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Opinion

Germans voice US frustrations in policy poll

Berlin's plan to equip the military with armed drones has re-ignited a debate on what role Germany should play in international affairs. A recent foreign policy survey reflects the US' poor standing among respondents.

German President Joachim Gauck has called for Germany to accept its increased political and economic importance - and take on more foreign political responsibility as a result.

The government seems to have taken the presidential admonishment to heart: Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier are presently trying to contribute toward achieving a peaceful solution in eastern Ukraine. And Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen plans to purchase armed drones for the German armed forces. The unmanned planes will be aimed at supporting German troops in military operations abroad.

At issue is whether Germany should become more active on the international stage.

There are no nationwide referendums, so the population is not directly involved in such fundamental changes in the country's course - but what do Germans actually think, and what do they envision as Germany's foreign policy tasks and goals?

Changing views

In May, Germany's commissioned TNS Infratest to conduct an opinion poll of 1,000 people aged 18 and older. Comparisons of this recent poll to a similar poll 20 years ago reveal interesting dissimilarities.

"The changed mood in the population came as a great surprise to us," says Thomas Paulsen, head of the foundation's International Politics division.

He points out, however, that there is a reason why 62 percent of the people questioned in 1994 felt that Germany should get more involved - compared to the 2014 poll that sees a majority of Germans opting for restraint.

"In 1994, people would see horrible pictures of the Balkan conflict on TV every single day," Paulsen says. "Today, Germans are more likely to think of the operation in Afghanistan with its questionable track record."

Key goals

According to the May 2014 poll, Germans regard the protection of human rights worldwide as Germany's foremost foreign policy duty.

51 percent of the interviewees - of all ages, from all walks of life and across political affiliations - said safeguarding "peace in the world" is the most important goal. Citizens are not as concerned about the safety of their allies as politicians like to conjure when making public statements on loyalty within the alliance.

Foreign policy priorities

German citizens today also tend to disapprove of foreign policies shaped by economic interests. The issue of "safeguarding jobs" ranks low on the list of the participants goals for foreign policy. Four years ago, former President Horst Köhler candidly admitted in an interview that Bundeswehr missions are also about German business ambitions.

Faced with a storm of criticism, Köhler resigned. In 1994, his comments might have met with more appreciation.

Then, more than one out of two Germans felt the jobs issue played an important role in foreign policy - compared to less than 25 percent today. Again, there's a reason for the widely differing points of view: 20 years ago, Thomas Paulsen says, Germany was caught up in the worst recession the Federal Republic had ever experienced.

As a result of the favorable economic activity in the country today, fewer people see the necessity of foreign policies geared to economic interests. In any case, the people polled preferred civilian options in foreign policy commitments. The population favors humanitarian aid and diplomatic negotiations, while for the most part, military operations are dismissed.

Preference for staying in Europe

Current opinions on which countries Germany should or should not cooperate more closely with are revealing.

"Clearly, Germany's European neighbors are at the top of the list," Paulsen says. The fact that China - Germany's third-largest trading partner, even ahead of the US - ranks higher than the US is due to the Asian country's rising significance, Paulsen says.

Foreign policy priorities

The interviewees polled are split where cooperation with Russia is concerned. 53 percent are in favor of closer ties, 41 percent opt for the exact opposite. Despite Russia's role in the Ukraine crisis, the Körber Foundation sees no reason for a widening gap between Germans and Russians. "We've seen a strong German affinity for Russia for many years, and that can't be destroyed that quickly," Paulsen says, adding that the feeling is mutual.

What is remarkable is that Germans almost equally approved of cooperating with Russia and the United States. The team had expected Germans to clearly favor cooperation with the transatlantic partner. What we see here, Paulsen argues, is "latent anti-Americanism on the one hand and the effect of the negative US image after the Iraq War and the NSA spy scandal on the other."

Staunch refusal of closer cooperation with Turkey came as a surprise, Paulsen says. The Erdogan government's behavior - viewed as undemocratic by Germans - is mainly to blame, he adds. This aspect backs Chancellor Merkel's skeptical, and at times completely dismissive, attitude toward Turkish ambitions of joining the EU.

The Körber Foundation

The Körber Foundation was founded by Kurt A. Körber in 1959, a Hamburg businessman who made his fortune with the production of automatic cigarette machines. Profits from the firm go to the foundation, which supports mainly young people in the fields of education, science and culture.

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