normal state”and more independence in the global architecture.


These recent geopolitical conflicts shook Germany because it relies heavily on Russian energy: 31% of oil and gas and 20% of coal come from Russia.2 Their economic ties are strong. The 2013 bilateral trade volume was US$76.5 billion; about 6200 German enterprises operate in Russia; the trade created 0.35 million jobs in Germany.3 Since deteriorated Euro-Russian relations over the Ukraine can only affect its energy and economic security negatively, Germany has to avoid“breaking with” Russia. It has close trade and economic relations with Asian-Pacific nations too, especially China. Sino-Japanese conflicts and sovereignty issues in the South China Sea can harm its economic interests. Stabilizing the Asian-Pacific situation is in German interest, too.


Acknowledging the pressure points, the EU called Germany to step up and the compass swung. When Germany abandoned its allies in March 2011, refused to participate in military operations against Libya, and abstained from the UN vote on no-fly zones in Libya, many European countries and America censured it for“being insensitive to the outside crises and eluding international responsibilities” which “resulted in Europe’s inability to take concerted actions.”1 Its external image was
besmirched and its diplomatic policy put under unprecedented pressure. With Germany’s greater national strength and its keystone in the European debt crisis, expectations had been otherwise. The calls for the country to bear a bigger international burden became louder. At the Munich International Security Conference in February 2012, Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski stated openly that when compared with the worries of Germany’s“powers,”Germany’s“inaction”is more worrisome. In a speech made at Brandenburg Gate during his June 2013 visit, U.S. president Barack Obama urged support for international responsibilities, saying,“Germany should show its fighting spirit rather than retreat to temporary comfort, and should look to the mankind as well as the justice and peace of the world.”3 The U.S. acknowledged the key intervention Germany did take in the Ukraine, and well-known political journal Der Spiegel commented,“the U.S. has given the leadership of resolving the Ukraine crisis to Merkel.”4 When French president Jacques Hollande expressed several times that he wished to strengthen military cooperation with Germany in Africa, the response was favorable. In January 2013, Germany for the first time sent two air-freighters to support French peacekeepers in Mali, and Merkel in early 2014 visited France where she intentionally discussed military cooperation with Hollande. The expectations of partners have provided the “window period” for adjustment to its foreign policy and for altering the appearance of a nation ” shirking”from global difficulty.


Even these initial foreign policy adjustments have been tricky to parlay through the German socio-political scene, and the future holds many challenges for“active diplomacy.”While intending to be effective in international affairs, the country is seriously limited by historical factors and some structural difficulties. In actual effectiveness, its future diplomacy will likely be active, but limited by a lack of maturity that will produce missteps, a home court that is negative about foreign policy involvement, an insufficient military, soft power based on an economic model that cannot be replicated, and the suspicions of its neighbors.

In foreign affairs, it is inexperienced and not yet matured. To avoid the impression that it was reviving the“dead spirits of the Second World War,”it had concentrated on economic development, which solidified its image as“political dwarf.”Currently, if Germany intends to alter its traditional foreign policy, internal resistance will be the first threshold. The German public is“complacent,”deeming that bearing responsibility means to do more. A recent poll found that more than 70% of the German populace opposed military operations abroad and about 60% wanted the government to remain prudent on foreign affairs.


Fewer than 10 times since 1994 has the Bundestag held special sessions on foreign and security policies. Among the younger generation of parliamentarians,“not to talk about foreign affairs”is believed to be beneficial for political promotions.2 Since German politicians skirt foreign affairs, the country lacks strategic foresight and a comprehensive security plan. Germany issued a Security Policy and Federal Defense White Paper in 2006 and has never updated it over the past eight years. The UK issues the National Security Strategy annually and France updates its Defense White Paper regularly. In the Ukraine crisis, German approaches and skills were rather puerile. For instance, because Merkel made no efforts to unify opinions within EU before“stepping forward so boldly”to talk with Putin, she repeatedly met constraints from some EU member states while making her position known to Russia. Because of economic ties with Russia, it has not sufficiently communicated with the U.S., which has left Germany “stranded”on the sanctions issue.


Although pacifism is the starting point of its external policies, influence abroad is bound to be reduced unless it has an adequate military component as a deterrent. That its military“hard power”is insufficient is a second obstacle. The government may moderately expand overseas military operations, but it will not change its“arms control”goal. It consistently cuts its military budget, and military enlistment is low.


Military expenditures have been in decline for over 20 years. According to the statistics of SIPRI, military expenditure is only 1.4% of its GDP, lower than the UK (2.3%) and France (2.2%), and has never reached the NATO acquirement of 2%.1 Although defense minister von der Lane committed to striving for a budgetary increase, the Bundestag in 2014 approved cuts totaling 800 million Euros. The Bundeswehr has been cut from 370,000 in (1990) to 183,000. Since compulsory service was changed to voluntary enlistment”in 2011, it is more difficult to enlist new service men and women. Although Germany is a major sponsor of UN overseas peacekeeping missions, it sent very few people. Only some 220 German military personnel are in the five UN peacekeeping programs, or less than 1% of the total UN peace force.2 The two air-freighters it provided for the Mali peacekeeping mission were so antiquated that they were sidelined temporarily in May 2014. German Federal Institute for Defense head, Andre Wustner, cried out that“it is not enough prating about assuming more responsibilities in the world, as no freedom and security can be obtained free.”


