A sentence from the SPD party leader Lars Klingbeil’s speech at the turn of the century has led to heated discussions in his party and beyond. It read: “Germany must claim to be a leading power.” The speech of June 21 was an expression of the loss of foreign policy certainties in the largest governing party and at the same time a call to reposition itself with a realistic view of things.
This is indicated and makes sense, but the rushed character of this search process, which quickly wants to break away from old patterns of action, but at the same time does not take the time to lay new foundations on the basis of a comprehensive view of changing patterns of order and the thinking of others, is surprising.
This is already evident in the orientation towards a policy of strength, militarily and in the European-transatlantic alliance. Many take issue with the term “leadership”; for some, it indicates a breaking of a taboo that is dramatically shifting Germany’s role in Europe and the world: from a supporting role for the country to a foreign policy protagonist who shows little consideration for others.
What is important in this debate is what expectations are associated with the role of a leading power and whether Germany even has the necessary prerequisites for this role model. In view of the new presence of war in Europe and the collapse of the European peace and security order, key concepts of German foreign policy such as the rule-based order to be striven for or value-based foreign policy seem to have been blown away.
As a result, Germany and Europe have lost their understanding of their role as civil powers, and their normative model has been broken. Resilience has become the new guiding principle, especially when looking at the supply of strategically important goods.
What is a leading power? Leading powers see themselves and are viewed by other states as key players in international politics. However, the self-image and the image of others do not necessarily have to coincide. States can be understood as leading powers if they are able, based on their ability to act and their capabilities, to design initiatives related to certain policy areas in international politics, to coordinate communities of responsibility and to mobilize the potential for blockades, while receiving recognition and support from others for their foreign policy behavior state and non-state actors in international relations and/or “enforce” them.
The key is therefore the ability to make advance payments and assume costs so that certain behavioral options become attractive for other actors and the corresponding recognition conditions result that make it easier for other states to follow suit. This can refer to rules of conduct or regulatory functions, which – as can be seen in the example of international climate policy – must be repeatedly reissued and anchored internationally.
This has been the case in many international contexts these past few weeks, be it within the framework of the EU, the G7 or NATO. In order to be effective here, Germany must have sufficient support and tax payments. The question arises as to how foreign policy instruments should be developed so that Germany, together with other states, can shape global and regional regulatory policies and establish new patterns of behavior.
This requires greater coherence in government action, which today is becoming blurred between the self-interests of the various departments. Although an attempt is being made to define a common framework with the work on a national security strategy, the resources for action remain distributed among various bodies and are therefore subject to their own logic.
In order to play a leading role, Germany will have to maintain stable patterns of relationships in order to be able to convince other states of its guiding values and objectives. But common interests are not enough, a crucial obstacle needs to be removed: Germany has lost its ability to bind itself – not least due to hollow partnership rhetoric that is no longer accepted by many countries around the world. In many countries of the Global South, this claim is met with scorn, sometimes even contempt, since there the experience of dealing with Germany and Europe is more characterized by a practice of double standards and one-sided taking advantage.
The standard repertoire of the German offer of strategic partnerships and new alliances no longer works, be it in the case of raw material or development partnerships, the viability of which is very limited in view of the extensive geopolitical competition. Calling for this model to be expanded to include health, technology, energy and climate today will remain empty and non-binding as long as we have not developed a role model in these areas that is also recognized internationally.
But we have clearly lost this status, if you look at the success of Chinese and Russian vaccination and mask diplomacy in many countries around the world. In addition, the countries of Africa and Latin America are hardly taken seriously by Berlin in terms of foreign policy, they are only addressed on current occasions.
The war in Ukraine has increased the European focus, despite efforts on the issue of food supplies. And at the same time, it is noted with astonishment that international support for the sanctions policy is rather poor.
German foreign policy must change if it is to appear internationally as a leading power: it must regain a 360-degree view and re-embed itself in the international world. This will not succeed without an internal reform process in the preparation of foreign and development policy action. However, it is also necessary for this to position oneself again as “capable of binding” through dialogue with the states of the world and to descend from the high vantage point of superior world views.