The Abstention Champion – A review on contemporary German Foreign and Security Policy

Oliver Krumme.

Foreign policy without clear position

On the 29th of November, the UN General Assembly has approved a motion to grant a non-member observing state status to Palestine with a vast majority of its members. Exactly 138 states have approved, with 9 opposing votes only, and 41 abstentions. As predicted, Germany was one of these abstaining countries, again.

It is still 10 more months until the next elections for the German Parliament in September 2013, but it is time already to evaluate German foreign and security policy after nearly four years of Conservative-liberal administration. If you have to summarize this period, it has to be evaluated like this: amateurish and in particular marked by the pure absence of precise foreign policy positioning. In short: there is no German foreign policy.

In the past, German foreign and security policy was in particular marked either by an Atlanticist approach towards a close transatlantic cooperation, or by the exact opposite, a counter balance towards a stronger European position. That was in particular the mainstream tendency of the past decades.

Internal crisis management and alternative security policy tools

In the past four years, however, German foreign policy was lost in inner-European crisis management and other foreign policy fields remained on the side-line. In particular, security policy making was marked by a self-limiting abstention policy in the UN Security Council in the view of the Libyan War last year. Recent developments in the Middle East and the Syrian Civil War are a direct follow-up to the Libyan development: Germany’s reluctance to provide Patriot Missiles for Turkey to secure its border to Syria is another indication for Germany’s confusing foreign and security policy strategy under the current administration, but in particular under Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle.

It is not only a personality issue that Germany is currently losing international importance in hard policy terms, but it is above all a preference shift towards fiscal and monetary importance in inner European crisis management. Germany’s contemporary foreign policy is completely dominated by the Euro Crisis and the result of the notoriously persistent crisis is a complete policy priority shift towards fiscal and monetary crisis solutions. This will lead to a dramatic, almost catastrophic decline in security policy making.

If you sum up the most essential step stones in German foreign and security policy of the past four years, it is nothing else but a constant downsizing procedure: Starting with the suspension of compulsory military service combined with a dramatic cut of military personnel, the long-term plans to withdraw the troops from Afghanistan until 2014, and the overall reluctance to be directly involved in military operations lead to an assumption of lacking international self-confidence, or even an anti-military foreign policy strategy.

On the other hand, Germany has increased its arms sales (e.g. tanks and submarines) to individual Middle East countries such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Israel. In terms of security policy, Germany is shifting strategy implementations from direct to indirect agenda and contribution setting through arms sales. This strategy has been underlined by Chancellor Angela Merkel as an “equal security policy tool” to direct intervention. However, the truth is that it is not the case! Mere arms sales do not replace a direct security policy intervention with actual troop deployment and mandate implementations, as I have mentioned in an earlier blog post:

A small glint of international self-confidence

Contemporary German foreign policy is seriously suffering from a competence transfer away from the foreign ministry towards the governing Merkel administration under Chancellor Merkel herself. This is not just a tendency that has just come up since the black-yellow coalition has been re-established in autumn 2009, but already since the late 1980ies. Basically, every German government coalition has entitled the foreign policy department to the smaller coalition partner. In case of a conservative government, it was the liberal party to provide the foreign minister. During the administration of Chancellor Helmut Kohl, his liberal foreign ministers Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel have particularly succeeded to place Germany as a respected and reliable international partner, specifically in terms of transatlantic relations and soft policy agenda setting for European integration progress.

During the Red-Green coalition under social democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, his green foreign minister Joschka Fischer has boosted Germany’s international self-confidence by openly criticizing apparent security policy mishaps committed by the Bush-Administration in the view of the Iraq crisis. Although some critics would state that this policy has led into an international isolation of Germany, it actually led to opposite results. Germany’s foreign policy under Schröder and Fischer has prevented Germany and Europe from catastrophic consequences of a foreign and security policy adventure, such as the Iraq conflict and the exclusively counter-terror measures focused strategy of the former US administration. Also, this brief transatlantic “hick-up” provided the opportunity for Germany to mature in international affairs and diplomacy and to enhance international self-confidence, especially for Europe itself. This self-confidence was kept alive during the four years of the Grand Coalition (conservative/social-democrat coalition, CDU/CSU-SPD) from 2005 till 2009, even though the SPD was the “junior partner” of this administration, first time led by Angela Merkel. Fortunately, the strong personality of its social-democratic foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier (one of former Chancellor Schröder’s closest followers) retained a strong position for the German Foreign Ministry.

Foreign policy demoted to an administrative procedure

As it turns out, the current black and yellow coalition (CDU/CSU-FDP) does not continue the foreign policy heritage of its predecessor administrations. Instead of an actual burden sharing and cooperation between the two coalition partners – as it used to be hitherto, Merkel has completely taken charge of nearly all foreign and security policy agenda settings and decision making actions, specifically the ones directly related to the Euro Crisis, declaring them as a matter of personal top priority. The result of this is quite dramatic: the German foreign ministry has lost nearly all independent foreign policy making competencies, it has been degenerated to a mere administrative tool of the chancellery, with its foreign minister Guido Westerwelle being Merkel’s main executive clerk.

With this significant weakening and gradual demotion of the foreign ministry and the entire foreign policy in the view of changed priorities and security policy strategies, German foreign policy as a whole is lacking clear and understandable positioning. Germany’s abstention in the Libyan war in 2011 and its very recent abstention regarding Palestine are creating awareness that Germany is not able to take any foreign policy position; respectively it is not even willing to take any position at all.

Consequences and recommendations

If Germany wants to be treated as a respected international actor and if it wants to implement own and stringent foreign policy action, it has to be brave to take clear positions. Bad foreign policy is not just marked by bad decisions or bad strategies, but above all by the pure absence of any foreign policy. As a result, Germany’s overall foreign policy remains vague and blurred. By this, Germany is losing reputation, reliability, respect and above all sustainable predictability.

Germany cannot and must not afford to keep on abstaining from decisive international policy decisions; it has to rekindle its briefly proven self-confidence and maturity as it has shown in past administrations. It also has to take courageous steps and have the confidence to implement some unilateral and unusual positions. In the case of Palestine, Germany saw itself stuck between its traditional close relationship to Israel (for obvious reasons), and its own unclear position towards the Palestine question as a whole.

Unclear foreign policy positions can and will have disastrous long-term consequences, especially if it drags on for many years – and Germany is persistently dragging it on the diplomatic floor.


(This article was originally published on

The author is an independent blogger and political analyst with a main focus on security and defence, EU affairs, and German foreign policy.


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