Strategic Competence and Weltschmerz. German Foreign Policy until 2030

The task could not be bigger: German foreign policy must find solutions to a situation in which the traditional protective power turns away, the EU appears more fragile than ever before, and a weakened Europe is experiencing the effects of upheaval in the global order, Russia’s and China’s encroachments, and an unprecedented technological revolution. The future of Germany and the rest of Europe will depend on whether the country can master the change from following to creating regulations. This includes a strategic mentality change.

The political sense of doom that has emerged in 2018 inspired almost exclusively negative prognoses for the foreign policy scenarios of 2030. Those with copious amounts of gloom seem to be indispensable to foreign policy.Germany must recognise and humbly accept its importance, power, and relevance for Europe. It must assume its leadership role, but execute it with servitude, in the sense of progressive self-interest. The time between the summer of 2016, when voters opted for Brexit, and the summer of 2018, when Europe seems beyond reform and transatlantic relations unsalvageable, has strengthened analysts’ inclination to believe that things are worse than we think.Despite the fact that many prognoses still remain flawed by relying on linear extensions of current developments, it seems quite plausible that Europe’s, and therefore Germany’s, position will deteriorate until 2030. Any comprehensive, large-scale prediction that stretches across a multitude of policy fields and claims to depict a roughly accurate picture of the world in twelve years’ time would be dubious, but a view of foreseeable major trends is warranted. These trends indicate that for Germany and Europe the foreign policy environment will grow more unstable, insecure, and challenging.

German Politics Equals European Politics

Germany and Europe are mentioned in the same breath. Germany – as the biggest and most central part of the European political landscape – can neither avoid the larger regulatory issues of the continent which it is fatefully embedded into, nor plan and execute its foreign policy actions based on purely national considerations. Geography is destiny, and history has shown that German foreign policy is European policy, even when it believes itself to be national policy. This does not mean that German policy and those responsible for it should avoid doing their own Germany specific homework. European policy draws its power from the European ambitions of nation states. European institutions alone do not possess the power to advance the EU. Similarly, NATO can also not act against the will of its member states. German foreign policy must be considered on a European and global level, but it requires national justification and legitimation. Europe draws its energy from all European capitals, not only from Brussels. For this reason, national recommendations for action in a European context are not only helpful – they are indispensable.

The End of Borrowed Stability

By 2030, the age of borrowed stability in Europe will have ended. The United States, whose political presence, military protection, and global representation of interests made this stability possible, will most likely continue to reduce its role in Europe. The US will leave Europeans with a workload that they have not had to do themselves since Great Britain’s withdrawal from the world stage in 1947. The United States’ decreasing presence in Europe is part of a long-term trend that started in the early 1990s. Deeply rooted isolationist tendencies in the US, the country’s growing energy independence from the global markets for oil and gas, and a cultural-demographic change that is making the US less ‘European,’ make a return to the Old Continent unlikely. More importantly, the shift in foreign policy focus to Asia arises from a compelling American strategic imperative. Europe is becoming less important to the global power structure, and so, Washington is allocating fewer resources and political capital to this part of the world.

For Europe, the American withdrawal represents a double challenge. Firstly, it must now pay more attention to its own security, and possibly take full responsibility for it. America’s sheer presence contributed to the establishment of peace on the historically unstable European political stage. This means organising conventional and nuclear deterrence in Europe itself, which in turn must be accompanied by much stronger secret service competence and activity. The shift of acts of aggression into the realm of information technology, and hybrid warfare in the media and the realm of opinion-forming, result in challenges to European safety. This applies to fields in which European capacities, similar to its military prowess, do not rank among the global powers. The protective hand of the US not only needs to be replaced, Europe (so Germany first and foremost) must replace it with something that reaches far beyond what the US has provided previously. This replacement has to meet the demands resulting from Europe’s new and rapidly changing risk situation.

