Merkel’s German Foreign Policy: A Necessary Grand Strategy Arising With Difficulty
“Germany is prepared to provide a substantial, decisive and early stimulus to the international debate, to accept responsibility, and to assume leadership. This includes a willingness to contribute to the management of current and future security and humanitarian challenges. We are, however, aware of the limits of our capabilities. Our increased role in international security policy will not, however, lead to automatic outcomes or obligations that run counter to our values and interests or overstretch our capabilities.1”
Divided and occupied as a result of the Second World War, Germany quickly unified after the Cold War and successfully integrated its Eastern part into its booming economy. Germany is now the leading economic power in Europe and the fourth economy in the world. This economic strength stems from its export industry leading Germany to look outward and be concerned with peace and stability in the world. Germany’s interests are thus tied to its European neighbours and its many other economic partners, such as Russia. However, Germany’s economic power has not yet translated into great military strength or diplomatic leadership. Indeed, to this day, Germany’s foreign policy culture is still largely influenced by its experience of the Second World War. Guilty of many crimes, Germany has been reduced to, and is now limiting itself to, being a “civilian power2.” This historical heritage is more than a mere factor explaining Germany’s relationship to its own strength, it is openly accepted and taken on as the most essential trait of its identity. The 2016 White Paper on Germany’s foreign policy and army is a great illustration starting with the words: “Our identity and the way we see security is influenced by the lessons we have learned from our history. They form part of our national identity and are enshrined in our constitution3.” Germany is therefore facing a paradox: its economic strength ranks it as a great power, but its culture and identity prevent it from developing the traditional means a great power enjoys.
The following study of Merkel’s German foreign policy since 2005 will be underpinned by this paradox. It will often shed light on tensions observable in Merkel’s foreign policy strategy and decisions. The following pages identify three top priorities for Germany’s foreign policy. Firstly, Germany must guarantee its territorial integrity especially vis-à-vis Russia; its large Eastern neighbour. Second, Germany’s growing power stemming from its economic prosperity, it considers economic growth and opportunities as vital. Finally, and linked to the two top priorities, Germany aims at securing its fundamental energy supply coming from Russia. To understand whether Merkel has a grand strategy for her country, I will analyse the means allocated to these ends. This study will lead me to discuss many tensions that sometimes question the very definition of a grand strategy, which I take to mean: “a set of inter-connected political and military means and large ends.” Ultimately, it will lead me to argue that contemporary Germany needs a grand strategy in spite of itself, and is in a transition period towards becoming a more conventional great power pursuing its grand strategy with all the necessary means.
I will organise the following pages along the three top priorities outlined above. I will therefore first discuss Germany’s concerns with its territorial security and integrity so as to show how it outsourced the necessary military means to its allies. I will further analyse Germany’s second top priority: its economic prosperity -with a special focus on its relations with the EU and her European neighbours since they are its main economic partners. In this second part, I will highlight the tension presented above between Germany’s great strength and its reluctance to take the lead. Finally, I will assess Merkel’s strategy in securing Germany’s energy supply from Russia. Closely linked to the two other ends, this third one illustrates the way in which Germany is in a transition period towards taking on its responsibility as a great power and therefore developing the proper means to its grand strategy.
