Germany’s New Policy Plan Puts the US on Catch Up

Germany’s New Policy Plan Puts the US on Catch Up

It takes a strong nation, as opposed to one that’s merely powerful to rethink the way it conducts its foreign relations. Germany now proves the point, and Americans should sit up straight and take a long look. This is nothing short of the 21st century arriving. 

Quietly, as the Germans often do things, Berlin’s foreign ministry began a study last year to determine the core principles guiding its relations with the rest of the world. Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier announced the results in the Bundestag last week. The project shows Germany to be a standout among the Western powers for its agility, imagination, openness, and altogether its guts. 

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“The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it,” Steinmeier told the assembled parliamentarians. Quickly: Can you think of a nation whose foreign policy elite is entirely incapable of making a similar assertion? 

I can. To be clear, “Review 2014—Foreign Policy Thinking Ahead,” as Steinmeier named his project when he took office in December 2013, is an implicit challenge to the U.S. policy establishment. It is almost certainly intended to be so, although those courteous Germans would never say as much. 

Crisis—Rules—Europe, as the report published last week is titled, is interesting in all sorts of dimensions. It positions Germany, which is to say Chancellor Merkel, as Europe’s all-but-declared leader. Since the document expresses convictions, ideas, and intentions broadly shared across the Continent, one is tempted to start talking about Merkelism, but we’ll leave that to the Europeans themselves. 

It commits Berlin to a course of action that has long been evident as a preference but never quite stated. While Germany acknowledges that military force will at times be necessary—which is big enough in the context—Steinmeier has rethought how best to use every resource at Berlin’s disposal. “I believe that foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad,” the foreign minister, a Social Democrat in Merkel’s across-the-aisle coalition, told the Bundestag. 

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Before anyone else, Steinmeier has put another key issue squarely on the table. This is transparency. In all Western democracies, the foreign-policy elite has grown ever more sequestered in recent decades—a trend everyone can see but no one wants to talk about. 

Accordingly, Steinmeier and his ministry developed Crisis—Rules—Europe after extensive consultations with a wide range of constituents: scholars and policy wonks, yes, but also foreign experts, labor leaders, civil society groups and—via town hall meetings—ordinary citizens.

Impressive by any measure, I’d say. And in each of these features Steinmeier hands Americans a lot to think about. 

Steinmeier’s team identified three core challenges in the years ahead, and the document takes its title from them. There’s crisis prevention, crisis management, and post-crisis stabilization, there are the rules of the game, and there’s the European context in which Germany will fashion its policy. From these the ministry derived four principles for the making and execution of policy. 

The crisis question.
“Crisis is likely to become the norm in the next 10 to 15 years,” Steinmeier said in his parliamentary presenation. In response, the ministry will create an independent department to anticipate crises, address them when they erupt, and help advance beyond them afterward. 

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The key intent here is to gather all resources in one room. “We want to learn from the experience of our crisis response center, ” Steinmeier explained. Political solutions, he added, are to be paramount, and not merely in word only.   

The rules question.
Germany sees the future in stricter adherence to internationl law and regulation. There’s another restructuring here—the ministry’s disarmament and U.N. departments will merge—but this involves more than a rearrangement of the ministry’s furniture.   

One, as I read it Berlin is now on the record as alarmed over our steady drift toward global chaos—on its doorstep, dramatically enough—and intends to counter it by advocating tougher enforcement of the law as we already have it. This will bear consequences for allies and adversaries alike. 

Two, Steinmeier explains his new bureaucratic diagram: “We thus create a place where the principle for international order that is closest to our hearts—multilateralism—fully applies.” 

The Europe question.
Berlin’s looking beyond Germany from now on and will embed its policy in the European context, Steinmeier said. Translation: We speak for Europe and will act accordingly. Intent: “to give Europe more influence in world affairs.” 

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I read a declaration that Europe’s going to turn its preferences into policies and advance them with more determination than it has to date. The ready-to-hand example is the Ukraine crisis. It has been clear for some time that Europe doesn’t want more sanctions imposed on Russia—pro forma measures to oblige the U.S. notwithstanding—and it doesn’t want to arm Ukraine. On these and other such questions, Steinmeier may well have put the Obama administration on notice: It’s more-explicit resistance from here on out. 

The transparency question.
I find this especially innovative. There’s a long tradition, not least in the U.S., wherein foreign policy is the preserve of an elite not answerable to any electorate. Germany seems to have drawn the right conclusion: This is yesterday and is getting dangerous. 

Subjecting policy to the democratic process by way of steady dialogue is something new, surely. As the documents explain, Germany has concluded that the globalization process makes policy everyone’s business now. Observing this will alter policy in some cases and enhance the polity in all.

At yearend this column observed that Washington was drastically overplaying its hand with the Europeans, notably in its aggressive posture toward Ukraine and Russia, and that this could turn the Atlantic into a wedge. While the Germans would almost certainly have embarked on a rethink independently of this, I read the latest from Berlin as evidence this proves the case. 

“Germany has much to offer the world, Steinmeier wrote in an opinion piece a few days ago, and we will do so with confidence and humility.” It is just the right note. 

Isn’t it time for the United States to move forward and changing the way we do things in the face of perfectly evident change everywhere we look? 

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