Secondly, Europe must also compensate for America’s stabilising role in European domestic policy. When the US decided to remain present in Europe for strategic reasons after World War II, this not only provided a protective function for Europe. America’s sheer presence in Europe and the historically unprecedented military-political dominance of a non-European power on the continent contributed to the establishment of peace on the historically unstable European political stage. The disciplining political function of the protective power made old conflicts obsolete; ancient rivalries among Europeans lost their significance. This allowed for the development of trust – the rarest of all European political resources – and with it unparalleled economic and political integration through the creation of the European Community and later the EU.

But what happens when this American infusion of trust is withdrawn from the European political market? The global financial crisis in 2008 uncovered the first signs of a European return to the old behavioural patterns of distrust and counter-block formation, divisions and re-nationalisation. In the medium and long term, China represents a considerably bigger challenge for Europe and Germany than Russia. With the advent of the refugee crisis, energy politics, and the topic of securing external EU borders, a return to the ‘normal’ Europe, characterised by rivalries and hostility instead of integration and mutual compromises, has become even more likely. It is becoming increasingly evident that the time of borrowed stability constituted an exceptional phase in history. By 2030, it will become clear whether Europe has shed enough of its old, disunited identity and whether European cooperation can prevail over the ancient conflict lines of an unpeaceful continent. It is certainly appropriate to be sceptical about the outcome of this process.

Foreign Policy Pressure on Europe – Russia, China, Turkey

This scepticism is further fed by two other trends that are taking place parallel to the departure of the protective power. Both exert massive pressure on the European political system.

This includes the external pressure that calls the political order of the Old World into question. For about a decade now, Russia has explicitly defined itself as an alternative concept to the liberal, open Western social order and seeks to weaken it both through military measures ( in Georgia, Crimea, Eastern Ukraine) and through propaganda, disinformation, and cyberattacks. Russia wants to divide the EU to expand its own geopolitical influence westwards. It primarily strives to achieve this through aggressive foreign energy policy, which it hopes to develop into an effective foreign policy weapon. Likewise, Moscow is keen to drive a wedge between the transatlantic partnership and further separate America from Europe. Here, America’s orientation towards Asia, mentioned above, plays right into Moscow’s hands, as does an American presidency that is susceptible to Russian advances and neither understands nor has any interest in the geopolitical game in Europe. By 2030, Moscow will be taking advantage of every opportunity that emerges to continue pursuing both goals.

China has also discovered Europe as a political field in which to pursue its strategic goals. According to a statement by General Secretary Xi Jinping, Beijing aspires to achieve the role of a global power by the middle of the twenty-first century. By 2030, this will be even more noticeable in Europe than it has been up to now. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative, officially announced by the Chinese leadership in 2013, views Europe as the westernmost part of the Eurasian land mass, whose nations must be tied down as obedient client states to China’s rising power. Regardless of President Erdogan’s political role in Turkey, the country must be considered an emerging power inside the European system. China is systematically trying to expand its influence on European governments and EU foreign policy, above all through strategic investments in infrastructure projects. On several occasions, the country has asserted its influence on EU decision-making processes that relate to topics of interest to China. China’s deep pockets, its mostly unbiased role in Central and Eastern Europe (in contrast to Russia), the tremendous growth promises of the Chinese market, and Beijing’s discreet and diplomatically subtle approach have already turned China into an important actor in Europe. This role will strengthen considerably by 2030, more so as the sluggishly growing European market happily accepts China’s investments and is reluctant to risk its own access to the Chinese market.

In the medium and long term, China represents a considerably bigger challenge for Europe and Germany than Russia. Russia can undermine and perhaps even destroy the existing European order within the Pax Americana. But in contrast to China, it cannot implement its own sustainable order. It lacks the economic potential and the political and cultural attraction to do so. This power imbalance between the two main external competitors for dominance in Europe has already led to the prediction that Russia will sooner or later need to gravitate towards the West in order to form a common opposite pole to China’s position of power in Eurasia. The country will need to avoid becoming a tributary marginal Eurasian power in a Chinese empire. Regardless of whether China itself remains stable domestically and continues to grow economically, the reorganisation of the balance of power throughout the Eurasian realm, which the emerging powers of India and Turkey are part of, will become recognisable by 2030.