The influence of its“soft power”also is limited. Germany has used its“soft power”effectively in the past, but it is based on an economic development model which it expects other nations to follow. It boasts of its improved economy, characterized by manufacturing and“social market economy”but as the European debt crisis has proved, the“German model” cannot be copied within EU, let alone by other nations. By emphasizing export, it has accumulated a huge trade surplus, arousing the discontent of other Southern European nations and even the USA. A heavy reliance on export means any sanctions it initiates will be met with countermeasures, making Germany vulnerable and reducing the sanctions’effects. Germany does have advanced awareness of climate, nuclear energy and financial regulation issues, but its initiatives on giving up nuclear energy, developing new forms of energy, and taking active approaches to climate change cannot be accepted by the majority of nations in the short run.


The continuing suspicion of its neighbors is another hurdle. The “issue of New Germany”has been much disputed, as the outside world is concerned whether the re-unified nation will implement foreign policy as a “civilized nation”or return to the“German special road.”The debate on “Germany’s Europe”or“Europe’s Germany”continues, given a little more fuel after its debt crisis firmness created suspicion among heavily indebted nations in Southern Europe. From another angle, the U.S. systematic monitoring of Germany shows that, although it engages in introspection and repentance, it has not earned the trust of the international community, not even from its allies. The active foreign policy it has pursued could meet enormous external resistance from Europeans. Although big powers in Europe such as the UK and France urged Germany to play some role, they cannot accept its leadership; Germany is also sensitive to this.


Of course, German influence cannot be belittled since a country with great economic power can make breakthroughs in diplomacy. Even if its active diplomacy is modest in the short run, today’s Germany is bound to expand its discourse power. Likely, it will prioritize its own interests, and cultivate relations with other big powers when dealing with the U.S., Russia, and the EU. The German-American relationship will be more practical and stable. Although their bilateral relations are mature, they differ in self-positioning and views on international order. Germany has been critical about U.S.“unilateralism”and irritated by issues such as macroeconomic policies, data protection, and Russian relations, as it no longer wants to be“little brother”to the U.S.. Instead, Germany has emphasized its“ownership”and protection of its interests. The“emotional color”of their future relationship will fade, and mutual contention and manipulation will appear, despite of the need for inter dependency. The Coalition Agreement states that Germany and the U.S. should“clearly define the rules for the interactions of partners”and the U.S.“should take measures to rebuild trust across the Atlantic.”1 To some extent Germany has shown toughness in handling the Prism incident. Using criminal law, this June 4 it initiated a judicial investigation of the American monitoring of Merkel’s cellphone. By June 26, the German government announced termination of the contract with the largest U.S. telecommunication equipment supplier Verizon, and the U.S. intelligence agency representative was required to leave. At TTIP negotiations, Germany differed with the U.S. on automobiles, pharmacy and financial market regulation, and refused to compromise, showing its independence.


In foreign relations, Germany and Russia will contend with one another. Russia has been excluded from the Western value system, and Central and Eastern European countries view Russia as the greatest security threat. EU and NATO have contended for turf with Russia through their expansion to the East, and been on guard against Russia. Since the start of the Ukraine crisis, German opinion, in part, has been that Russia does not deserve all the blame and“inappropriate strategy and too much coercion”by Europe may be good reason for Russia’s violent response.2 The EU, this position states, need to begin drawing Russia over so as to gradually regulate its behavior and help it transform into a member of the West. Incorporating it into the“greater Europe”may permanently resolve the security impasse in Europe.1 Germany will promote an EU policy of
“regulating plus wooing”Russia. Merkel even warned the new Ukraine government that it should cooperate.


It seems obvious that its position in the European Union will grow. Of the three big powers in the EU, the UK is marginalizing itself and calls to “depart from Europe” echo loudly there. France is in an economic recession with its leadership waning, while Germany has the means to become EU coordinator and leader. Merkel said that“as the founder of EU..., Germany should take an active part in remolding Europe’s future.”2 Its leadership in Europe’s financial distress continues, although presently the European debt crisis is in a relatively mild period. Germany continues to stick to financial discipline, but eased policy to allow Southern European countries moderate flexibility. For instance, Germany agreed to provide security for the member states to issue“project claims”by using the EU budget, and agreed that the ECB may follow an easier monetary policy. It also began stepping up its investment and implementing “micro-stimulation”plans. To retain the UK in the EU, Merkel hinted that they would consider UK’s request for reforming the Union. Germany also intends to provide financial support for French military operation in Africa, but on condition that it is allowed to participate in the planning. As a more united European Union is what Germany wants, the country will try to overcome divisions within the EU, so that there will be more German marks on EU’s future internal and external policies.


This new“policy of active diplomacy”is Germany’s next round of diplomatic strategy planning. Its foreign policy adjustment is related to the expansion of its concerns in international affairs, and the extent as well as contribution of active participation. Its major connotation is Germany’s place in the new era. After the strategies of“merging into the West”in the 1950s, the“Ostpolitik”in the 1970s, and transforming to a“normal state” since the 1990s, the new direction will see a Germany more active in international affairs and, to some extent, in a key role. The country will abide by its pacifist tradition, use civil and political means long before military action in safeguarding its interests and resolving crises, and maintain a global peace built on Western values. Germany has defined itself as a“medium sized power”and proclaimed itself to be the force that “participates in the construction of the global order,”having no intention nor power to break through the EU and NATO frameworks, but fostering cooperation instead. With so many handicaps, both historical and otherwise, the goal of Germany to fully realize its“normal state”status and become a full-fledged“political power”is still a long way off.

(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Contemporary International Relations(ISSN1003-3408), a policy-oriented research journal, was inspired by the need for the international communication in a period of rapid Chinese development.


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