A two-day trip to Washington will serve as a platform for German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier to sell a more active foreign policy. But don't expect too much anytime soon, critics say.
Frank-Walter Steinmeier is an old hand at Germany's foreign ministry: he served as foreign minister under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder from 2005-2009.
But far from being disillusioned by the sometimes limited impact of foreign policy, it's obvious that he had been itching to get out there again. And the crisis in Ukraine is providing the perfect platform to show Germany and Europe can make their mark, in close consultation with the US and Russia.
"As long as people negotiate, they don't shoot at each other," he said while outlining his foreign policy approach in a speech to the German parliament in January. While that's not strictly true - Syria springs to mind - it shows that he firmly believes diplomacy and an "active" German foreign policy - is the way to go.
He is being supported by German President Joachim Gauck and Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen, although whether Germany will boost its military engagement anytime soon is not clear.
More 'forthcoming' Germany
Jan Techau, director of Carnegie Europe, a think tank, believes this government is paving the way for change, towards becoming a more "forthcoming" and less "selective" player on the international stage. And that's what Steinmeier is trying to convey in Washington, both to the administration and the IMF, where he'll be discussing loans for Ukraine.
"Germany is quite en vogue in Washington, everybody understands now that Germany is the key player in Ukraine, on the EU side," he told DW. He also points out that "it was German political weight that turned the Serbs around" in last year's EU-brokered compromise between Serbia and Kosovo.
No change or 'spell broken'?
All well and good, but the "new" German assertiveness has been around since German reunification in 1990 and, says Ingo Peters, political scientist and associate professor at Berlin's Free University, Germany has been taking its more active role ever since then.
"In the past 20 years, this has always been the case," he points out. "Let's take Kosovo in 1999, the Iraq intervention in 2003, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria - Germany sometimes says yes [to intervention], sometimes it says no…it decides depending on the specific situation at hand."
Some critics go even further, saying that "once the rhetoric is peeled away, reality looks much as it always has. Germany will not make the serious economic investment in its armed forces to transform them into a full-spectrum military power," John Hulsman, president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm, writes in an op-ed for DW.
He says that "giving the French more medics and airlift in Africa is hardly daring in scope. So this change amounts to…almost nothing."
But, according to Techau, Germany is a special case - its Nazi past means that, unlike the UK or France, it has no "intrinsic confidence." It will take time for Germany to adjust to a new role.
"Cynicism isn't warranted here. The point is that it's a long-term process. Of course, that's not a satisfactory answer when you need a contribution now…But it's interesting how the entire political elite - with the exception of the Left party - has embarked on this, are now creating more maneuvering space," he says.
"I think it's the harbinger of something bigger. I'm not saying Germany will be a military player like Britain or France tomorrow, but the spell is broken…, it will now be less easy for Germany to hide.
Foreign is domestic policy
Steinmeier, Gauck and von der Leyen are, at this point, trying very much to convince people at home that Germany needs to be more active, that Germany is capable of being a political leader without forgetting its past.
"This is another example of foreign policy actually being about domestic politics, so setting the stage for an internal debate here in Germany - where does Germany want to go?," Peters told DW.
Gauck's recent speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he spoke about Germany becoming more involved was seen by many at home and abroad as groundbreaking. When he was asked in an interview with DW-TV about the speech and the message he was sending to DW viewers abroad, he said "actually I was trying to send a strong message to the people of Germany…as far as an active role is concerned…"
In the interview, Gauck points out that the idea of a more involved Germany - possibly even militarily involved - was seen as favorable abroad but that in Germany "people have trouble understanding it," due to Germany's Nazi past.
"But it's a work in progress and I'm going to continue to encourage this development. I'm thoroughly convinced that a nation…that has made its dreams a reality is a nation that believes in its own potential."
NSA, no-spy on the backburner
Both Peters and Techau believe that Ukraine will dominate Steinmeier's agenda in Washington, especially as Germany can really bring its expertise and influence in that region to the table. As to the whole NSA debacle and the calls for a no-spy agreement, Steinmeier has already hinted that such an agreement was unlikely and that the US had understood European concerns.
"Yes, there is still some distrust, and yes, the Germans were supremely miffed when they found out what was going on, but we can't agonize about this while Ukraine is burning," Techau told DW.
"It's very much about symbolic politics," Peters agrees. "Maybe [a no-spy agreement] helps mitigate some concerns, but overall, who really believes that it will put an end to spying?"
Techau's advice to German intelligence services "Get better at protecting your data - because you were hopelessly naïve and left government security wide open - and, at the same time, get better at spying yourself."
He added that the only entity that can do something about US spying operations is the US Congress. Until lawmakers there take this up in earnest, no amount of pressure from Europe will change anything.
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