Turkey as an Emerging Power

Turkey has been identified as another factor of foreign policy pressure on European order. Here too, we should adopt a long-term view on development that goes beyond everyday politics. Regardless of President Erdogan’s political role in Turkey, the country must be considered an emerging power inside the European system. The population has drawn level with the EU’s largest member state, Germany, but is growing at a much faster pace. It is young, comparably well-educated, ambitious, and considerably motivated by the idea of national greatness. Turkey is a member of NATO with the largest army in Europe. The country is also an important transit country for gas and oil and controls Russia’s maritime access to the Mediterranean. The refugee situation of the year 2015 can be viewed as a prelude in miniature, considering the sizeable migration streams expected in the future. It borders on the Caucasus as well as Iran, Iraq, Syria, the Balkan region, and EU territory, with substantial cultural and confessional influence in the Muslim world and, through the Turkish diaspora, in all of Europe, particularly in Germany.

Turkey’s predicted rise to a medium-sized regional power will not fail to affect the power balance in Europe. Turkish development until 2030 revolves around one decisive question: will Turkey connect its own future to the West, or will it prefer to go solo or align with non-Western partners? Despite his firmly anti-Western domestic policy course, President Erdogan has pursued Turkey’s integration into Western markets, namely the EU. So far, Ankara has depended on the economic force of the European Single Market for its prosperity. Europe’s ability to remain economically attractive and a major power will exert a crucial influence on Turkey’s strategic orientation in Europe’s new order.

Additional Pressure from the North, East, and South

These major trends are accompanied by a number of other foreseeable developments that will affect Europe’s political order and its geopolitical orientation. These include the Balkan region, which continues to be unstable. This region, in which some of the powers mentioned above are wrangling for influence, and where from today’s perspective the prospects of widespread admission to the EU are low, is unable to establish stability. This also includes the Middle Eastern areas of conflict, where there is no prospect of stabilisation or even pacification.

The region in the far north of Europe must also be mentioned. It harbours the potential of becoming a conflict region at the edge of Europe with direct involvement of European states, driven by climate change and the competing territorial, navigational, and energy interests of various regional powers.

Last but not least, the developments in Northern Africa and some Sub-Saharan countries are crucial. These countries are and will be of the highest strategic significance for Europe’s political order. They serve as retreats for terrorist organisations and are the countries of origin of a large proportion of migrants and refugees moving towards Europe. The United Nations expect population growth from 2.5 to 4.4 billion on the African continent by the year 2050. At the same time, even in the most positive scenario, Africa will fall way short of realising sufficient economic growth to guarantee these people an economic future in their native countries. Conflicts revolving around markets, resources, and migrants are inevitable. The refugee situation of the year 2015 can be viewed as a miniature prelude, considering the sizeable migration streams ­expected in the future.

The concentrated force of a departing protective power, in conjunction with challenges to the existing order launched by emerging powers and destabilising regional developments, encounter an already weakened political anchoring system: the European Union. The EU crisis is based on three core problems: first, the euro countries’ unwillingness to give their shared currency a political foundation on which to function. Second, the growing impossibility of finding a sustainable as well as effective compromise for bigger problems. This applies to sharing the burden of migration, the protection of external borders (including concerns with the right of asylum), as well as to the EU’s future financial basis and matters of compliance with basic constitutional standards. Third, the crisis is founded on the EU member states’ continuing inability to turn the EU into a strategically relevant, globally active actor in foreign and security policy.

Europe – the Already Weakened Anchoring System

To make matters worse, the EU is currently experiencing a development dilemma: even if the member states are willing to take greater integrative steps to solve urgent problems, in-depth integration can hardly be justified without establishing new forms of political legitimation. When the EU’s level of integration was still relatively low, the indirect legitimation through the main legislator, the European Council, sufficed. In the meantime, integration has progressed considerably. Solving most of Europe’s major problems requires more integration. Interferences in national sovereignty have become more drastic, but not much has changed in terms of the indirect legitimation. The European Parliament was able to strongly expand its competences. However, it never succeeded in filling the legitimation gap of the deeper union, and its legitimacy is not recognised by a large part of (non-)voters. This is because the European Parliament is not supported by a standardised election, nor seriously accountable to voters, or even constrained by having to keep a government in office.

