Responsibility and Interests in German Foreign Policy

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger has been Chairman of the Munich Security Conference (MSC) since 2008. A German career diplomat, he was State Secretary (Deputy Foreign Minister), the Federal Republic of Germany's Ambassador to the US, and to the Court of St James'.  


In 2019, the Robert Bosch Academy is celebrating an anniversary: For five years, it has stimulated the debate of key foreign and security policy issues. This anniversary happens to coincide with another milestone for Germany’s foreign and security policy debate that occurred five years ago: In 2014, Joachim Gauck gave a major speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he urged Germany to take on more responsibility in global politics. Ever since, the term “responsibility” has become a fixture in German foreign policy debates. Unfortunately, the term’s omnipresence has not produced greater clarity about the actual characteristics of a “responsible” German foreign and security policy. Quite the contrary: The term “responsibility” is frequently invoked in such a way that it obscures rather than clarifies. Used in this fashion, it distracts from the actual challenge of German foreign policy, namely the necessity of clearly identifying foreign policy goals and conflicts of interest, making difficult decisions, and representing decisions with one single voice.

Berlin is struggling to adapt to 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 balking at paying more for it, affirming its solidarity with Ukraine but also continuing to build Nord Stream 2, supporting defense industrial integration in Europe but also insisting on unilateral decisions to halt its 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 work towards 1.5 percent rather than the 2 percent spending target agreed by all NATO partners in 2014. Right before NATO’s 70th anniversary, Germany cast new doubts upon its ability to 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 attitude deals a serious blow to our credibility. Then it should come as no surprise when Germany is again singled out for criticism by the Americans.

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 to effectively deter. 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 could 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 relevant government departments are equally involved in the writing process, as is the case in France, the white paper may even help create ownership – and thus commitment by the parties involved.

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 is 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 – announced his desire to transform the French permanent seat in the UN Security Council into a European one. His proposal astonished pundits and upset the French.  

Inconsistent messaging not only muffles Berlin’s voice in the world. It also damages the alliances and organizations upon which we depend – even more so with the resurgence of great power rivalry – namely the EU and NATO. At the Munich Security Conference in February, Chancellor Merkel delivered a passionate plea for multilateralism. But effective multilateral coordination with our partners is destined to fail if we cannot define our own foreign policy stances.

The German government clearly needs an instrument that induces 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. 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, Paris and London could significantly strengthen professionalism and cohesion inside the German government 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 never fully prevent members of a coalition government from going it alone, Berlin would have clear and common rules by which all ministries are bound.

Germany needs to take this step not just for its own sake, but also for the sake of Europe. Elections to the European Parliament will be held in just a few weeks. Pundits fear that they will strengthen anti-European forces inside the EU, dealing a significant blow to Europe’s ability to arrive at important decisions. In tough times like these, Germany should strengthen the EU rather than further complicate European decision-making with its own inability to develop clear positions.

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 responsible foreign policy.

This text is based on a commentary published in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung on March 28, 2019, titled “Tough decisions instead of muddling through”.

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