Alignment on values, but not yet on strategy – Green Foreign Policy after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine


The Heinrich Böll Stiftung’s Foreign Policy Conference in February gave a snapshot of the German Green Party’s foreign policy priorities vis-à-vis Ukraine and Eastern Europe.

Bühne und Publikum im großen Saal der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Teaser Image Caption
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Giorgio Franceschini at Heinrich Böll Foundation.

In Germany, Green foreign policy debates are not as contentious as they once used to be. Historically, the two wings of the Green movement and party have had fierce disagreements on how to approach war and conflict: “Fundis” (so-called “fundamentalists”) traced their roots to idealism of the German peace movement and tended to hold strong pacifist views, while “realos” (self-identified “realists”) pursued pragmatic policies, including the need for military interventions in cases like Kosovo, and accepted the limits of compromise. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may have changed that irreversibly.

An ideological split between these two factions was nowhere in evidence at this year’s Foreign Policy Conference of the Heinrich Böll Stiftung. The Conference featured many Green politicians, including Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and drew a substantial Green-affiliated crowd. The brutal reality of Russia’s war against Ukraine forced many former “fundis” to accept the premise that there is no peace without security. Are we all realos now?

Widespread Consensus on the Stakes

The theme for this years’ Foreign Policy conference was “Security in the Twilight Zone - Regional, Transatlantic and Global Perspectives on the War in Eastern Europe.” It focused specifically on how Germany and its European partners can support Eastern European countries that confront an aggressive Russia next door. The widespread agreement of panelists and the audience on what’s at stake for Europe and Germany – nothing less than the perseverance of democracy and Europe’s territorial integrity – was perhaps the most surprising outcome of the conference.

If Ukraine accepts a forced truce, it will not enjoy the peace and freedom it deserves. Instead, as Annalena Baerbock highlighted in her speech, a dictated peace still accepts the right of the strongest and violates international law. The message over four days of the conference was clear: no matter the cost, freedom and democracy on the European continent are worth preserving and demand common action. Following this rationale, Germany and its Western allies will continue to support Ukraine as long as it is necessary.

Weighing Democratic Process and Speed

Beneath the surface, however, major debates are percolating – as they should be. One of those debates is about speed and strategic foresight. In foreign and security policy, the EU cannot make decisions that supersede national interests - it instead relies on consensus among all 27 member states. But the lengthy debates and balancing of each country’s domestic political concerns makes it nearly impossible for the EU to play a significant foreign policy or military role on par with the US. Imagine if 50 US states had to negotiate and sign off on each others support for Ukraine. The war has made it increasingly apparent how limiting the EU’s current mandate is.

The debate over Leopard tanks – which could have taken place in fall 2022 already – is a case in point. “You cannot win a war by pursuing a step-by-step or incremental approach. You have to surprise your adversary; you have to overwhelm your adversary,” warned NATO General Secretary Anders Fogh Rassmussen in his keynote. Yet even (or especially) in times of war, valuing and protecting the democratic process leads to more sustainable decisions, as both Agnieszka Brugger and Jürgen Trittin, Green members of the German Bundestag, pointed out in their remarks.

While it is important for European allies to be on the same page in the short term, it is equally vital that European member states converge on a strategic outlook for a European security architecture. So far, no one seems to have detailed answers on the scope or function of this new architecture, besides the usual buzzwords of more “European strategic autonomy.” The lack of European military preparedness became evident when a member of the audience asked about the EU’s mutual defense clause (Article 42.7). The clause states that if an EU member is the victim of armed aggression on its territory, other EU members have an obligation to aid and assist by all means in their power. Minna Ålander from the Finnish Institute of International Affairs pointed out that because the EU’s defense clause is vague, Finland decided to join NATO to be part of a strictly military alliance.


Podiumsdiskussion mit Publikum in der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung
Reflection round at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung's yearly Foreign Policy Conference.

Calls for Germany to take up the Leadership Baton

The question of German leadership and its definition emerged as another major point of debate, especially for representatives of Eastern European countries. Justyna Gotkowska from the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw questioned whether Germany sees the war the same way as Poland, which borders on both Belarus and Ukraine: “Germany could do so much more. Especially when it comes to delivering heavy weapons systems.” Instead, the German fear of escalation (including nuclear escalation) outweighed concerns raised from Central and Eastern Europe.

When polled, the audience in the room expressed significant doubt that Germany could fill the United States’ role and provide stability in Eastern Europe. Sophia Besch from the Carnegie Endowment for Peace in Washington, DC, underscored that the Americans understand Germany has a different definition of leadership based on its history. Yet many voices in Washington still hope for a more proactive approach. They want Germany to take the lead in building foreign policy coalitions and not wait for others (especially the US) to take the first step.

Germany in “listening mode” with Global South countries

A final debate centered on countries in the Global South and their perspectives on the war in Ukraine. It became clear both at this conference and at the Munich Security Conference the following week that Western allies have not made a persuasive case for why Russia’s aggression matters not just for Ukraine and Europe, but also for the wider world.

Past experiences – ranging from exploitative colonialism to interest-driven foreign policies during the Cold War to the war on terror and a lack of solidarity during the Covid pandemic – and broken promises loom large. The hostile treatment of refugees from African countries compared to the warm reception of millions of Ukrainians in the West has also not been lost on partners in the Global South. Baerbock made the case that empathetic dialogue at eye-level between the Global North and South can only work if we are willing to put ourselves in the shoes of our counterparts :“But we should also never be silent, whenever there is an argument used that violates human rights”, she added. Panelists from Global South countries acknowledged this new approach of a Germany in “listening mode.” 

People in attendance wholeheartedly seemed to agree on the way forward: To convince countries around the world that Russia’s violation of international law has long-term implications for our rules-based order and cannot go unpunished, Germany needs to lead with its values. Just as important as any increase in military spending is a broad approach to international security that puts human security at the center. “The trust of our partners in our country is the most important currency of German foreign policy,” was Annalena Baerbock’s tagline for her speech. She emphasized that this trust cannot be taken for granted - it has to be earned over and over again. While the debates persist, the principles at stake are clear for the Greens, for Europe, and most of all, for Ukraine.

Rewatch the conference sessions here.