In other words: solving most of Europe’s major problems requires more integration. Integration to this extent would necessitate a new qualitative ruling foundation for the European Union. Such a new foundation, which would presumably entail pan-European elections without national lists, would take the EU one clear step closer towards statehood. However, politically, this is neither achievable nor even conceivable in the short or long term. Therefore, the issue remains: member states need to muddle through inter-governmentally, always in the hopes that the newest compromise will encounter sufficient support within the population instead of further eroding approval of the EU.

By 2030, this dilemma will have intensified dramatically. This could lead to the EU becoming paralysed in intergovernmental problem solving. Such a paralysis is also more likely to drive up the price of pro-European action through the exacerbated domestic policy situation in which nationalist parties, strengthened by fears of globalisation, identity crises, hatred of the elites and established parties, as well as concerns about economic regression.

Overcoming the north-south divide in the EU on the topic of the euro and the east-west divide on the topic of migration and the constitutional state seems hopeless at the moment. This will make finding compromises by 2030 considerably more difficult, which, in turn, will further strain the EU’s reputation, gradually reducing the actual worth of integration, that is, its tangible added value for member states.

Another factor that will come into play in addition to the major restructuring of global politics is the fundamental upheaval of the global economy. The Third Industrial Revolution, triggered by the victory march of information technology and the Internet, and elevated into new dimensions through the interplay of big data, artificial intelligence, quantum computers, and blockchain technology, might present the most important challenge to the order in which Germany and Europe fared so well in the past seventy years.

“Those who master the Industrial Revolution will rule the world”, Rob de Wijk, founder of the Hague Centre for Security Studies (HCSS) once said. The First Industrial Revolution brought mechanisation. Great Britain was its pioneer and founded its global empire on its utilisation of it. The Second Industrial Revolution introduced industrial mass production and the associated new organisational and management techniques. America’s rise and triumph as a world power is closely connected to this era. The Third Industrial Revolution is that of digitalisation, in which the United States and China are battling for the leading position. US companies are currently dominating the markets, but the innovative power of the huge Chinese market is growing quickly, and the Chinese leadership, in close cooperation with the state-affiliated industry, can test the feasibility of new technologies as quickly as possible and apply them without regard for individual civil liberties or the restrictions of a constitutional state. If the mere industrialisation of China and Asia has led to the currently observable global shift in power since the late 1970s, how massive will the changes be if China wins the technological race with the US?

Everything Will Change – the IT Revolution and its Consequences

How strong traditional forms of power have already changed, and how much technological know-how and its (unscrupulous) use are now juxtaposed with classical power factors such as economic strength, military strength, population size and geopolitical situation, can be seen in Moscow’s re-entry into the great geopolitical game but also the massively increased relevance of private companies in the global distribution and exercise of power.

US companies are currently dominating the markets, but the innovative power of the huge Chinese market is growing quickly.

Although Europe might not be considered as lagging behind completely, it is too undynamic, too sceptical of technology, and too resistant to change to succeed in ascending to the global premier league. Should Europe fail to keep up, this would not only have consequences for its economic strength, but also for its position of power in the future global order. By 2030, it will have become clear whether Europe will merely receive orders, or help shape global conditions. Based on current perspectives, the future does not look bright.

Consequences for German Foreign Policy

The regulatory transition currently in progress is shaking up the fundamental assumptions of German foreign policy: The United States is no longer Europe’s protective power and arbiter in the same way as before. Passivity in foreign policy and a lack of self-exposure no longer constitute German virtues. European integration is not irreversible, but rather requires constant and massive financial and political investments. Europe has not arrived at the stage of eternal peace yet. Globalisation has not (yet) inspired Russia and China to convert to the Western political model. The euro is not a non-­political project that can be kept on course through a mere stability pact. The nation state is not dead and buried; it is alive and kicking. Becoming rich as the export world champion, but contributing little to maintaining the global order, is no longer an option. Maintaining an operational army is not such a terrible idea after all.