Like all other states, Germany’s top priority is to maintain security on its soil and to secure its borders. Contemporary threats such as transnational terrorism and cyber-attacks represent new challenges not only for Germany but for all countries. Germany’s security is peculiar however when considering its geographical position. At the heart of Europe, it is close to Russia and its sphere of influence. Therefore, aside from the new threats that the world is facing, Merkel’s top priority is the security and stability on its Eastern side. This is even more pressing today with Russia’s signs of aggressiveness in Georgia and in Ukraine more recently. Traditionally, such essential security is met with military might. However, Germany’s strategy has long been to rely on its Western allies, especially NATO. More precisely, its strategy has been to create a buffer zone between itself and the Russian sphere of influence.4 By integrating Eastern European countries within the EU and the NATO deployment territory, Germany kept away the Russian sphere of influence as far as possible from its own border. In order not to provoke Russia’s ire however, the buffer zone was not extended to some neighbouring countries of Russia such as Ukraine or Belarus. Hence tensions arose when Ukraine made a move towards the EU. Germany has been relying on NATO for its military security on its Eastern border because it does not have the necessary military means. In effect, as mentioned in the introduction, since the Second World War, Germany’s military capacity has been reduced. Its troops were limited to 370 000 people, constitutional arrangements were made to make war a politically difficult decision and the production of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons was forbidden5. These tight restrictions on Germany’s military means are still prevalent today, although some signs of loosening are observable. In effect, Merkel stopped conscription in 2011 so as to professionalize its army. The German army was not professional until 2011 for two reasons. Firstly, it made it less institutionalised and less strong an institution thereof limiting its power in the political and civil system. Second, a non-professional army does not require a specific strategy to be justified as opposed to professional bodies that require precise missions and purposes6. Germany also began to deploy its army in foreign countries in the 1990s. While such decisions were revolutionary, they were always made for humanitarian reasons and never for military purposes7. This is why Germany is often called a “civilian power.”
While such a small army and such reliance on its Western allies used to ensure Germany’s security, the situation has been evolving recently leading Germany to question its strategy and putting the country face to face with its responsibilities as a great power. In effect, Obama’s shift towards Asia and Trump’s isolationism have created a power vacuum in Europe, especially at its borders. This is another factor explaining Russia’s intervention in Crimea. The EU, and Germany in particular, are therefore in need of an autonomous defence strategy. The urge for a common defence is all the more important now that the UK is leaving the EU, although strong military cooperation between the UK and the EU is to be expected even after Brexit. As the wealthiest European country and because of its geographically central location in Europe, Germany has some part of responsibility and leadership to take in the development of a common defence. Faced with such a challenge, Merkel has agreed to increase Germany’s military budget to 2% of its GDP following NATO’s requirements8. However, this pledge is still not followed by any tangible implementation and Germany, on the contrary, has been supporting further collaboration with and reliance on NATO9. In fact, Germany does not accept taking the leadership position that its economic power imposes on it. It aims at maintaining its traditional attachment to multilateralism, which has been a way to justify its unwillingness to develop its own military capabilities. Germany is therefore in a tense situation where it recognises its responsibility to develop its military power, while at the same time refusing to take the lead on the issue. However, some signs seem to show Germany’s path towards a more autonomous military strategy. In effect, both in Iraq and Libya, Germany failed its allies by withdrawing its support to military interventions. Those two decisions illustrate Germany’s growing independence from its allies in terms of foreign policy and Merkel’s attachment, in the case of Libya, to a values-based strategy that only allows military deployment for humanitarian purposes.
Germany’s response to the power vacuum due to the US withdrawal from Europe demonstrates the conflicting trends the country experiences. On the one hand, it realises the responsibility it has in leading the common European defence project, but it does not appear willing to take up such a role. On the other hand, Germany reaffirms its traditional commitment to multilateralism within NATO and the EU while at the same time taking some bold strategic decisions failing its partners and therefore privileging its own national interests above its allies’ expectations. In fact, Germany is in a transition period from its alliance-following civilian power status towards a more conventional great power position, namely one that follows its own interests and develops some military means necessary to achieve them. Finally, Germany’s example raises an interesting question about the meaning of a grand strategy. Can a country have a grand strategy without adequate military power? On the one hand, one could argue that military capability is necessary for a country to be able to pursue its top priorities. On the other hand, Germany has been successful in guaranteeing its security through its allies’ military forces rather than its own. I would argue that it is, in fact, part of Germany’s grand strategy to outsource its military security. In effect, Germany has benefitted from military security at the lowest cost possible, making efficient use of its resources. Not investing in its military allowed the European great power to develop its economy and take the lead in the economic sphere. The power vacuum is a new threat that forces Germany to reassess its grand strategy at its Eastern border.
