On the Way Towards Greater International Responsibility?

Speech at the Opening of the Heinrich Boell Foundation’s 15th Annual Foreign Policy Conference

In recent months, foreign policy has moved to the centre of public debate. President Joachim Gauck called on Germany to “make a more substantial contribution, and […] make it earlier and more decisively”. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said that the culture of military restraint should not be confused with a culture of “standing aloof”, while Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen stated that indifference is not an option.

The issue in question is one of greater responsibility for Germany in international affairs. This is a controversial issue for the public. 60 percent of respondents to a recent survey believed that Germany should “rather continue to exercise restraint” in relation to international crises. Only 37 percent called for stronger engagement. This is almost the opposite of a similar survey carried out in 1994. The more crisis- and conflict-ridden the international situation becomes, the more hesitant the majority of Germans are to get involved in these conflicts.

The only possible focus for this dispute is what exactly is meant by ‘greater international responsibility’ for the Federal Republic. After all, we hold the responsibility for both our action and our inaction. This also applies to German foreign policy, even if this was not always perceived to be the case. For a long time, the former West Germany felt very comfortable in its special role: NATO ensured its security, there was no question of the Bundeswehr being deployed abroad, and we could focus on economic cooperation and international trade. Out of its much-invoked historical responsibility grew a ‘self-privileging’ Germany; we have restricted ourselves to non-military foreign policy and development cooperation and kept out of military conflicts. Foreign policy has been largely reduced to foreign trade policy.

Following the decision to strengthen ties with the West and European integration in the 1950s, the Federal Republic focused on a single major foreign and security policy initiative – the policy of détente associated with Willy Brandt. This approach – securing peace through dialogue, cooperation in place of confrontation and change through rapprochement – continues to shape Germany’s foreign policy thinking to this day.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the confrontation between East and West, the way seemed clear for a new era of peace, disarmament and cooperation. These hopeful expectations encountered their first setback with the Balkan Wars which broke out in Serbia in the early 1990s. Aggressive nationalism, ethnic cleansing and genocide were back on the European map. The first Iraq War, the Kosovo conflict, the Rwandan genocide, the Russian military expeditions in Chechnya, the terrorist attack of September 11th and the subsequent intervention in Afghanistan were further milestones marking a strongly non-peaceful trend in the international situation.

These developments also led the Federal Republic to be faced with unfamiliar and highly controversial decisions, above all in relation to the participation of the Bundeswehr in international missions. Over the last 25 years, we have lost our foreign policy innocence.

The rest of the world – our allies in particular – are less and less understanding when Germany, citing its history, wishes not to be involved in the hard questions of international governance: the enforcement of peace by military means, intervention against genocide, the military deterrence of powers set on territorial expansion, and conflicts with violent extremist movements. Poland’s Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski summed this up when he said, “I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.“

Last week I participated in a Polish-German seminar on the prospects for the EU’s Eastern Neighbourhood Policy which left a particular impression on me. In Poland there is considerable irritation across the political spectrum in relation to Germany’s dismissal of a possible temporary reinforcement of the NATO presence on the Polish eastern border as ‘sabre-rattling’. For our Polish neighbours this is a question of solidarity within the alliance.

Reducing the current debate on the stronger international involvement of the Federal Republic to military issues alone would, however, fall rather short. What is at stake is the future of the international order, the destabilisation of which has further accelerated in recent years. One of the key catalysts for this was the Second Iraq War, initiated by the US with a ‘coalition of the willing’ in order to overthrow Saddam Hussein and, by so doing, impose a new order in the Middle East – bypassing international law and the United Nations.

This ‘war of choice’, which proved to be a costly failure in every sense – human lives, politically and financially – has continued in the form of the bloody conflicts currently gripping Iraq and the entire Middle East. Even if the American intervention in Iraq was not the cause of these conflicts, it nevertheless served to open Pandora’s box. Today we are confronted with a multitude of dangerous developments around the globe that significantly exceed the international community’s conflict resolution abilities.

The crises are evolving faster than the capacity for crisis management. This is particularly true given that the UN Security Council is again increasingly blocked by the new polarisation between Russia and the US, and is largely failing as a force for order. In the case of Syria, as in Ukraine, the Security Council is paralysed. Again, as elsewhere, fundamental questions related to the UN Charter and the framework for global peace are at issue.

There is the threat of a new fragmentation of international politics – a disintegration into rival powers and power groupings. One hundred years after the beginning of the First World War, this is a troubling prospect. The time has passed when the average German could comfortably drink his or her beer “while in Turkey far away, people one another batter”, as described in Goethe's Faust.

The verse is too beautiful and reveals too much about the German state of mind not to be cited here in full:

“On holidays there’s nothing I like better
Than talking about war and war’s display,
When in Turkey far away,
People one another batter.
You sit by the window, have a glass
See the bright boats glide down the river;
Then you walk back home and bless
Its peacefulness, and peace, forever.”

We may want to ignore global conflicts, but they will not ignore us. In a globalised world that is closely interconnected through trade, investment, migration and the Internet, a ‘without us’ attitude just isn’t realistic.