By 2030, Germany will need to bear a foreign policy load unprecedented in the history of the Federal Republic. A new global order is emerging, and Germany will play a crucial role in determining whether the European part of this order follows the principles of a free, democratic, and open society, aligns itself with its own, homemade European illiberalism, or turns towards the authoritarian regulatory concepts of Russia and China.

To become rich as the export world champion, but contribute little to maintaining the global order, is no longer an option for Germany.

The ambition must be to maintain a stable, peaceful, prospering, and free Europe, even without the protective power of America if necessary. Historically, Europe has been rather inadequate in stabilising and pacifying inherently unstable political structures. In the past seventy years, it could rely on America’s assistance. Now, it must master a task it has never mastered before, all of this in the face of resistant forces.

In its coalition agreement, the parties of the current Federal Government have hinted that they suspect what Germany may lack as a bearer of this immense task. There they formulate the goal of strengthening the country’s strategic competence. The only concrete measure they come up with is to increase the funding of those institutions that are at least partly responsible for the hitherto lack of strategic competence – but at least the defect is acknowledged.

It All Revolves around Strategic Competence

Strategic competence is a result of enabling citizens and decision-makers to think in the categories of order, interests, power, law, and responsibility on a large scale and in the long term. It emerges if the formulation of wishes and goals is preceded by a sober and realistic assessment of the situation, as well as of available funds and instruments. Furthermore, it only develops if this realistic assessment is then communicated to citizens and voters to be debated. It arises when decision-makers are willing to take representative democracy seriously and lead it where it is needed – even if this is unpopular – and are ready to conclusively explain the necessity of their actions to the sovereign.

Willy Brandt’s politics towards the East, Helmut Schmidt’s insistence on re-armament, Helmut Kohl’s determination to unify Germany and unite Europe, and Angela Merkel’s clear positioning on Russia’s unlawful annexation of Crimea present a series of examples of strategic German actions that withstand domestic political resistance.

For paltry reasons and out of hubris, the one-time strategic opportunity of TTIP was wasted.

But all too often the country shows that it is not up to the new duty it must perform in Europe. The one-time strategic opportunity of TTIP was wasted for paltry reasons and out of hubris. We do not recognise the necessity of defence expenditure amounting to two per cent of the gross domestic product, even though it represents the cheap option, not the expensive one. With the euro currency, Germany fails to realise the scope of the task at hand as well as its responsibility to pay because it also benefits the most. For a long time, the plight of EU member countries who could no longer shoulder the burden of receiving refugees on their own was ignored on a legalistic rationale – until it was too late, and Germany became a supplicant itself. The strategic necessity of integrating Turkey into the EU was not recognised due to a lack of foresight, a resentment against the Turks, and a solely inwardly looking perspective on the integration project. After the end of the Cold War, the German army was reformed over the course of twenty-five years, with the final result that it is no longer operational. A pipeline project that is strategically harmful, opposes European interests, and damages trust in Germany’s reliability is supported with the argument that it is merely an economic project without foreign-policy dimensions.

The Mentality of Benevolent Leadership

How can a community that has missed the most important strategic penalty shots of the recent past achieve strategic competence? It is difficult to bring about a mentality change that unlocks strategic horizons that were previously inaccessible. But if Germany wants to take the right steps – for its own sake as well as for the sake of Europe – in this current phase of upheaval and with an emerging new order, a mentality change is imperative.

The country must recognise and humbly accept its importance, power, and relevance for Europe. It must assume its leadership role, but execute it with servitude, in the sense of progressive self-interest that prioritises the interests of partners and neighbours at the same level as its own. It must be communicated that maintaining order will require maximum effort and tremendous costs. These will be well an investment because the alternative – a loss of order, and thereby of freedom and peace – would be much more expensive.

