Sam Seitz

German foreign policy is paradoxical and, in many cases, contradictory. While no country perfectly executes its policy objectives or matches its words with actions, Germany is unique in the degree to which its actions are unmoored from its stated objectives. Germans, simply put, are reluctant to use their power to support the liberal, rules-based system from which their influence derives. This aversion to leadership is ideological and driven by history: Germany has been a powerful, yet mostly peripheral player since the end of the Cold War and, therefore, lacks the experience and will to lead. Unfortunately, it seems that this German tendency is unlikely to change in coming years, as Germany’s future leaders – its youth – seem to share the ideological convictions of its current ones. Germany seems, therefore, unlikely to pursue any major reforms either domestically or within the context of the EU and NATO. Analysts and politicians in Germany and elsewhere will likely continue to plead for greater German engagement and leadership. Sadly, they will also likely continue to be disappointed.

Examples of German strategic naivete are manifold. For one, Germans are painfully unaware of the danger that Russia poses to the eastern members of NATO and the EU. James Kirchick notes this willful blindness in The End of Europe, which highlights then-Foreign Minister Steinmeier’s condemnation of NATO “saber-rattling” and “warmongering” only months after Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea.[1] This moralizing is especially frustrating as it comes from the same people who lambast Eastern Europeans for not lending greater assistance in refugee resettlement. In effect, German leaders are demanding help in a crisis they largely created while simultaneously deprecating their allies’ legitimate and heartfelt pleas for military assistance against the Russians.

This strategic nescience likely explains the poor state of the German armed forces, which, as a colleague of mine at the British Embassy once noted, would struggle to defeat a Mexican drug cartel on a good day. The inadequacy of the German military has received significant attention in recent years, but Stephan Theil’s piece is particularly damning, noting the lack of basic equipment, the poor state of the Luftwaffe, and the use of painted broomsticks in training exercises due to a lack of rifles.[2] More recent coverage revealing that the Deutsche Marine has no operational submarines and the Luftwaffe possesses only four functional air superiority jets is even more alarming.[3] Yet, as Yascha Mounk notes, German defense spending is barely rising at all in relative terms.[4] This vitiates NATO’s position in Europe and proves, yet again, that Germany is unwilling to significantly contribute to the very defense institution so instrumental to its security.

However, Germany’s greatest failure has been on the economic front, where it played a major role in exacerbating the European sovereign debt crisis of 2010 by moralizing instead of acting. While economists vary in their analysis of the Eurozone crisis, there is near universal agreement that Germany should have moved with greater urgency and resolve to stimulate domestic aggregate demand in order to provide a market for struggling southern European countries.[5] Germany also neglected to provide economic public goods during the crisis by failing to pursue countercyclical long-term lending, coordinate macroeconomic policy with fellow EU members, or support ECB policy.[6]

Germany is unlikely to learn from these mistakes and lead in the future, though, as it remains institutionally and ideologically constrained by entrenched support for pacifism and ordoliberalism. Time and again, domestic constraints have trumped external pressures and allied demands. This can be explained both by Germany’s federal, “semi-sovereign” political structure, which constrains decisive action through its many veto points, and the strongly held beliefs of the German people.[7] Specifically, Germans are extremely conflict-averse due to their experience in World War Two and quite committed to ordoliberal principles because of their experience with hyperinflation and their pride in the D-mark.[8]

As noted above, these preferences seem unlikely to change over the coming years because they are broadly shared by Germany’s youth. Ulrike Franke describes young Germans as “strikingly conservative and oriented towards the status quo.” She goes on to say that they “take pride in having moved beyond ideology, and are wary of any kind of political ‘vision.’”[9] Polling data support these claims. For example, a majority of young Germans do not want to increase defense spending, and 21% want to lower it. Younger voters also overwhelmingly support the conservative CDU/CSU, which has been in power since 2005.[10] In short, Germans have a status quo bias. Young Germans are not old enough to remember the achievements of the EU and the liberal order; instead, their views are colored by the Iraq War, 2008 financial collapse, and refugee crisis. As a result, many of the optimistic and reformist voices are likely to be disappointed. Heiko Maas, for example, may be correct in his assessment that Germany needs to better constrain and balance against the U.S. when it pursues its worst impulses.[11] The same is true for the German foreign policy analysts who published an open letter in Die Zeit and The New York Times calling for increased defense spending, the termination of Nord Stream, and the “Europeanization” of NATO.[12] The problem is that while their diagnoses are correct, and their recommendations prudent, there is simply no political will in Germany for their proposals. Short of a major crisis or conflict, therefore, we need to resign ourselves to an absent, inwardly-focused, and strategically naïve Germany.




[1] James Kirchick, The End of Europe (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2017), 91.

[2] Stephan Theil, “Berlin’s Balancing Act,” Foreign Affairs, August 15, 2017.

[3] “Only 4 of Germany’s 128 Eurofighter jets combat ready — report,” Deutsche Welle, May 2, 2018.

[4] Yascha Mounk, “Germany First,” The National Interest, August 14, 2017, 1.

[5] Christian Odendahl and Sophia Besch, “THE GOOD EUROPEAN? WHY GERMANY’S POLICY AMBITIONS MUST MATCH ITS POWER,” Centre for European Reform, February 22, 2018, 6.

[6] Mark Blyth and Matthias Matthijs, “Why Only Germany Can Fix the Euro: Reading Kindleberger in Berlin,” Foreign Affairs, November 17, 2011.

[7] Beverly Crawford and Kim Olsen, “The Puzzle of Persistence and Power: Explaining Germany’s Normative Foreign Policy,” German Politics 26, no. 4 (2017), 598.

[8] Vivien Schmidt, “Speaking to the Markets or to the People? A Discursive Institutionalist Analysis of the EU’s Sovereign Debt Crisis,” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 16, no. 1, 194.

[9] Ulrike Franke, “Conservatives Without a Cause? The German youth’s view and what it means for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 23, 2018.

[10] Ulrike Franke, “The Young and the Restful: Why young Germans have no vision for Europe,” European Council on Foreign Relations, April 17, 2018.

[11] Heiko Maas, “Making plans for new world order,” Handelsblatt Global, September 4, 2018.

[12] “In Spite of It All,” The New York Times, October 11, 2017.