Germany is a member of the thirteen biggest international multilateral organisations and a partner to over forty important international agreements. Germany is the biggest contributor to the EU, the fourth-largest contributor to the United Nations, the third-largest donor in development cooperation. And around the world, Germany is represented by approximately 25,000 government employees in embassies, foundations, and cultural institutions, is involved in 16 ongoing international military missions, and is participating in development projects in 138 countries with more than 17,000 employees.
Few countries can boast such a significant network. Additionally, no other country has a reputation as strong as Germany’s. Our country ranks among the most attractive nations in the world. Shortly after the 2006 Football World Cup, Germany’s standing even rose to first place in the ranking of the most popular countries of the world. This leadership position was not owed to achievements in football, but instead to the global public perception of the unique combination of capability, openness, and friendliness. Together, all three dimensions turned our country into a globally respected and appreciated partner. Since then, quite a bit has changed. Within Europe, Germany’s reputation has suffered, initially due to the hard line in financial policy during the Greece crisis, later through the upheavals in dealing with refugee movements. In both cases, Germany contributed to solving the crises with significant financial resources; nonetheless, the public reputation suffered, and Germany found itself between relentless fronts. Both crises show the limitations of short-term policy management. International political design must be tied to longer-term perspectives to be able to justify short-term costs and efforts through long-term benefits.
Germany is particularly capable of asserting itself politically within the framework of multilateral networks, with an EU mandate, within the framework of international negotiating formats and economic alliances, through its unwavering presence within the framework of development and sustainability cooperation – the potential of which is not nearly exploited yet –, and in international cultural and educational work. Even if the guiding principle of German foreign cultural policy is post-national and its institutions around the world do not pursue their own immediate interests, they do play a crucial role in shaping German foreign relations: they are platforms for exchange between forces of civil society and for equal interactions of cultural diversity. This task is a statement to the world, an advertisement for international cooperation, for an understanding of the world as a community, and for overcoming national prejudices.
In the same way, German activities in international development cooperation do not primarily revolve around German interests, but rather the needs of the local situation and the interests and requirements of the local people, institutions, and companies. Frequently, German development policy acts in a very detailed and project-focused way and does not sufficiently concentrate on contributing to designing the European and multilateral arenas. This area harbours tremendous opportunities and responsibilities ever since the reputation of the American development policy under the Trump government suffered around the world and Great Britain’s formerly strong development policy was weakened by Brexit. Germany is not yet filling this gap and could, together with French and other partners, be much more ambitious. It should be possible to develop a joint project of European-African collaboration together with European and African partners that could compete with the new Chinese Silk Road in terms of design. We need to think and act more ambitiously.
But the general direction is the right one. Germany has built plenty of trust around the world which should now be used to actively mould the tasks of the future. We can now leave behind our past as a free rider and become a shaping power, fighting for our standards, values, and interests – together with our partners.