Why Berlin needs a positive narrative for Germany’s role in the world

21 January 2020   ·   Joseph Verbovszky

Germany should take on more responsibility internationally. To effectively communicate why that is the case, German policymakers do not only need a communication strategy: They need to develop a positive narrative for Germany’s role in the world.

In a period of dramatic change in international relations, such as the one we have now entered, it has become a central requirement for governments to define a positive, pragmatic narrative of why a certain political course of action is necessary. The German government has asked for specific inputs on the PeaceLab blog on how it can improve its communication on its engagement in conflict prevention, stabilization and peacebuilding. It is vital for this debate to include a discussion of the political narratives which drive German foreign and security policy. Political science and history provide numerous insights on why the analysis of such narratives is necessary, which narratives are currently informing German foreign and security policy and what could be the basis for a more positive and constructive narrative.

Why narratives are necessary for foreign and security policy

Political narratives define the objective of a communication strategy. They are, to quote Frank Capra, “Why we fight”. But they are not only necessary for military engagement: They provide the justification to act across the entire foreign and security policy spectrum, from humanitarian aid and diplomacy to military intervention. Political narratives serve two vital functions: they set the boundaries of the foreign and security policy debate and they provide policymakers with the tools to compete for interpretive dominance (Deutungshoheit).

Political narratives create the self-identity of a community – providing value orientation and self confidence that a chosen action is the right one (as Herfried Münkler points out in Die Deutschen und Ihre Mythen, 26). They set the boundaries of foreign and security discourse, determining not which policy will be chosen but why certain policies were even considered as options in the first place. Policymakers use these narratives as tools to justify their policies and successfully implement them against opposition.

Narratives can play either a “positive” or “negative” role in a society’s response to external change. Positive narratives embrace change and promote transformation in society. Negative narratives seek to halt or reverse unwanted changes and maintain the status quo (see Münkler, 26). Positive narratives are better suited for sudden events or uncertainty because they offer a proactive response to that change.

German foreign and security policy is characterized by negative narratives

Germany’s current set of narratives on its role in the world is primarily negative. These narratives focus entirely on the maintenance of peace and stability. They are based on a deep-seated fear, resulting from the trauma of WWII; the fear of the collapse of democracy and the “fear of Germany itself”. While these narratives have succeeded in creating a society surprisingly resilient to external stimuli, they fail to prescribe a positive role for Germany at a time when the world demands one.

Germany’s foreign and security policy discourse is fragmented by a set of political narratives that have a long history of symbolic significance in the German Federal Republic. They appear repeatedly in speeches by prominent politicians and statesmen, inform policy documents, and are enshrined in Germany’s constitution. The influence of these political narratives on German security policy is the subject my ongoing dissertation. The three main narratives are characterized by the imperative “Never Again!”

Never again: War! As anchored in Germany’s Basic Law, no war shall ever come forth from Germany again. Official German statements claiming “there is no military solution” reflect this narrative. In some cases, policymakers have elevated the narrative to a national brand of foreign policy, which they use to avoid entanglement in military interventions, as well as moralize allies involved in conflicts. Most famously, Gerhard Schröder employed this narrative in declining to participate in the US invasion of Iraq, thereby also winning a federal election. Experts, such as Hanns Maull, in his Zivilmacht thesis have supported the idea of non-militarism as national brand. However, this narrative alone fails to explain Germany’s often contradictory foreign policy and participation in allied-led interventions such as in Kosovo and Afghanistan. It furthermore restricts Germany’s ability to act when a purely diplomatic solution will not be accepted by the conflict parties or where other powers use their militaries for diplomatic leverage.  

Never again: Auschwitz! Made famous by former Foreign minister Joschka Fischer in the late nineties, this narrative has deep roots in Germany’s remembrance culture and in symbolic acts such as Willy Brandt’s kneeling before the memorial to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. It is also implied by the first article of the Basic Law. Fischer successfully but controversially used this narrative to persuade the Green Party to support the German participation in the intervention in Kosovo to stop a potential genocide. The narrative does not prescribe Germany with a leading role but at least participation where others take the lead.

