Ukraine crisis an opportunity for Germany to move past reputation for looking inward

A make-or-break moment for Berlin on foreign policy

German chancellorAngela Merkel can make daring leaps if they are politically opportune. Photograph: Axel Schmidt/Reuters

German chancellorAngela Merkel can make daring leaps if they are politically opportune. Photograph: Axel Schmidt/Reuters


German chancellor Angela Merkel spent the weekend packing for her summer holidays: walking shoes, sun cream and encrypted mobile phone.

Distracting her, though, were hours of high-level phone diplomacy: with Moscow, London, Paris and The Hague. The Gaza and Ukraine crises mean Merkel’s stay in South Tyrol will involve less time than usual out walking with her husband in the Dolomites and more on the phone.

“As chancellor I am always working, whether on holiday or not, the people can depend on that,” she said on Friday.

Unfolding events have not overshadowed Germany’s review of foreign policy. Social Democrat (SPD) Frank-Walter Steinmeier launched the initiative after returning to the foreign ministry last December. Its purpose: to end a sense of drift in German foreign policy and close the gap that had opened up in the second Merkel term between foreign expectations and Berlin’s actions.

German foreign policy has been in transition for 15 years, since Berlin deployed troops to Serbia/Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan and, later, kept their troops out of Iraq. Though important milestones, there was no overarching review of foreign policy to put them in context. Thus the sense of confusion, disappointment and annoyance when Germany abstained on military action against Libya in the United Nations.

Sensing a foreign policy gap, President Joachim Gauck told the Munich security conference it was time for a rethink. Germany’s admirable culture of restraint, he said, should no longer be confused with a less admirable culture of cowardice. After six postwar decades of German self-reflection, during which the country’s citizens benefited from a stability guaranteed by others, he said it was time they rolled up their sleeves and gave something back. Mr Steinmeier agreed, telling Munich delegates Germany was “too big just to be a world affairs pundit”.


These Munich utterances annoyed Merkel’s inner circle, but more for fear of making promises Berlin might not always be able to keep rather than doubts on the need for greater German engagement in the world.

Almost all contributions to Germany’s policy debate – available at – have touched on the country’s reputation as a foreign policy shirker/lurker, an inward-looking “large Switzerland” that, Garbo-like, wants to be alone. While some German analysts argue this reputation is undeserved, down to bad communication rather than policy, outside analysts led by Charles Grant of the Centre for European Reform, identify a key problem in Berlin’s belief that any problem can be solved through talking.

“Though an admirable starting point in foreign affairs, negotiation without a credible threat of sanctions or force cannot always be the solution,” said Mr Grant, citing this as the Achilles’s heel of Berlin’s approach to Russia.

Particularly in SPD circles, dialogue forms a cornerstone of their “change through reproachment” – and, in recent years, trade – approach to Russia. The Crimean crisis was a boom for Germany’s sizeable army of Russlandversteher, or Russia empathisers. Rather than being put on the back foot, they thrived in debates over how Russia’s move on Crimea was down to encirclement angst and the EU’s botched wooing of Ukraine.

While surveys showed Germans divided on the best approach to Russia, most favoured a foreign policy equidistance between Washington and Moscow. However another survey in April suggested a slim majority of Germans – 55 per cent – associated Russia with danger, while three- quarters believed the Ukraine crisis had strained the Berlin- Moscow relationship. Just as these surveys mirror Merkel’s thinking to date on Russia, a further negative shift over the downing of flight MH17 will see her shift away from demands Moscow use its influence over pro-Russian separatists towards open support for sanctions of Russian firms.

Merkel can, in the blink of an eye, make daring leaps if they are politically opportune – see her post-Fukushima U-turn on nuclear energy and her abolition of compulsory military service.


Learning by doing
Germany, too, can be surprisingly nimble when the heat is on. A decade ago, a radical reform programme was agreed only after endless public discussion was overtaken by economic emergency. Similarly, Ukraine may be Berlin’s make-or-break moment on foreign policy, the moment when learning

by doing overtakes thinking and talking.

“This is a decisive moment for German policy because Merkel can see now how far things can go when you try to relativise a problem like Russia,” said Jan Techau of the Carnegie Europe think tank. “Whether she can drag German foreign policy out of its self-induced trepidation is emerging as the decisive question for Merkel’s third term.”

Events in Gaza, and particularly Ukraine, are forcing Berlin to grapple with its version on John Lennon’s definition of life: German foreign policy is what is happening while they are busy making foreign policy plans.