Germany’s second top priority in its foreign policy is economic prosperity. Its power based on its economic strength stemming from international trade, Germany has a vital interest in its partners’ economic health and political stability. This is why Germany has been and remains a strong proponent of European integration. In order to guarantee good trade relations, Germany needs to safeguard positive diplomatic ties with its economic partners. This is illustrated in the way in which Merkel repaired Germany’ relations with the US and Eastern European countries that had been damaged at the end of Schroeder’s term10. Most importantly, it explains why Merkel’s attachment to human rights and a values-based foreign policy remains at the rhetorical or symbolic level11. For instance, Merkel is known for having openly confronted the Chinese authorities in meeting the Tibetan leader. However, the confrontation remained at the symbolic level since trade has been growing between both partners12. To ensure economic prosperity in Europe, Germany has often taken a soft position in the European Union. Valuing multilateralism, Germany used to prioritise consensus and compromise between member states instead of taking the lead on some issues and trying to convince its European partners13. This is why Schroeder was criticised for being too close to France and even delegating Germany’s decision-making power to France14. Merkel therefore began a shift in Germany’s position in the EU. More prone to voice its opinion, Germany now asserts its own national interests in ways that tend to create tensions with its European partners15. This is illustrated by the way Merkel dealt with the euro crisis in Greece. In effect, the German leader took a harsh position in refusing a Greek bailout and openly protecting the “German taxpayers”. She seemed to be defending her national interests at the cost of Greece’s financial survival. Merkel’s behaviour led to a wave of German skepticism in Europe, especially in the Southern countries, some of which went all the way to portraying her as a Nazi. This anecdote is symbolically meaningful because German foreign policy core is the rejection of its Nazi period.
Two conclusions can be drawn from Germany’s current position in the EU since the Greek crisis. Firstly, Germany is asserting itself in negotiations away from its traditional respect for multilateralism and compromises. This first trend seems to show a move towards a more traditional great power position that can take aggressive measures to impose its own interests. Secondly, in asserting its own national interests, Germany seems unwilling to take on the role of the leader that falls to itself as the first European economy. These phenomena raise the question of whether Germany has a grand strategy for Europe. On the one hand, Germany seems to allocate the necessary means to achieving its own interests even if it is to the expense of some partners. Following this argument, Germany would be following a grand strategy, namely the protection of its economic interests even to the expense of others. On the other hand, one could argue that in the EU context, a grand strategy requires to be a common end. In other words, is not Germany simply selfish? Would a grand strategy need to gather all EU members towards a common goal and achieving common interests? In effect, Germany is so integrated into the EU that it is hard to see how a grand strategy could be formulated without it being a European size project. This question did not arise in the first part because Germany’s interests were aligned with those of its European partners. What is clear however is that Germany is caught between assuming its leadership role in Europe and defending its own national interests. In the European context, Germany does not appear to have any grand strategy but rather seems to be managing and firefighting as a reluctant leader.
As a result of the two top priorities, securing its energy supply from Russia is of the utmost importance for Germany. In effect, Germany is extremely dependent on Russia for its gas and oil imports16. This situation illustrates the two first parts. Germany’s eagerness not to extend the buffer zone too much to the East is necessary insofar as it avoids provoking Russia’s reaction that could be extremely damaging to the German economy. Similarly, Merkel has been criticising Putin’s disrespect of human rights but such opposition remains at the rhetorical level so as to protect Germany’s dependence on its energy supplier. In order to guarantee its energy supply Germany has had the Nord Stream pipeline built under the North Sea from Russia directly into its territory. This project is the achievement of Germany’s contemporary grand strategy in terms of energy supply security. In effect, it has two crucial advantages. Firstly, it makes Germany independent from the pipeline network going through Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. It thus immunises Germany from any Russian sanctions on Eastern European countries entailing cutting gas supply. In other words, Russia is now able to cut its gas flow towards Eastern European countries while continuing to supply Germany, its main customer17. The second benefit from this pipeline is that it makes Germany the main distributor of gas in Western Europe creating a dependency of Western Europeans on Germany for their gas supply18.
