The Limits of German Power

Volker Perthes

 Darts with French, German, and British flag designs 
BERLIN – In the two years since Germany’s president, foreign minister, and defense minister signaled that their country would take on a larger role in international affairs, the country’s leaders have received a crash course in geopolitical realism. The challenges Germany has had to face include Russia’s annexation of Crimea, the conflict in eastern Ukraine, the explosion of Syria, terrorist attacks in Europe, and an unprecedented influx of refugees.
 
These crises have greatly increased Germany’s international profile. And yet the country’s reemergence as a major player on the world stage must be tempered with the recognition that its power depends on cooperation with its partners and the development of a strong, unified European foreign and security policy.
 
Germany’s embrace of a more active global role has taken place within a rapidly changing geopolitical landscape – one in which German and other European leaders have had to accept that most of the rest of the world does not share their preference for multilateral decision-making. They have also had to come to terms with the fact that the United States is no longer prepared to take the lead in every crisis, and that rising global powers – such as China, India, and Brazil – are not yet prepared to contribute effectively to maintaining a stable global order.
 
Meanwhile, the dividing lines between domestic and international affairs have become increasingly blurred. The refugee crisis, for example, demands policy interventions in areas as diverse as defense, development aid, European integration, domestic security, and social-welfare policy.
 
Increasingly, the challenges Germany is facing have become intertwined; terrorism, the Syrian civil war, Russian aggression, and refugee flows are interacting in dangerous and unpredictable ways. Nor are any of these crises likely to be easily contained or quickly resolved; each will have to be managed over the long term.
 
And given its high degree of integration into the global economy, Germany is vulnerable even to distant developments. For example, preventing military conflict and maintaining maritime freedom in the South China Sea is clearly in Germany’s interest.
 
To their credit, Germany’s leaders, recognizing the important role their country can play, have taken the diplomatic lead with Russia over its intervention in Ukraine. Moreover, Germany was a key participant in the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and it has been deeply involved in the effort to find a political solution to the Syrian civil war. Germany also assumed the 2016 presidency of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
 
On the military front, Germany has beefed up its contribution to NATO measures to bolster defenses in the Baltic region and Central Europe, and it has become increasingly open to contributing military forces to interventions in crises outside the alliance’s area. It has participated in United Nations peacekeeping efforts in Mali, prolonged its engagement in Afghanistan, supplied weapons and training to forces in northern Iraq, and provided reconnaissance flights and other assistance to French military strikes against the Islamic State in Syria.
 
German policymakers are aware that their international partners expect this type of leadership to become the norm, and they have demonstrated an interest in expanding Germany’s rising influence. As a medium-size power however, Germany cannot be present everywhere; maintaining a broader international footprint will require cooperation with allies and partners around the world.
 
Indeed, the more Germany leads, the more dependent it becomes on other international actors – most notably its European Union partners – and the more exposed it becomes to fluctuations in the geopolitical environment. For example, China’s regional posture and its strategic relationship with the US will influence German efforts to find multilateral solutions to global challenges like climate change or cyber threats.
 
As Germany continues to lean forward internationally, it can be expected to increase spending on foreign policy and international security. To be sure, Berlin has yet to meet NATO’s target of 2% of GDP for defense spending. Like most other states, it has also failed to meet the internationally agreed commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on official development assistance.
 
But, unlike some of its partners, Germany has not slashed its defense budget, and it has substantially increased funding for diplomacy.
 
Nonetheless, even as it has increased its capacity to provide military forces for UN, NATO, or EU operations, Germany has made clear that it does not view itself as a military power.
 
German policymakers continue to believe that political and economic means of influence are more effective than violence, implying further development of soft-power tools, including digital diplomacy. They are also eager to develop more “networked” national and European foreign policies that take into account the activities and possible contributions of non-state actors.
 
For the time being, Germany’s main foreign policy priorities are likely to remain the EU and the continent’s eastern and southern neighbors – from which immediate security risks are most likely to emanate. This would be a wise choice. Germany and its EU partners will be most effective when managing conflicts, stabilizing governments, or supporting economic and political transitions in their immediate neighborhood.
 
Furthermore, given today’s extraordinarily turbulent geopolitical environment, Germany has a fundamental interest in championing the development of the EU’s foreign policy and security institutions. As much as German policymakers might enjoy the growing demand for their contributions to international politics, the country’s membership in the EU remains its most potent source of power and security.
 
 

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