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The new German government will face considerable challenges in European affairs, foreign relations, security, and defense. There is a high likelihood that Germany’s role within Europe as well as internationally will become even more important than in recent years. Given the rapidly changing international context, Germany will most likely take on more responsibility for global stability and security under increasingly difficult circumstances. The next German government will confront a particularly complex constellation of challenges.
Challenges to the incoming government
The international context is changing rapidly. New security risks not only blur the lines between internal and external policies. They also raise questions about the ability of governments in general to provide their populations with security.
Crisis and conflict, also in the EU’s immediate Eastern and Southern neighborhood, will remain part and parcel of German and European foreign policy. Substantial threats to stability in the EU’s eastern neighborhood continue to come from Russia, particularly in Ukraine. Russian attempts to influence Western democracies and its involvement in Syria, are also a source of considerable uncertainty. It remains a challenge to keep Russia involved in institutionalized dialogue within such frameworks as those offered by the OSCE and NATO, while simultaneously keeping its ambitions toward power politics in check. Depending on how the relationship between Washington and Moscow develops, the framework and support for German and European positions toward Moscow will undoubtedly change.
Similar types of threat emanate from Asia as the result of increased competition between the US and China. In addition to security risks, and particularly the threat posed by North Korea’s rapidly increasing nuclear capacity, here are economic dimensions to the US-China rivalry, particularly in terms of trade and monetary policy. Because of Germany’s interdependence with – and dependence on – both of these partners, it is very much in the country’s interest to prevent a potential US-China conflict, which would require it to take sides.
Challenges may also increase within the EU. Socio economic divergence is still increasing while political tensions over migration policy persist. Positions over the future of the EU vary greatly between EU member states. A number of countries are behaving like spoilers and free-riders. A threat to the EU’s unity relates to President Trump’s decision, against broad European consensus, to close ranks with EU member states like Poland and Hungary and the (soon-to-be ex-EU member) UK.
The three pillars supporting German foreign policy
An ad-hoc system seems to be sprouting up alongside the rules-based, multilateral system. The new German government will have to prepare pragmatic courses of action and muster the necessary resources to implement them efficaciously. Recent international and European developments challenge the three pillars have that have traditionally supported German foreign policy.
Firstly, Germany’s has thrived thanks to its integration into rules-based global institutional structures informed by Western liberal thought. For the past decades, German policies have consequently been directed towards preserving and deepening this order. The new government will face the daunting task of helping preserve that order – in some regards also by defending it against the current US-President, while previous US administrations were the architects and guardians of precisely that order.
Secondly, the EU has protected German interests and first made it possible for Germany to gain strength in economic and political terms, as increase its security. With anti-EU-populism growing and Brexit happening, this context can no longer be taken for granted.
Finally, close cooperation with the United States has become more complicated. The US traditionally served as guarantor of security and, out of its own interests, collaborated, in significantly shaping and supporting global and European structures. President Trump has turned the US into a factor of instability and is undermining Western consensus on fundamental principles. The US under President Trump no longer stands for a nation willing to defend and further develop a world order based on democracy and rule of law, not even when it would be in its own interest to do so.
A need to maintain and reshape international and European structures
So while the new German government will continue to produce security and prosperity through institutionalization via the EU, NATO, and the OSCE but also by means of the United Nations as a motor of global norm setting, it will have to do more to help maintain but also reshaped these structures. This is particularly important for Germany as not only its foreign policy, but also itseconomic model for decades been geared toward a rules-based system. Germany both benefits from and depends upon a functioning, multilateral trade system – and particularly the European single market – in a very important way.
It is not just the abundance of international challenges that makes the EU Berlin’s most important framework for multilateral action. It is also the fact that Germany benefits strongly from the economic and political stability that European integration has guaranteed for decades.
The stability of the EU can no longer be taken as a given. It remains to be seen in the course of Germany’s next four-year legislative period (2017–21), whether centrifugal forces gain the upper hand within the EU – or whether the EU, under German and French leadership can work together to at least partially deepen the union. The United Kingdom’s impending exit from the EU, combined with the unpredictable (if not downright disruptive) actions of countries like Russia, China, North Korea, and the US, could also have a destabilizing effect on the EU internally. These shared threats provide incentive enough to bring at least some ofthe EU’s member states closer together.
Above all it remains to be seen whether the governments – and citizens – of EU member states have the will to draw the necessary conclusions from a continual loss of ability to act as sovereign nations, be it in security matters or in dealing with the socioeconomic effects of globalization. If they relinquish individual sovereignty in a formal sense in order to win it back in the form of joint sovereignty on behalf of the EU itself, member states could perhaps push back against the spheres-of-influence style of political thinking that has also made inroads in the EU. This is the sole way for the EU to regain its formative power.
Maintaining and even strengthening European and international order and institutions will remain a key goal of the incoming government. This corresponds well with the foreign policy pattern established by West Germany in the postwar period. Certainly it is the direction most compatible with the history of Germany. At the same time, the new government may need to develop action in the event that international and regional institutions and regulatory mechanisms fail. To operate according to the principles of power politics would require an entirely different set of mental coordinates for Germany’s foreign policy community, even if it is only entitled to draw on the option of national power as a last resort. German and European foreign policy will require more resources and personnel if the foreign policy environment shifts toward power politics and self-interest at the expense of multilateral, rules-based relationships. Strengthening capabilities for assessing situations and managing crises is crucial, particularly as international relations become more and more charged with unpredictability.
Daniela Schwarzer, Otto Wolff Director of the DGAP’s Research Institute