Ready to Lead? Three Early Signs Germany’s Next Government Is Serious

02 June 2021   ·   Ekkehard Brose

Germany is one of the largest contributors to international crisis management, yet its actions are often slow and overcautious. How seriously will the next government commit to a leadership role? The administration, politicians, and civil society would have to learn some hard lessons. Three signs will provide early indication of the intent and ability to deliver.

German policy in international crisis management is in many ways exemplary. Germany has acquired an international reputation as an honest and reliable broker. As one of the major donor countries it is committed to humanitarian aid and leads the field in stabilisation policy. Whether in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ukraine, Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Mali, Yemen or Libya, German diplomats, aid workers, police officers and military personnel are deployed in almost every crisis around the world. They are warmly welcomed there.

Nevertheless, this significant commitment and some successes have not evolved into a high-profile role for Germany in international crisis diplomacy. At home, there is little political support for this kind of leadership. Instead, German action during crises is hampered by caution and tethered to the lowest common denominator in domestic politics. Why stir up trouble in the party, between coalition partners, or with the domestic audience? For a new chancellor with political aspirations and the courage to act on his or her convictions, the field of crisis diplomacy is ripe for change. When, if not now?  

It could certainly be done. Suggestions for structural reforms in foreign policy, for better coordination, and more strategic coherence are coming thick and fast during the final months of the current administration. However, these proposals often ignore an important principle: form follows function. In fact, before adapting structures, there must be consideration of what is to be achieved politically beyond purely administrative efficiency gains.  

How to Move From Reactive to Proactive  

The next Federal Government faces an important choice. If it were content to continue Berlin’s current, more reactive form of crisis management, then there would be no compelling political reasons for far-reaching structural reforms after the September 2021 federal election. The process of reaching decisions in line with existing government guidelines for crisis management would likely remain the same. The heads of the concerned ministries would continue to pursue their own agendas in the struggle for political attention. Civil servants who work in crisis management at home and abroad stand out for their enormous levels of commitment, but their everyday work is tinged with the jealous rivalry between ministries in Berlin.  

The Price of Leadership: Less Domestic Politics in German Foreign Policy  

Imagine instead a Federal Government determined to strive for a leadership role in international crisis diplomacy. A country like Germany, which has a proven track record in crisis management in the field, makes major contributions to the UN and EU, and at the same time understands how to put specific self-interests aside, could find many opportunities for shaping and coordinating policy. As a partner in leadership, however, the Federal Government would take up a challenging role that would leave far less room for reference to the tactical considerations of domestic politics.

The responsibility of international leadership imposes strong constraints. Germany, too, would be subjected to these rigours in its planning and actions. A leader must set out convincing objectives, must speak with a clear voice and set a good example; most of all, a leader must bear burdens and be able to contribute the necessary capabilities, whether military or civilian. Leadership means being ready to accept shared risks and the ability to take decisions, sometimes in the face of considerable uncertainty.  

That would be a novel experience for Germany. Afghanistan illustrates this point. In 2011, when the Federal Government anticipated difficulties with securing the Bundestag mandate for more personnel, German soldiers were unceremoniously withdrawn from NATO’s AWACS reconnaissance unit. Germany was prepared to jeopardise the medium-term sustainability of the entire Afghanistan mission. A responsible leader cannot afford such behaviour. The role of a reliable partner would also require parliament and society in general to give greater support to the deployment of military capabilities in the service of value-based crisis diplomacy. As a leading power, Germany would not be able to ignore this point. 

Serious Aspirations First, Then Structural Reforms  

If “international leadership capability” in foreign affairs and security policy is to become a serious aspiration for Germany, then the internal procedures and structures necessary for this leadership role must and will take shape. A range of proposals exists. Sarah Brockmeier gives a good summary of the current state of the debate on the PeaceLab blog. Whether this means a fully-fledged National Security Council, joint administration of crisis management funds or other ad hoc arrangements is, however, an issue subordinate to the ultimate goal: competence as a partner in leadership.  

How will the domestic audience know and how can Germany’s partners judge whether a new administration seriously aspires to lead? There will be three early indications. Firstly, is the chancellor able to oblige all the heads of the relevant ministries to act together as a single crisis management team? Secondly, is the whole-of-government approach given fiscal teeth, in making the expenditure of (some portion) of crisis funds dependent on the consensus of the ministries involved? Thirdly, do the government and the government majority in the Bundestag have the courage to decide politically on a case-by-case basis when it comes to the deployment of the Bundeswehr in the context of international crisis diplomacy? Are they willing to argue their case in the Federal Constitutional Court? Regarding the deployment of German armed forces abroad, it is important to recognise that the interpretation of the Basic Law by the Federal Constitutional Court is dynamic and continues to evolve.  

If Europe Is To Learn The Language of Power, Germany Must Lead The Way 

There is no inherent contradiction between the exercise of leadership and membership in a multilateral framework. Article 44 of the EU Treaty affords the option that – where there is unanimous agreement – smaller groups of member states may be mandated with civil or military tasks, such as in the fight against terrorism. This provision makes good sense, in terms of both European and security policy. Germany should use it, for example, to launch its own proposal on Mali. If Europe is to learn the language of power and to aspire to a role in world politics, Germany must lead the way.

Politikkohärenz Conflict Prevention Germany

Ekkehard Brose

Ekkehard Brose is President of the Federal Academy of Security Policy. He was German Ambassador to Iraq from 2014 to 2016. The views expressed here are his own. @BAKS_President