Germany successfully achieved this project against its European partners. The Eastern Europeans are more vulnerable to Russian sanctions and the Western Europeans are more dependent on Germany for gas. The fact that its European partners are against this pipeline might explain Merkel’s rhetorical criticisms of Putin’s authoritarian regime so as to symbolically balance her interrelated relationships with Russia and the EU. Schroeder and later Merkel have therefore achieved a great end for their country to the expense of their European partners but without generating any major opposition. Germany assigned the necessary needs to achieve a vital end for its economic viability. This example proves that Germany is able to take the lead when it takes on its responsibilities and that it could therefore lead on the EU’s common defence project. These two counterexamples illustrate the fact that Germany is in a transition period. Its economic strength gives it responsibilities that it needs to recognise and take upon itself. Germany is now a leader in spite of itself and therefore needs to develop a grand strategy, for the first time in decades. As long as it refuses to accept its leading role in Europe and the world, its foreign policy will hardly be recognised as a grand strategy.
Merkel came into power in Germany in 2005. In eleven years, she repaired the damaged relationships with the US and her European neighbours. She also developed a values-based rhetorical foreign policy enabling her to match her people’s preferences for the traditional civilian power status of Germany while at the same time developing strong strategic and economic ties with countries with incompatible values. Merkel’s large ends were identified as stabilising and securing its Eastern border, maintaining strong economic prosperity and securing energy supply from Russia. All in all, she has been able to allocate the necessary diplomatic resources to achieve her objectives especially the two last ones. However, the power gap generated by the US’ lessened attention to Europe is putting Germany face to face with a great challenge. As the wealthiest European country, it should take the lead in developing a common European defence system, but this would go against its identity as a “civilian power” inherited from the Second World War. Merkel’s Germany is therefore in a transition period when it is still looking for a comprehensive grand strategy. In effect, while the ends of such a grand strategy are identified, the means to achieving them must be readapted to the contemporary geopolitical situation. As written in 2016 White Paper quoted at the beginning of the paper: “[Germany has] a willingness to contribute to the management of current and future security and humanitarian challenges. [Germany is], however, aware of the limits of [its] capabilities19.”
1 The Federal Government, White Paper 2016 on Germany Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, 2016: 23.
2 Oppermann, Kai, National Role Conceptions, Domestic Constraints and the New ‘Normalcy’ in German Foreign Policy: the Eurozone Crisis, Libya and Beyond, German Politics Vol. 21 No. 4, 2012: 506.
3 The Federal Government, White Paper 2016 on Germany Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, 2016: 22.
4 Salminem, Minna-Mari, German-Russian Relations: Will There Be Changes After the German Elections?, The Finish Institute of International Affairs, 2009: 4.
5 Beasley, Ryan. Kaarbo, Juliet. Lantis, Jeffrey. Snarr, Michael. German Foreign Policy: Gulliver’s Travails in the 21st Century, in “Foreign Policy in Comparative Perspective: Domestic and International Influences on State Behavior”, 2013: 75.
6 Dempsey, Judy, Merkel’s Unfinished Business: Why Germany Needs to Act Strategically, Carnegie Europe, 2013: 17.
7 Gartzke, Ulf, Berlin’s Best Hope, The Journal of International Security Affairs, 2009: 36.
8 The Federal Government, White Paper 2016 on Germany Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, 2016: 98.
9 Belkin Paul, German Foreign and Security Policy: Trends and Transatlantic Implications, CRS Report for Congress, 2007: 17.
10 Paterson, William, Foreign Policy in the Grand Coalition, German Politics Vol. 19, No. 3, 2010: 501.
11 Gartzke, Ulf, Berlin’s Best Hope, The Journal of International Security Affairs, 2009: 36.
12 Paterson, William, Foreign Policy in the Grand Coalition, German Politics Vol. 19, No. 3, 2010: 512.
13 Ibid., 502.
14 Gartzke, Ulf, Berlin’s Best Hope, The Journal of International Security Affairs, 2009: 36.
15 Oppermann, Kai, National Role Conceptions, Domestic Constraints and the New ‘Normalcy’ in German Foreign Policy: the Eurozone Crisis, Libya and Beyond, German Politics Vol. 21 No. 4, 2012: 5010.
16 Salminem, Minna-Mari, German-Russian Relations: Will There Be Changes After the German Elections?, The Finish Institute of International Affairs, 2009: 5.
17 Ibid., 5.
18 Ibid., 5.
19 The Federal Government, White Paper 2016 on Germany Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr, 2016: 23.