It must be made clear that Germany’s history must remain an effective warning that is not in opposition to an active leadership role in designing the liberal European order. The country should understand that defensibility is not the enemy of freedom, but its prerequisite. And that the law is not valid because of its good intentions, but because it can be enforced. And that geopolitics does not have to be rejected from the outset for moral reasons. It is rather of central importance as a category of analysis for the understanding of international politics.

The Scope of the Task

Politicians must explain all of this to the population, again and again, even if it costs them their mandate. And the executive leaders of the Federal Republic must do the same when shaping the political agenda itself. The euro must be supported by a political union. Germany must recognise and humbly accept its importance, power, and relevance for Europe. In Europe, just as in Germany’s federal system, this means establishing a transfer union and a joint budget. This will cost a lot of money. And if it does not prove popular, the leaders must risk their political lives for it. The same applies to the German army’s financial and personnel resources. The defence expenditures of two per cent should not accommodate Trump, but take stance against him, as they are intended to strengthen the multilateral, rule-based order that he wants to abolish. The same applies to unlocking a trade policy which currently puts emerging countries at a unilateral disadvantage as to offer these countries development opportunities and fair market conditions.

To understand the scope of the task facing Germany and Europe, strategy must be taught at German universities, and strategic training must be compulsory for all officials with a B6 salary grade and above, as has been the standard in other European countries for years. Based on the constitutional department principle (“Ressortprinzip”), a Federal Security Council should bundle different strands of ministerial action into central topics, weigh them up against each other, assess the consequences, and offer the Chancellor in-depth strategic advice. As has been common for economic matters for decades, an advisory council could process the expertise pooled from science, think tanks, and policy consultation on an annual basis and make it available to government.

Little time remains to complete all of this, as the transition is actively underway, and for the most important matters the course will have been set by 2030. Europe is starting the round of poker played for the upcoming world order with rather mediocre cards. Germany is one of the better cards in Europe’s deck – and if it can understand its value as a trump card, which, if it’s played with determination and sound judgement, can win vital points for Europe. The time is now. There is no bigger task facing our generation.

Germany’s foreign policy strategy

How We Must Act

Germany’s top priority in foreign policy must be to strengthen the multilateral, rule-based order in Europe. The focus lies on three main tasks:

  • Securing the euro by means of a political union (if necessary with fewer eurozone members), including a joint fiscal policy, a joint budget, and a transfer union.
  • Increasing defence expenditure to two per cent of GDP, coupled with an annual strategy report compiled by the Federal Government for the Federal Parliament.
  • Creating a joint European asylum policy, including a mutualised approval procedure, in conjunction with a clear expansion of external border control.

In Germany, we must consistently pave the way to achieve strategic competence by:

  • Setting up Federal Government endowed professorships for strategic level education at ten universities at least.
  • Establishing a Federal Security Council in addition to the department principle (“Ressortprinzip”), for pooling departmental competences and to strategically advise the Cabinet and the Chancellor.
  • Anchoring a training course of at least six months with a focus on strategic policy as a career prerequisite for all Federal officials (including Federal Armed Forces officers) from a B6 salary grade.
  • Setting up a reporting advisory council to the Federal Government for foreign and security policy (analogous to the advisory council for evaluating the overall economic development).

Jan Techau (46) is Director of the European Programme and Senior Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Berlin. In 2017, he published the book “Führungsmacht Deutschland – Strategie ohne Angst und Anmaßung” (“Germany as a Leading Power – Strategy without Fear and Presumption”) together with Leon Mangasarian. The publication suggests that German foreign policy should be orientated on the principle of serving leadership. Up until 2016, he was the Director of Carnegie Europe in Brussels, where he founded “Strategic Europe”. From 2010 to 2011, he conducted research at the NATO Defence College in Rome, following his prior research at the German Council on Foreign Relations. From 2001 to 2006, he worked at the Federal Ministry of Defence.