The end of Germany’s self-confined foreign policy (?)

When Germany’s new foreign minister Annalena Baerbock took office in December 2021, there was careful optimism in Berlin that she would embody a more assertive German foreign policy.

Germany’s foreign policy has often been criticized as too restrained and reluctant in relation to its economic weight and critical calls by other nations for more engagement have indicated increased expectations for actions from Germany in global affairs. While there have been some episodes of a more active role by Germany in the international arena, for instance during the financial crisis in 2010, the refugee crisis in 2015, and the negotiations of the Iran nuclear deal, Bearbock’s predecessors in the Foreign Ministry remained largely unnoticeable on the global stage and their foreign policy was mostly a continuation of Germany’s low profile foreign policy.

Despite the careful optimism that Baerbock might stand for a more disruptive and assertive German foreign policy, it seemed doubtful whether she would be able to overcome the two major causes for Germany’s somewhat self-confined foreign policy: 1. Germany’s extreme dependence on international trade (including natural resources) and 2. Germany’s historic reluctance to engage in military interventions. These two factors are largely responsible for the gap between Germany’s value-orientated foreign policy principles as well as objectives and its actual actions to implement such, especially in relation to human rights violations, autocrats, and aggressors.

Now, however, it seems that the Russian invasion of Ukraine has abruptly eradicated one of the two causes for Germany’s self-confined foreign policy. Within a matter of two days, Germany’s stance on international security policy changed completely. On 26 February, the German Defence Ministry declared that, despite its historic position against the supply of arms to conflict zones, it would deliver anti-tank systems and Stinger air defence systems to Ukraine. The day after that in an extraordinary parliamentary session, Olaf Scholz announced that Germany, after years of debates, will raise its military expenditure to 2% of its GDP (making it Europe’s top spender on defence) and establish an extra 100-billion-euro fund for investments into the Bundeswehr in order to become Europe’s most modern and effective army. The German chancellor also pledged to expand Germany’s troop presence in Lithuania and to provide German air defence systems to Eastern European NATO members.

These movements represent a major break with Germany’s perception of its role in the world and with the depictions of Germany as a ‘reluctant’ power that is not comfortable with the pursuance of a more assertive role in foreign policy, mainly attributed to a political and public culture that has roots in the legacy of post-war pacifism.

The apparent re-consideration in Germany about the role of military means in foreign policy, Annalena Baerbock’s fresh take on Germany’s objectives, and the lessons learned from the war in Ukraine will significantly shape German foreign policy in the coming years. This does not necessarily mean that Germany’s foreign policy will be totally different from now on, but it could represent the beginning of a new era of a less self-confined foreign policy more willing to put its value-orientated foreign policy objectives into actions and as such more assertive to confront adversaries. While Germany’s historic responsibility and preference to realize foreign policy objectives through economic cooperation and multilateral institutions with the resort to military means being only admissible in exceptional situations will continue to be the norm, there will be less stigma around the Bundeswehr and more space for hard power elements in German foreign policy debates and policies.

Yet, the second cause for Germany’s self-confined foreign policy, the country’s extreme dependence on international trade (as the world’s third-largest exporter and importer), is going to continue to put a heavy hand on the country’s decision makers when choosing foreign policy options. But, even here the painful realisation by Germany of being trapped in its reliance on Russian gas and therefore limited in its ability to sanction Russia in response to the invasion in Ukraine might be a learning experience leading to the reconsideration of its dependence on international trade in general, especially when it comes to its economy’s extreme reliance on exports to China, which one day might as well become a problem.

Tim Höflinger
Tim Höflinger
Tim Höflinger is a consultant at Control Risks. Prior to joining Control Risks, Tim worked as a consultant at the International Dialogue Centre (KAICIID) and the German Development Cooperation (GIZ). He collected initial work experiences at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) in Myanmar, the German Council on Foreign Relations, and the Singaporean-German Chamber of Commerce in Singapore. Tim holds an M.Sc. in Public Policy from Maastricht University and United Nations University. He also holds an M.St. in International Relations from the University of Cambridge.