Never again: Alone! Anchored in the German Basic Law, Germany can only engage in international security through organizations of collective defense. This narrative affects German decision-making in international politics. Germany’s unilateral aggression in WWII led to a thorough reflection in the years following the 1968 student protest. The confrontation with German crimes led some students to focus on the fear of a primordial authoritarian German personality, destined to inflict disaster whenever acting alone. This is what University of California, San Diego, Professor Frank Biess termed “the Hitler in me” in his book Republik der Angst (423). Other students sought to reconcile Germany with and become part of the community of victims of Nazi crimes. This narrative of never again alone implies, a desire never again to be a perpetrator, as former Military Advisor to Chancellor Merkel and Secretary of Germany’s National Security Council Brigade General a.D. Dr. Erich Vad put it to me in an interview in December 2019. This makes Germany very hesitant not only to engage in unilateral international policy but even to lead when acting collectively, particularly where the military may be involved.

A European identity is not a substitute for a narrative

In addition to these three “never again” narratives, there is the European identity one: Former Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s connection of German reunification and European integration made a deeper integration of Europe, and a subsequent transnational European identity, possible. This involves a transfer of sovereign decision-making to a supranational European leadership. While offering a potential way out of the dilemma of German identity, this narrative fails to prescribe a specific role for Germany in Europe. It simply offers a European identity as a substitute to a national one.

This fragmented environment of negative narratives prescribes Germany a passive role in international politics. It impedes both effective crisis communication, and the evolution of German society in line with visions of European and North American partners.  As long as it is unable to produce a positive narrative, Germany’s foreign and security policy will be held back by these negative narratives of guilt and isolation. 

A positive narrative: “Wir schaffen das, weil wir können”

To lay the foundation of a communication strategy which allows Germany a proactive foreign and security policy, German policymakers will need to find a positive narrative for why such an engagement is necessary. This narrative does not need to already exist. It can be constructed through political debate.  However, it must create an emotional bond through identification, within German society. It should embrace change. When Germany is confronted with a crisis, the narrative should provide a lens that sees the crisis as an opportunity to make the world better. Lastly, it should address Germany’s role in Europe. Instead of replacing German identity with a European one, it should give Germany a place within the European context. Preferably a place commensurate with Germany’s weight in collective decision-making, thus a position of collective leadership.

A good starting point would be Germany’s strength, resilience and ability to take on responsibility. This must be cast in a positive light, in a way that embraces change. The closest example is Merkel’s famous “Wir schaffen das” (“We will get it done”) in the face of the refugee crisis. This phrase had the potential to be a powerful positive narrative. However, without a communication strategy, the narrative gradually succumbed to a negative spin: Wir schaffen das weil wir müssen (“We we will get it done, because we must”) instead of Wir schaffen das weil wir können (“We will get it done, because we can”).

The narrative and communication strategy support each other

When policymakers design a communication strategy for a positive narrative, they must repeat the narrative and incorporate policies which transform the narrative into reality. Each repetition of the narrative should consider the new reality, as it has been transformed by narrative-affirming policies. This can create a positive feedback loop to support the narrative.

Since Germany’s narrative environment is fragmented, it is important that German policymakers invest in a narrative-affirming communication strategy. Otherwise, fragmentation will prevail, and the positive narrative will lose the interpretational dominance to negative narratives which seek to maintain the status quo.

Nevertheless, it is worth investing in a positive narrative because the potential benefits are considerable. A positive narrative would allow Germany to proactively respond to change in the international system. It would allow Germany to transform many of the collective organizations, such the UN, NATO, the EU, which are often seen as constraints on German power, into instruments for constructive foreign and security policy. All of this is contingent upon Germany viewing its own contributions as positive. That way, when the next crisis arrives, Germany will not just communicate but also act.

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Joseph Verbovszky

Joseph Verbovszky holds a Masters of International Relations and Economics from Johns Hopkins SAIS and is currently a PhD Student at the University of the Bundeswehr – Munich. The analysis here is taken partially of his ongoing Dissertation, tentatively titled “Structural Pacifism: The Impact of Cultural Trauma on German Security Policy.” Twitter: @JVerbovszky