Whether in Ukraine or in Iraq, it is also our interests, our future security and, above all, the kind of world in which we wish to live in the future that are at issue. Will we return to a world in which we are ruled by the law of the jungle, or are we committed to international law and democracy as the normative foundations of the international order?

This is also a question of the ability of the European Union to act; its self-respect, even – a Union which sees itself as a community of values and a political project. One can argue endlessly about how far the EU’s enthusiasm for regulation should be taken, but there can reasonably be no doubt about the need for a common European foreign and security policy given the turmoil surrounding us.

There are increasing demands on the EU as a foreign policy actor, partly because the ability and willingness of the US to act as a global political power is decreasing. The brief ‘unipolar moment’, the much-discussed ‘American era’, is over before it has even begun. The US is also stretched to its political, military and financial limits. We have not yet witnessed the full significance of this development.
The slogan “Ami, go home!” also meets with a great deal of sympathy in Germany. But if the Americans really go home, in many places they will leave a security vacuum which would be filled by very different forces: states that have no regard for democratic elections, a critical public or an independent judiciary. This would not improve the situation. Particularly with regard to our eastern and southern neighbours, the European Union will have to take on more responsibility.

In the Middle East, the old order is falling apart. The Arab Spring has been buried under a wave of violence and repression. Iraq and Syria have become a major combat zone in which the old colonial borders are being overrun. Lebanon and Jordan risk being dragged into the quagmire. The struggle for regional domination and political and religious conflicts are mutually reinforcing. This is all taking place practically on our doorstep. ‘Wait and see’ might be a better alternative to blind action, but should not replace an active European policy for the region. The example of Syria shows that a policy of non-engagement does not lead to peace, but can actually fuel the escalation of violence.

The conflict over Ukraine took an axe to the peaceful order in post-Soviet Europe. The annexation of Crimea, the disguised Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine and the surge of ethnic nationalism fuelled by the Russian media have led us back to times that we believed were long gone.

One can, with good reason, criticise the EU's hesitant and geopolitically naive Ostpolitik. The old political elites of Ukraine also hold their share of responsibility for the current crisis. But there should be no doubt about where the core problem lies with which Europe is now confronted: the powerful Russian elite surrounding President Putin, who has renounced the path of democracy and the partnership with the EU.

Internally, today’s Russia is a deeply authoritarian country which has undergone a neo-imperial shift in its relations with the outside world and again sees itself as a counterweight to the United States. Instead of integration into a pan-European economic and security community, its interest lies in the recovery of zones of ‘privileged influence’. The Brezhnev Doctrine of ‘limited sovereignty’ has been retrieved from the historical dustbin. If the EU accepts this, it will not only betray the declared will of the vast majority of Ukrainian society – it will also gamble away its own credibility.

The Euromaidan movement was the largest pro-European demonstration seen on our continent since 1989/90. Although the road may still be long, we must ensure that there is no doubt that the doors of the European Union are open to Ukraine. It is a sad joke that the EU Member States cannot agree on whether they want to grant Ukraine the status of a ‘European state’. We need clarity on this issue in order to strengthen the forces for reform in the country and to give hope for the future, especially to the younger generation. A first signal would be the freedom to travel to the European Union, to be granted promptly.

In our view, the European integration of Ukraine, Moldova and Georgia is not directed against Russia. Such an idea could only be entertained if one accepts the division of Europe into a Western and a Russian sphere of influence. We will need to work persistently to ensure that this is also seen as a ‘win-win’ situation from a Russian perspective. It is not a question of isolating Russia. The offer of extended economic and security cooperation still stands. But Putin & Co. can’t have it both ways: constructive relations with the EU and NATO as well as the restoration of a large Russian sphere of influence, in which the rules of international law and democracy are flaunted. A willingness to cooperate does not mean avoiding all conflict. Whether we like it or not, Ukraine will determine whether the EU is to be taken seriously as a political actor. If we shirk this challenge, the centrifugal forces within the Community will be strengthened, contributing to the persistent destabilisation of our Eastern neighbourhood.

The assumptions of our previous policy towards Russia have proved to be wishful thinking. The concept of a ‘modernisation partnership’ is passé. The theme for the foreseeable future will rather be a combination of limited conflict and limited cooperation.

The reorientation of European policy towards Russia is one major issue. The other is the future of the transatlantic alliance. Do we still consider ‘the West’ to be a normative categorisation and an important political alliance, or have we found ourselves slowly drifting towards growing alienation and a greater distance between Germany and the US? In the German debate surrounding the surveillance practices of the NSA and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) agreement, emotions are running high. It appears that the US is considered first and foremost as a threat by a large proportion of the German public. The idea of a transatlantic community of values is overlaid by a perceived difference in these values.

Let there be no misunderstanding: there is no shortage of material with which to criticise American policy. But what exactly is the aim of this criticism – decoupling from America, or the renewal of the West? Particularly in light of the buoyancy of authoritarian and fundamentalist forces in world politics, it would be fatal to terminate the transatlantic alliance instead of seeing it as the core of a new multilateralism and of a cooperative foreign policy. This does not mean allegiance, but rather a confident partnership in the context of a common value system.