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Global Conflicts

Why German foreign policy won't change

Despite all the rhetoric, don't expect any real changes in Berlin's foreign and security policy, says John Hulsman. Germany is not willing to make the necessary investment and its EU partners are not ready to share.

John C. Hulsman is president of John C. Hulsman Enterprises, a global political risk consulting firm and a life member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

It was my great and good fortune to have as one of my international relations tutors at St. Andrews University in Scotland, one of the smartest, best, and most entertaining teachers anywhere. During our first post-graduate class, he set out the theory of delusion and causation in a most unforgettable way, through use of a parable about a giant Hippopotamus and the small bird that habitually rides on its back.

The danger in politics, my tutor warned, is to make the mistake of the small bird. After riding athwart the mighty hippo for years, the bird came to feel that he was guiding the giant creature, that merely by being there his will was driving the direction the hippo was going, that he was master - and not merely a spectator - of what was going on. So it is with the 'new' German foreign and security policy, which is so much less than it seems.

Changing the conversation

John C. Hulsman

John Hulsman

For the whole of my foreign policy working life over the past 15 years, critics of German foreign and security policy (such as myself) have expressed their constant frustration that a country that is undoubtedly an economic giant remains a military and diplomatic pygmy.

All too often it seemed that Germany wanted nothing so much as to be Liechtenstein: small, well-run, prosperous, but utterly unimportant to the larger world. The problem, as many of us pointed out, was precisely that Berlin was not Liechtenstein, that its willful irrelevance to larger foreign affairs questions carried a high price for the larger western alliance in general, and that without Germany doing a lot more, a disenchanted America was likely to look for partners in the wider world who would.

In response, Germans hid behind 20th century history (as if I were unaware of that), talking about how difficult it all was to change this in-built postwar isolationism, glared at me, and then went off to the next conference. It is no secret that Germany was negatively viewed as being a moralistic place, eager to wag its finger at other great powers, but far less keen to get involved when things really got dangerous in terms of military intervention.

This useless argument, at last, has come to an end, with the rise of the odd couple of new Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen (seen by some as a possible successor to Angela Merkel) and the veteran Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who in effect are saying to Germany's defense critics: ‘You were right, Germany needs to have a far stronger profile in terms of international security and foreign policy in the world.' The new coalition government has wrong-footed Germany's critics by agreeing with them.

The emperor is still without any clothes

Once the shock of this intellectual about-face has just about worn off, I can see the canyon between rhetoric and reality remains. For the past decades, an American joke has circulated that Germans value their defense spending as the 15th most important government item…out of 17.

Nothing that has recently happened has changed the German public's strong predilection to let others get on with the often dirty business of deploying hard power; opinion polls show that German public opinion remains highly skeptical of their country being involved in combat missions. There has certainly been no major announcement of a significant increase in defense spending, nor have the German people embraced the new, more activist, strategy.

But armed only with diplomatic carrots, Germany is naively left to hope that it lives in a world that is populated entirely by rabbits: Say what you will of Assad of Syria, Putin of Russia, and Xi of China; they are not rabbits. The grand new practical outputs of what Steinmeier and von der Leyen are proposing so far amounts to this: more medics and perhaps lift to help the French in Africa, and an agreement to destroy a portion of Syria's chemical weapons program. This is hardly earth shattering.

Pooling and sharing, theoretically

So if Germany is not to have a serious army, what is it to do to play a greater role? The answer seems to be…borrow someone else's. Both Steinmeier and von der Leyen are convinced pro-Europeans, far more than the chancellor. With France under Hollande now following Germany's lead regarding the pivotal issue of economic policy within the euro-zone, Berlin seems to be desirous of in turn more strongly supporting France's humanitarian missions in Mali and the Central African Republic (CAR).

The defense minister is on to something in that it would seem rational that with economic crisis besetting Europe and with defense budgets under stress everywhere, now above all would be the time for defense pooling in Europe, ultimately leading to a common European army. All this makes sense, but only if one ignores the reality of European politics.

As has been true for decades, the French and the British are the big kids on the defense block, being the only countries capable of full-spectrum military operations. The French (providing they get to run such a European army) might be persuaded to support greater defense pooling. But Britain is politically moving in exactly the opposite direction. Not only would it be anathema for any serious British to go along with this, British public opinion is so highly euro-skeptic that there is a real question as to whether the UK will even remain a part of the EU itself. It surely will not take such a giant integrative leap forward, with the currents of British politics running exactly the other way.

Stop telling me Germany will do its homework

So 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, at least one of the two great military powers in Europe will not countenance a further military pooling leading to a common European force, and giving the French more medics and airlift in Africa is hardly daring in scope. So this change amounts to…almost nothing.

Worst of all, I will now be sonorously told by German commentators that I am right, that (in that most infuriating of phrases) Germany must do its homework. This ought to be the slogan for the reforms of today, because it vaguely promises action, that things have not gone well up until now, that the German security course will be corrected, and all without specifying anything a policy analyst ought to be held to: how, doing what, over what time period, in the furtherance of what interests.

But again, to actually answer these questions, we would have to leave the comforting world of rhetoric, and rejoin the world of reality.

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