The Success of Germany’s Cautious, Self-Interested Foreign Policy

Parke Nicholson joins the chorus of Americans urging Germany to increase military spending intervene more abroad foreign policy. Problem is, Germans don’t want this:

A majority of the German public for the first time favors an “independent approach” from the United States. Yet besides spending more on foreign aid, most prefer to “continue to exercise restraint” in dealing with international crises, and there is a deep ambivalence about the use of military force or sanctions. Although it is true that Germany remains constrained by its past, its recent success may have also instilled in it a sense of complacency. 

For example, Germany is often singled out for its meager defense spending. Although Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble recently announced a six percent increase in defense spending over the next five years, much of this will replace aging equipment and infrastructure, and overall spending will remain small relative to the country’s size. More frustrating to American observers, however, is the government’s reluctance to openly discuss security challenges and commit to planning for future contingencies. This is odd given that Germany provided the third-largest contingent of troops in Afghanistan and well over 200,000 soldiers to international peacekeeping missions since 1993….

In the longer term, Germany must recognize that it can no longer simply remain a convening power and rely on the initiative of other “shaping powers,” the European Union, or the United States. It will have to better articulate and publicly defend its foreign interests. Meekly reflecting on its limitations is an excuse to avoid responsibility and take concrete steps when international rules are ignored. If Germany wants to forge a stronger Europe and a peaceful world order, it needs to ignore the hype about its power and think more courageously about how to use it.

At another point in the article, Nicholson states without proof: ‘Nor can Germany truly shape, let alone protect, open markets for its goods without the backbone of U.S. military power.’

Hardly a day goes by without some pundit, usually American, chastising Germany for having a barely-functional military and for staying out of most international conflicts. Usually, the argument boils down to: "We're the only ones who are combating Al-Shabbab in the Horn of Africa and ISIS and the Houthis and the Taliban and al-Nusra and Chinese demands for islands and Russians in the Ukraine and a thousand other global threats and what are the Germans doing to help us? Nada! Germany, you're rich and popular and still have a semblance of a military — start meddling in dozens of foreign conflicts!"

To which most Germans respond: Why? Germany faces no direct or indirect military threat. Its citizens overwhelmingly oppose sending troops into harm's way in remote places. What on earth would that achieve, other than dragging Germany into conflicts where its interests aren't at stake and making it a target? With no threats at home and no reason to interfere abroad, Germany hardly needs a military at all.

Its leaders prefer not to hector other countries about human-rights issues, especially when that would get in the way of lucrative contracts. The author provides no instance of American military power helping Germany economically, and I can't think of one. And the proof of the pudding is in the eating: Germany's the most popular country in the world, and one of the most prosperous, and much of the credit goes to its low-key foreign policy. Why would it change course?

3 thoughts on “The Success of Germany’s Cautious, Self-Interested Foreign Policy

  1. If only the United States would ask why it is necessary to meddle in everyone else’s affairs. The country is going broke doing it and raising the ire of much of the world in the process. There would be a lot less need for all this security if we just minded our own business for a change. Hooray for Germany, may they continue to learn from their past mistakes and the present ones of the Great World Busy Body.


  2. There might be another aspect to this, which is, if Germans spend money on weaponry, some of that money would go to American vendors.

    I recently listened to an (old) Planet Money episode about how America had to keep giving military aid to Egypt, even though the post-Murzi government used their American weapons to conduct human rights violations. But America apparently can’t stop delivering, because that might mean closed factories/unemployment. (Planet Money lost a few points with me for not even mentioning how perverse this logic is.)


  3. > Hardly a day goes by without some pundit, usually American,
    > chastising Germany for having a barely-functional military

    How dare he!

    From The Better Angels of our Nature, Steven Pinker:

    … A Canadian armed forces captain wrote to me from Kabul in 2003:

    During this morning’s Kalashnikov concerto, I was waiting for the tower guards in our camp to open fire. I think they were asleep. That’s par for the course. Our towers are manned by the Bundeswehr, and they haven’t been doing a good job … when they’re actually there. I qualified that last comment because the Germans have already abandoned the towers several times. The first time was when we got hit by rockets. The remaining instances had something to do with it being cold in the towers. A German Lieutenant with whom I spoke about this lack of honour and basic soldier etiquette replied that it was Canada’s responsibility to provide heaters for the towers. I snapped back by mentioning that it was Germany’s responsibility to provide warm clothing to its soldiers. I was tempted to mention something about Kabul not being Stalingrad, but I held my tongue.

    The German army of today is not what it once was. Or, as I’ve heard mentioned here several times: “This ain’t the Wehrmacht” Given the history of our people, I can make the argument that that’s a very good thing indeed. However, since my safety now rests upon the vigilance of the Herrenvolk’s progeny, I’m slightly concerned to say the least.


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