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German foreign policy : Tough decisions instead of muddling through

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Chairman of Munich Security Conference Wolfgang Ischinger during the Munich Security Conference 2018 Bild: dpa

For a long time the German government did not have a certain line in foreign and security policy debates. But in times of ongoing epochal shifts in geopolitics a clear opinion is neccessary. A guest article by Wolfgang Ischinger.

          Five years have passed since Joachim Gauck called for Germany to take on more international responsibility. That was at the Munich Security Conference 2014. Ever since, the term „responsibility“ has become a fixture in German foreign policy debates. Unfortunately, the term has not produced greater clarity about what  a more „responsible“ German foreign and security policy should look like. 

          Berlin is struggling to deal with the ongoing epochal shifts in geopolitics. These shifts demand tough decisions – decisions that the German government would rather avoid. Berlin prefers to muddle through: calling for a stronger EU but also demanding that Germany must not be asked to pay for it, affirming its solidarity with Ukraine but also continuing to build Nord Stream 2, supporting EU defense integration but also insisting on unilateral decisions to halt arms exports, to mention just a few examples. This course of action is becoming less and less effective – and increasingly damaging to the country’s image abroad.

          Our handling of Nato’s 2 percent goal has been a particularly inept attempt of muddling through. First, Berlin decided to identify 1.5 percent as the goal, rather than the two percent spending target agreed by all Nato partners in 2014. Now, right before Nato’s 70th anniversary, there is doubt whether Germany can even meet the 1.5 percent goal. More security in an increasingly threatening environment? Yes, please! But no boost in military spending – and no risky deployment of German soldiers! This approach risks to seriously affect our credibility. It should come as no surprise when Germany is again singled out for criticism by the US.

          Pooling and sharing of military capabilities in the EU

          To be clear: Increasing our defense spending is not about pandering to Trump or chasing arbitrary percentages. It is about credible deterrence that enables our forces to protect our people and borders, to contain crises and solve conflicts. But the German armed forces lack the resources and capabilities. Greater defense expenditures are urgently needed. At the same time, we could spend our defense budget much more efficiently: through pooling and sharing of military capabilities, as well as joint training and procurement with our European partners.

          But this demands strategic decisions – and an open debate about conflicting goals. A white paper on foreign and security policy, published in much shorter intervals, could stimulate the needed debate. The German government should  commit to presenting such a document in each legislative period. The German parliament should likewise discuss the white paper – at least once a year. And if all relevant government departments are equitably involved in the drafting process, as is the case in France, the white paper may even help create more ownership and commitment by all partners in a coalition government.

          This touches upon another problem of German foreign policy: Germany lacks an instrument to effectively coordinate its foreign, defense, and European policy. It is quite common for the German government to offer different opinions depending on which part of the government or which ministry happens to be speaking. In June 2018, Chancellor Merkel introduced the idea of a European Security Council. She was reacting to the EU reform proposals by President Macron. The problem: her own Foreign Office knew nothing of her proposal. Two months later, in August, Foreign Minister Maas suggested installing an independent Swift system to strengthen European independence in light of the growing transatlantic rift over how to deal with Iran. Merkel dismissed the idea, which had not been coordinated with her, immediately. And another three months later, in November, Vice Chancellor Scholz unilaterally – and without consulting Paris – brought up the idea to transform the French permanent seat in the UN Security Council into a European one. His proposal surprised Berlin and upset Paris.

          German government needs more coordination

          Such inconsistent messaging not only reduces Berlin’s reputation in the world. It also damages the alliances and organizations upon which we depend – especially today, with the resurgence of great power rivalry – namely the EU and Nato. The German government needs an instrument that promotes more discipline and helps reduce lapses in coordination. In fact, we already possess such an instrument: the German Federal Security Council – we simply don’t use it appropriately. The existing Federal Security Council should be transformed into a comprehensive coordination body for foreign and security policy decisions – a body that meets regularly at different levels. The proposals and decisions developed by the body would then be agreed at the level of the Chancellor and the cabinet. What already works in Washington – the NSC process –, and also in Paris and London, could significantly strengthen professionalism and cohesion in Berlin, too. The rules of procedure governing the Federal Security Council already provide for all of this – they just need to be applied. While this will not prevent members of a coalition government from occasionally going it alone, Berlin would have clearer and more binding rules for the entire government. 

          It is high time that Germany abandons its habit of muddling through: Berlin needs to make tough decisions, coordinated with all relevant ministries and presented with one single voice. This would indeed be a responsible foreign policy.

          Wolfgang Ischinger has been Chairman of the Munich Security Conference since 2008. For the German version please click here.

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