A New Foreign Policy

Photo by Sabine Vielmo


A New Foreign Policy

The destruction of democracy in the middle of the EU cannot be understood without the role of German industry.

What should be the foreign policy agenda of the new German government?

I am hoping that talk of a more “values-based” agenda – primarily by the Greens, and to some extent also the FDP – will not remain an empty promise. Saying this in Germany incurs immediate charges of Gutmenschentum – moralistic preaching that fails to understand the complex realities of world politics. But what we had up until now, supposedly Merkelian realism, was sometimes actually quite unrealistic. Just one example: the incessant call for more dialogue with the Hungarian and Polish governments ended up buying aspiring autocrats more time to consolidate their regimes. And in the end it did not avoid an enormous conflict which right now is shaking the very foundations of the European Union.

How would a Green foreign policy be different from a FDP or SPD version?

The Greens have positioned themselves most clearly as champions of an approach that makes fewer concessions to the dictatorship in Beijing and the electoral authoritarianism in Moscow. They have also been most active in the European parliament when it comes to securing democracy and the rule of law in EU Member States. I don’t mean to malign the other parties, though; they also have politicians who can credibly pursue a “values-based agenda.” But then again, the larger among them also has figures who always seem ready to call for more “dialogue” with Putin no matter what.

What mistakes do you see in the foreign policy of the Merkel government and most recently Heiko Maas of SPD?

For one thing, it’s important to remember just how much Merkel centralized decision-making: it was she who tried to keep the EU together during the Eurozone crisis; she formed a coalition in Europe to put sanctions on Moscow (to her credit); she was the one who undertook the failed gambit of a European investment deal with China, etc. Again, at the risk of, God forbid, “moralizing": an early phase when Merkel did bring up human rights with rulers who absolutely didn’t want to hear about them, the business of German foreign policy was largely business. The de facto appeasement of Viktor Orbán and the destruction of democracy in the middle of the EU cannot be understood without the role of German industry and the benefits it derived from Budapest rolling out the red carpet for car manufacturers in particular.

But it’s easy to talk about values. What should the EU, and Germany in particular, actually do, for instance in the face of defiant governments in Warsaw and Budapest?

EU leaders – including at the Commission – often make it sound as if the problem were a lack of adequate “mechanisms” or “instruments” (note the revealingly technocratic language). But the problem has always been a lack of political will. To be fair, at the height of the Eurozone crisis, it would not have been easy – especially for Berlin – to be seen as dictating both state budgets and the shape of political and judicial systems. But we are now paying a huge price for EU inaction and Merkel’s de facto acquiescence of rising authoritarianism: after some years, when we were always told that Orbán was just “one bad apple” and that the situation would rectify itself, it turned out that Orbán provided a model for autocratization (now being copied in Poland and, to some extent, Slovenia -- and, by the way, Kurz also gave it a bit of a try). Now these governments can help each other in the European Council. Still, cutting funds is a real possibility for the EU Commission and there is, at this point, no reason why it should not be done.

But will that not tear the EU further apart?

This has always been the threat of the aspiring autocrats: if Brussels is seen as too harsh (and if autocrats succeed at telling the story that a “distant liberal bureaucracy” is attacking the nation, of which the ruling parties are the only authentic representatives), then the EU might face a Polish exit or Huxit, for that matter. But the EU remains very popular in these countries, and there has not been a long-standing desire for “independence” as in the UK – on the contrary, “leaving Europe” would be seen as an enormous blow to post-1989 achievements. So the threats are largely empty. And less obviously: doing nothing is not neutral. It’s in effect saying to all Hungarians and Poles who thought that, with accession to the Union in 2004, democracy and the rule of law were also secured, that we West Europeans are phonies, that we never meant it.

The humbling of the West is real – what does this mean for the mission and reality of German foreign policy within this larger Western framework?

About twenty years ago there was talk of the EU as a global “normative power”: whereas the American invaded countries to democratize them, Europeans peacefully transformed countries from within without firing a shot: they could make an offer of membership in the Union which no one would refuse, or at least have other beneficial effects on their immediate neighborhood. If you look at Turkey or Belarus today, or think about the hollowing out of the EU from within, again, it’s important to see that Orbán and allies have a larger project of making the Union a mere common market, pretty much like what some soft British Eurosceptics always wanted. It is hard to see where the normative power is.

But where does that leave Germany in particular?

Clearly, foreign policy did not play much of a role in the elections, and I think it’s fair to say that many Germans would be comfortable with a continuation of Merkel-style mediation among different interests and muddling-through. But there are also calls for what some term a post-dependent Atlanticism, that is to say, a united Europe with more independence from the US. And there are some – again, the Greens above all – who have not forgotten that Emmanuel Macron has been waiting for an answer from Berlin to his ambitious European agenda since 2017, an answer that would also have to not be cynical about climate and migration (remember, we are paying an authoritarian in Ankara to warehouse refugees). Again, to be fair, Merkel did build up significant trust and credit in the last four years in particular, so a new government might have some room for maneuver— if it has the political will and ideas, that is.


Article: In this piece from December 2020, Müller argues that German chancellor Angela Merkel's legacy will depend on whether she faces down Europe's illiberal saboteurs.

Book: Published this year, Müller’s Democracy Rules emphasizes that next to liberty and equality, uncertainty is a fundamental characteristic of democracy, which allows for creativity.

Video: Müller shows (in a presentation and in dialogue with Tobi Müller) that we need to re-empower citizens by giving new strength and meaning to the media and political parties.

Academic paper: Rebin Fard analyses the geopolitics of German foreign policy and sketches a profile of Germany’s current foreign policy.

Book: In Power and Leadership in European Foreign Policy, Liz Aggestam compares the last two decades of German, French and British foreign policy to discover how these countries converge and diverge in the framing of their own role and the role of the European Union.


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