Trusted in the East, Germany Should Lead More in the South

21 July 2016   ·   Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Instead of hunkering down behind fences, Europe needs to engage with the huge challenges and opportunities of Africa. Germany is uniquely positioned to reconcile such a focus with a continuing commitment to the Eastern neighborhood, and thus mobilize the whole of Europe for conflict prevention.

The world appears to be caught in a downward negative spiral: the longer a conflict lasts, the greater the risk that it will expand, and the more difficult the solution: protracted conflicts are often hijacked by the transnational agendas of terrorist organizations which are unlikely to be accommodated in a political settlement. And as conflicts become intractable, they generate flows of refugees which mobilize international attention at the expense of longer-term action: more conflicts happen, generating more refugees, and crisis management crowds out conflict prevention at the very moment when it is most necessary.

As the violence of distant conflicts disrupts the domestic balance of peaceful countries through the pressure of migrants and terrorism, and as the two become dangerously linked in the public psyche, international politics are increasingly – and dangerously- shaped by domestic agendas. In Europe as in the United States, the need to provide immediate reassurance to domestic public opinion has led to an increasingly militarized response to acts of terrorism, as if crushing violent organizations with bombs was going to provide a long-term solution.

A German call will help mobilize the whole of Europe

Under such circumstances of intense domestic pressure, finding the right balance between hard and soft power, between engagement and overbearing intervention is not easy. After a decade and a half during which the liberal interventionism of the UN and the muscular foreign policy of the US have produced mixed results, the temptation to lash out at terrorist groups with bombings, while hunkering down behind borders is high. Stabilizing a world in turmoil is now seen by some as over-ambitious. In Europe, effectively controlling the external borders of the European Union and working with buffer states such as Turkey or Sudan to prevent migrants from reaching the European Union seems like a more realistic response.

And yet, Europe ought to do better, and Germany can help shape a more balanced response. Unlike France or the United Kingdom, it has less colonial baggage, and a German call for international engagement will help mobilize the whole of Europe: it can usefully complement the engagement of former colonial powers, including in the military domain, where it would be preferable that France not be compelled to systematically take the lead.

At a time when the British referendum could make both the United Kingdom and the European Union more insular, Germany has a critical role to play in keeping the European Union outward looking not just as a commercial power but as an exporter of stability in an unstable world. Europe cannot be an island of tranquility in an ocean of turmoil. Turmoil and chaos are the breeding ground of terrorism, which needs the societal destruction of war to prosper: it is only when desperate people long for a minimal order that terrorist organizations such as the Islamic state, by providing some rough sense of order, can reach the critical mass that turns them into global threats. In Iraq, in Syria, in Libya, years of conflict and violence were the necessary prelude to the development of the Islamic State. Harsh repression of dissent and non-inclusive political systems laid the ground for its expansion.

Germany’s record can bolster legitimacy

The effectiveness of international engagement declines as conflicts deepen and positions become more entrenched. As a recent Crisis Group report argues, the time to act is when a crisis is in its early stages; and Germany is in a good position to shape an effective prevention policy.

Germany can contribute to the legitimacy of international engagement by unequivocally supporting multilateral frameworks: it is difficult enough to influence from the outside the internal dynamics of a brewing conflict, but the difficulty increases when foreign engagement is perceived as the projection of national power. Because it has an unblemished record of support to multilateralism, it can contribute to the legitimacy of international engagement, and legitimacy is not just a formal requirement for preventive diplomacy, it is actually a condition of its success, because full acceptance by the parties is of the essence.

Berlin can build bridges with organizations that others don’t talk to

As a country whose diplomacy has systematically worked to avoid confrontation, Germany can talk to and be heard by a broad range of conflict actors. This broad political engagement is an essential foundation of any stabilization policy. Without a broad political base, peace-building efforts are likely to turn into a technocratic enterprise that will falter. But in an increasingly polarized world, there is a growing list of organizations that are not considered as possible interlocutors, and the European Union, partly because of American pressure, has succumbed to that trend. Germany should weigh in and re-affirm the virtues of diplomacy, arguing that talking is not legitimizing. Inclusivity is important among conflict parties, it matters also at the international level, and while Germany is firmly in the western camp, the fact that it has not embraced all the western adventures puts it in a good position to act as a bridge-builder in situations where the international community is deeply divided.

Providing expertise in critical areas of governance

Germany, as a major civilian power, can provide expertise in critical areas of governance. Its own federal political system, like any constitution, is rooted in a particular history, and each country is unique. But it can serve as a shining example and an encouragement in countries looking for a way to provide reassurance to communities divided by suspicion and eager to limit the power of the state if they cannot capture it for their own benefit.

Europe’s biggest challenge, and its biggest opportunity, is Africa

As a power located at the center of Europe, Germany can help reconcile the competing geographic priorities of Europe. No country has done more than Germany to reach out to the former soviet bloc and to enlarge the European Union. If it now confirms the importance it attaches to Africa and to the Middle East, it will send a powerful signal to the rest of Europe: a greater focus on Africa need not be perceived as a betrayal of central and Eastern Europe, which will remain a vital priority for all Europeans. Adding Africa, and particularly North Africa and the Sahel as a European priority is only recognition of demographic realities: today 135 million people populate the ten countries of the Sahel band that extends from Senegal to Eritrea; they will be 330 million in 2050 and possibly 670 million at the end of this century. Conflict is already brewing in many of them, and without proactive policies, it can only deepen, fueled by demographic explosion, chaos in Libya, and widespread availability of weapons. Massive movements of population would then follow, compared to which the present displacement from Syria would be seen as a small prelude. Germany can play a decisive role in focusing the European Union on a vital challenge that can be turned into an opportunity: of all continents, Africa is the one where the gap between the best case scenario and the worst case scenario is the widest.

Africa, if it avoids the disruption of conflict, can become the growth story of the 21st century, with enormous benefits for Europe considering the geographic proximity, in the same way as Asia has been the success story of the last three decades. Europe has a huge interest in increasing the odds that the positive scenario prevails, and intelligent peace-building and prevention policies can make a significant difference.

Naher Osten & Nordafrika Europäische Union Osteuropa English Partner

Jean-Marie Guéhenno

Jean-Marie Guéhenno is the president and CEO of International Crisis Group and former Under-Secretary-General of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations.