Raised expectations: The Berlin Republic and its ability to act internationally

Wolfgang Ischinger

AICGS Trustee

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger is Chairman of the Munich Security Conference and a member of the AICGS Board of Trustees.

Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger speaks to the future of German foreign and security policy with light on Germany’s responsibilities in the international community. Chairman of the Munich Security Conference as well as an AGI Trustee, Ambassador Ischinger delivered this speech, titled “Hauptstadtrede,” at an event hosted by Stiftung Zukunft Berlin at the Allianz Forum in Berlin on September 26, 2013.

Read in German


  • In terms of foreign and security policy, the new German government will find itself in a situation which is vastly different from that of any other German government at the beginning of a legislative period.
  • Fortunately, the worries that some of our neighbors had 20 years ago, namely that a Berlin Republic should be feared, have not come true. And yet, as Timothy Garton Ash said at the Munich Security Conference in 2012, we have “a European Germany in a German Europe.” A wise person said recently that Henry Kissinger’s question about Europe’s telephone number had now been answered ― it would definitely have the Berlin area code, 0049 – 30. This brings us to the topic of Berlin, to the topic of this city’s future as Germany’s center, to its symbolism for both: for war and for peace, for good and for bad, for division just as for unification.
  • This European Germany is today, without a doubt, economically the central power in Europe. However, in terms of security policy, Germany does not play the active and formative role which would be expected from our size and potential. The expectations, which our partners have for us, are not exaggerated ― and criticism that Germany sometimes gladly shrinks away, particularly when things get difficult, does not always seem entirely unfounded!
  • We Germans have made ourselves comfortable with the status quo. We like things as they are. We don’t want big changes; we would prefer to be left alone with our continually growing prosperity. We don’t really want a return to the German mark, but we also don’t want any further, possibly costly, expansion of the EU. We admittedly find the tax burden high, but not too high – everything should continue as before, so with the status quo. This, by the way, can also provide a very plausible explanation of last Sunday’s election result.
  • Of course, things were not always like this: up to reunification – as was also set out in the German Basic Law – the old Federal Republic of Germany was an “anti-status quo” power: we had the objective of overcoming the status quo of the division of Europe. At the time of its establishment, the US, incidentally, was also an “anti-status quo” power, in opposition to British rule. This original revolutionary desire for change is still felt in America today, for example in the attempts to win over the rest of the world to democracy, for instance by George W. Bush. Here in Germany, on the other hand, the desire for change has mostly been lost since 1990. Then, ideally, we would have liked to have frozen the course of history – but it just doesn’t work like this.
  • The belief that we could isolate ourselves from the world’s problems, rather like an overgrown Switzerland, is a fatal misconception – and entirely wrongly thought out. The wheel of change is turning around us in a spectacular way, and we are called upon not only to cope with this challenge, but also to actively take it up! “Embracing change”: that really would be a fantastic slogan for Berlin and for Germany!
  • I don’t want to spend long on an analysis of the changed climate of foreign and security policy. However, three fundamental developments are extremely significant:

The “rise of the rest”, i.e. of countries like China, Brazil and India, means that the world order is becoming less clear-cut, and international actions and decisions are becoming more complex. One thing is clear: the relative influence of Germany and Europe (and the West as a whole) will decrease: by 2050, Europe will make up no more than about 7% of the world’s population. This is also the reason why there is no alternative to EU integration. How else could we make ourselves heard?

In the future, the US will devote more attention and resources to eastern Asia. America will be less involved with Europe and its surrounding countries than in the past. This does not mean that the US will “abandon” Europe, let alone “leave it alone”. However, Europe will need to become more independent in terms of security policy. We do not yet seem to have understood what this means for us. This poses the greatest challenge for Germany and for the EU.

And so: whether we like it or not, Germany has become the key country of the EU. For the foreseeable future, nothing will alter the fact that Germany will remain Europe’s “indispensable nation”, as the Polish foreign minister Sikorski put it in his historic speech in the fall of 2011 in Berlin. The creative drive coming from Berlin will make a decisive contribution to whether and how Europe is made viable for the future.

What should the fundamental guidelines and objectives be for the coming years?

  1. We have to “europeanize” our activities in foreign and security policy much more. There is no longer any viable alternative for Europe apart from further integration and more joint action. Does anyone seriously want to claim, in the face of the monumental global changes, that we Germans can achieve anything on our own? Militarily, this is already prohibited by our constitution. At this point, Paul-Henri Spaak’s famous words spring to mind: “There are only two types of states in Europe: small states, and small states that have not yet realized that they are small”.
  2. We Germans must not be afraid to jointly take on leadership responsibility. This does not mean that we should act as Europe’s hegemon, or even indulge in arrogant flights of fancy. It means, however, that we should learn and practice “broad-minded, generous leadership” – also because this is in our most fundamental best interests. We must also learn that, incidentally, leadership – broad-minded leadership – is never entirely free of charge.
  3. We must find our way to a more operational foreign policy. For decades it has been common practice that, for important questions, the US, France, Britain and Germany meet and agree in advance. This is the famous and established “Group of Four”. Ten days ago, however, only the US, France and Britain met to consult about Syria – without Germany. This cannot become a symbol of the future! Germany belongs to this circle! And finally,
  4. We should organize our foreign and security policy better and more systematically, and improve the institutional structure.

Which Europe?

  • In the coming months we will have to put our cards on the table about the type of Europe we want. Up to now, for tactical reasons, mainly limited questions – rescue packages, banking unions, etc. – have been on the agenda. However, now the big questions have to be put on the table! They cannot be avoided if we want to develop the EU further and keep the euro afloat.
  • The new German government, and the French government, now have a window of over three years before the next elections. In the Polish government, for instance, they have a strong partner for spelling out the steps on the path to a stronger EU and to a political union.
  •  In recent years, for pragmatic reasons, intergovernmental solutions have often been employed. However, the path to a stronger Europe can only go via a strengthening of the European institutions, in particular the Parliament and the Commission. The basic principle should be: find intergovernmental solutions only as often as required, strengthen European institutions as significantly as possible. The original idea of creating a strong Commission with a unique right of initiative was a brilliant one!
  • We must also ensure that, for positions such as that of President of the Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs, we always look for “the best and the brightest”, even if such personalities can sometimes be difficult. A role allocation according to rules of geographical or political proportional representation is not suited to the importance of the European Union.

A “Europe de la défense”

  • A key area in which significant progress in integration is necessary and possible in Europe is in security and defense policy. In December, the European Council will, for the first time for a long while, deal with questions of security and defense in a prominent way.
  • The necessity of finally also bringing the concept of integration to bear on defense policy is clear:

Europe uses its modest defense expenditure entirely ineffectively and inefficiently. It is scandalous how little bang for the buck we get in Europe. The defense expenditure of all the European countries together totals just under 40% of US expenditure, but the actual power only makes up about 10% of that of the US, and, at the same time, the EU countries have six times as many different weapons systems as the US. In view of the high fixed costs of arms, this fragmentation is irresponsible.

A study conducted by McKinsey in conjunction with the Munich Security Conference calculated that the European countries could save up to 30 percent per year – that is 13 billion euros per year! – if they worked more closely together in their weapons procurement.

  • The European governments are aware of the ineffective and inefficient use of defense expenditure. They are just as aware of the conclusion that significantly greater cooperation on defense is the only way of addressing this problem. This realization is reflected in the initiatives of Pooling & Sharing in the European framework, and Smart Defense in the NATO framework.
  • Now, there is hardly a talk given or a declaration signed where the importance of more cooperation is not stressed.
    • For example: The Franco-German declaration of February 6, 2012 “for stronger European security and defense”: “In times of strategic uncertainty and limited resources, strengtheneddefence requires common procurement. As a consequence, we must be ready to take the necessary decisions.” But what are the “necessary decisions”? Where are the ideas? Who is moving ahead and making concrete suggestions? Up to now it is clear that not enough has happened.
  • In certain areas – the European Air Transport Command EATC is a good example – very good progress has certainly been made. But why not think bigger? Why not, for instance, have a European navy in the Baltic? Why not have more joint training? Does each country really need its own type of helicopter, designed to its own specifications?
  • Of course, I too can see that we are still a long way from far-reaching decisions regarding specialization at national level, and the organization of skill development in a multinational association. Ultimately, this affects one area which has, for centuries, been at the heart of national sovereignty – and one which brings with it many difficult and uncomfortable questions.
  • How, in particular in conjunction with the reforms taking place in many countries, do the armed forces have to be structured in order that, for example, the Air Force or the Marines of different countries could be combined? What does this mean for the industrial basis and the very nationally-oriented procurement processes? How could military action with combined armed forces be authorized in practice?
  • However, to draw the conclusion from this that we should not even develop any ambition at all, strikes me as too short-sighted. The Dutch Defense Minister, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, a significant voice in the European debate, posed the question correctly at the 2013 Security Conference:

“Should we really fear the loss of sovereignty? Or should we rather define the concept of sovereignty in a less traditional way?”

In other words: What is sovereignty, in the conventional sense of the word, worth if an individual European state is no longer in any way capable of action on its own? This would really be meaningless sovereignty, wouldn’t it?

In addition, operations today, such as peacekeeping missions are, in any case, multilateral. So we have to plan and put structures in place accordingly.

  • I would like to remind you of what was included in the 2009 coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU and FDP: “Our long-term goal remains the establishment of a European army under full parliamentary control”. The Green Party and the SPD take a similar view, as indicated by Sigmar Gabriel’s interesting speech to the German Armed Forces Staff College in Hamburg in July 2011. However, just because a goal is “long-term”, does not mean it can be put on the back burner. In this regard, I am hoping that the future German government will provide new and far-reaching impetus for Europe.
  • If just a tiny step forward is made at the European Council meeting in December, this would be too little as far as European defense integration is concerned. We need ambitious goals, driven by German foreign policy. The European Council should also commission, in particular, the development of an EU white paper on security and defense policy. The world – and we Europeans – want clarity about the goals, instruments and methods of European security policy.

It would make sense to pass on the mandate for this development to Lady Ashton’s successor in the post of EU High Representative: that would be a superb first task for her successor!

The German government could and should push ahead courageously in questions of majority decisions concerning foreign policy. After all, we have absolutely nothing to fear from the majority of the small EU member states – quite the opposite.

Syria, German involvement, and dealing with military means

  • German initiatives in the Europeanization of security policy would also help to dispel certain doubts among our partners. Our partners are absolutely begging for Germany to take a more active role in international security policy.
  • I don’t want to trivialize the numerous and commendable deployments of the German Federal Armed Forces, in particular in Afghanistan and Kosovo. The German Armed Forces have developed enormously, and proven capable of their duties. What is occasionally lacking is clarity and decisiveness in deploying the German Armed Forces for the purposes of keeping or enforcing peace. Incidentally, there appears to be an internal party debate on this question in the offing for the Linkspartei (German Left), which could initiate a development similar to that in the Green Party in the 90s under Joschka Fischer: is categorical pacifism really the only morally correct answer to gross violations of human rights, to mass murder, or even to genocide?
  • In discussions in all major partner countries, there is clear frustration that Germany sometimes punches below its weight in questions of security policy. The former French foreign minister, the Socialist Hubert Védrine, recently asked: “Why can Germany not accept taking more responsibility in other areas too? … I really can’t see what is stopping Germany from playing a bigger role in international politics and in military operations.” France, for instance, took a great risk in Mali – and it can hardly be argued that France is affected by instability in the Sahel any more than the other Europeans. Despite the cuts announced in the French white paper of 2013, around 15,000 troops will be able to be stationed abroad.
  • As a basic principle, it is still right that we practice “military restraint”. However, military restraint must not lead to a failure to render assistance! The Federal Republic of Germany has also made a commitment to the international standard of the responsibility to protect which, in extreme situations, includes the military protection of populations from massacres by their own rulers. The deployment of military force should not be a taboo topic in Germany – we need open, and sometimes also controversial, debate about it. It is, however, clear that military means alone are not suited to solving or ending political conflicts. However, military means can still be necessary in order to, for example, make it clear to warring parties that their only option is to meet at the negotiating table.
  • Let’s take the question of Syria: German politicians were very quick to demand consequences following the use of poison gas. That, however, was all. It seems that others are then responsible for implementing these consequences..
  • For me, it is important to realize that we must not completely forget the lessons from the Balkan wars of the 1990s: that the threat, and the limited use, of military force can, in certain situations, save lives and bring about a negotiated solution, as the parties in the conflict are compelled to undertake meaningful negotiations.
  • A message for all opponents of intervention: the agreement on chemical disarmament of the Syrian regime would also have been impossible without the threat of military force. Unfortunately, this negotiation step came two years too late, after 100,000 victims had been claimed!
  • The American-Russian rapprochement will also hopefully bring a negotiated solution to the Syrian civil war closer. However, here, too, we must remember: there is no path to Geneva that does not go via Moscow first.

NATO and transatlantic/Euro-Atlantic relations

  • The fact that I have spoken a great deal about Europe does not mean that the alliance with the US should have less importance.
  • Fortunately, we no longer have to make the choice of “Europe or the US?”. This situation is a great luxury for German foreign policy. We had debated here for decades about how the two pillars of German security policy – European integration and transatlantic partnership – could be reconciled. We remember the debate about the Élysée Treaty, and the disputes between the Gaullists and the transatlanticists. Today, however, we no longer have to think about this.
  • France has returned to NATO military integration. And the US is making it clear how important a functional and united Europe is for them, too.
    • To quote Biden, from Munich 2013: “a strong and capable Europe is profoundly in America’s interest, and I might add, presumptuously, the world’s interest”.
  • There are more than enough important issues – not only the NSA and the secret services.
    • We have to be decisive in our stance on the secret services practices which have come to light, even if they are carried out by our own partners.
    • At the same time, we should use the whole affair as an opportunity to keep the international debate about regulations in cyberspace, which today resemble the Wild West more than a civilized world, very high on the agenda. It is precisely here that the “soft power” of the EU may be required in a specific way. Who, if not the EU, would best be able to take on the issue of protecting the privacy of the individual in the digital world of tomorrow?
    • However, we would be doing ourselves no favors if we were to create a link between the secret services affair and what is possibly the most important strategic transatlantic issue: the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). After all, TTIP is not a project through which we are doing others a favor, but rather it is a key European issue, a central European interest.
  • This “TTIP” is far more than just a trade agreement:
    • We are not just hoping for significant impetus for economic development in both economies which could create hundreds of thousands of jobs on both sides of the Atlantic. At the same time, the US and the EU may also be able to set central global trade rules.
    • In the words of the German government at the 2013 Security Conference: “an important building block for the future of the liberal international order on which our security and prosperity are based. […] A transatlantic agreement including not only trade-related matters, but also investments, services, norms and standards would make a valuable contribution to Europe and America’s ability to hold their own in the era of globalization”.
  • I will now come to NATO: How do the Germans actually perceive NATO? What happened to the alliance following the conclusion of the ISAF operation in Afghanistan? Do we even need NATO any more?
  • Yes, we need the alliance: we need it for reassurance about the nuclear question, and for collective self-defense. That is the core of Germany’s membership. Without NATO, the German Armed Forces could never be deployed in accordance with the constitution, apart from in EU and UN operations.
  • If the German governments of the past decade had a clear position regarding NATO, then it was always to emphasize that NATO should be the central point for transatlantic policy formation, where Europeans and Americans could discuss and decide together on their security policy strategies. Both the German Chancellors Schröder (2005) and Merkel (2006) declared, in almost identical words, that this was the programmatic goal. Have we really used NATO in this way? Has it become the center of our common policy formation? There is significant doubt about this. Most recently, in the Syrian crisis, Berlin rather gave the impression of not wanting to work throught the alliance.
  • The central operational task of the alliance is still cooperation with Russia. The historical, and still unfulfilled, task is to define a place for Russia in the Euro-Atlantic security architecture, irrespective of how Russia’s domestic situation appears. This is a challenge for German foreign policy in particular – not because of being equidistant between the US and Russia, but as the country providing impetus for cooperation with Russia.
    • We are not working towards a settlement with Russia in order to do a favor for someone in Moscow, but rather for our own strategic interests.
  • Equally, far too little has happened on the question of disarmament.

In 2011, on the periphery of the Munich Security Conference, modest progress was made with the “New START” agreement.

The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), however, has yet to be ratified. Even today, strategic nuclear weapons could be launched at short notice – a false alarm could set off a global catastrophe.

Ultimately, the orthodox teaching of arms control – “simultaneously and contractually agreed parallel disarmament measures” – needs to be scrutinized.

The German initiative of 2009, for instance, to work towards a withdrawal of the US tactical nuclear weapons remaining in Germany, was certainly the right move. The next German government should pursue this question further, and should also not shy away from possible argument about this. There is no meaningful military deployment doctrine for these weapons. We are therefore right to ask whether their withdrawal could instigate an overdue disarmament drive.

  • Another area in which progress is urgently needed is that of nuclear negotiations with Iran: there is some indication that, in the coming months, a unique window of opportunity may open. The news from New York sounds positive. But admittedly, we must bear in mind that we cannot judge Teheran by its words, but must rather judge it by its actions. I would recommend the Egon Bahr or the Kissinger method for the forthcoming American-Iranian negotiations: secret negotiations or discussions which include a “back channel”. In this way, hardliners on both sides can more easily be kept in check.

Institutions and processes

In conclusion, I would like to refer to some concrete measures which may improve the overall structure of relevant institutions in Berlin.

  1. The establishment of a German Energy Ministry is not only necessary for the implementation of the energy revolution, as Günther Oettinger rightly indicated, but such a Ministry could also ensure that Berlin speaks as one, and not several, voices in Brussels.
  2. Reform and expansion of the German Federal Security Council: the concentration of decision-making power in foreign policy matters at the center of government in all EU member states tends to call into question the departmental responsibility of the foreign offices. A Federal Security Council with a substructure staffed with officials from the departments affected could reinforce and guarantee the cohesion of foreign policy decision-making processes, and enable the German Chancellery and Foreign Office to communicate with one another transparently and in “real time”, and to work together. The fear, previously often expressed, that expansion of the Federal Security Council would weaken the German Foreign Office, has now reversed in view of the developments: without working out decisions on security policy jointly and more systematically, the Foreign Office and other departments would become increasingly marginalized.
  3. The establishment of a compulsory yearly general debate on foreign and security policy matters, for which the government would have to submit a basic report. We need more public debate on the challenges of security policy.
  4. Regularly drafting a white paper on security and defense would not only be an important building block in the EU’s security strategy, but could also encourage public debate and, at the same time, also lead to greater consensus building in all relevant questions within the German government. France provides an excellent example with its regular use of the “Livre Blanc”. What a good signal it would send out if the German government followed the French example in drafting a white paper, and invited representatives from important partner countries to contribute! We could even surpass the French example and, for instance, also include representatives from the EU and from NATO in a related committee.
  5. A reform of parliament’s involvement in deployment abroad

As part of the further integration of European armed forces, we will have to address the question of how we can make the requirement of parliamentary approval “Europe-proof” and “alliance-proof”.

It is clear that no-one will be prepared to link their military capabilities closely with ours if operational capability then is not guaranteed and depends, in each individual case, on a decision by the Bundestag.

An experienced German NATO diplomat has just presented a study conducted by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik – SWP) which shows, in an interesting way, how, for example, the unfortunate and repeated withdrawal of German occupying forces from the AWACS formation could be avoided, without calling into question the requirement of parliamentary approval. Hopefully the future Bundestag will openly debate this and other proposals, in order to demonstrate Germany’s willingness regarding its ability to work in alliances and partnerships.

  • Admittedly, the wording of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany was neither drawn up nor adopted in Berlin. Nonetheless, the preamble still provides the best basis for German foreign and security policy, and also applies to the new circumstances of today’s “Berlin Republic”: “to promote world peace in a united Europe”.
  • Nowhere is there a place as symbolic as Berlin for the catastrophes of the 20th century, for European division, but also for the falling of frontiers. This is also why the initiative for the further construction of European unification, in foreign and security policy too, must come precisely from Berlin. The status quo may well be more comfortable for the moment – but we will not be able to sustain it in the long term.
  • Let’s therefore hope for initiative from Berlin for a Europe which is more credible, more active in questions of foreign policy, and one which speaks with one voice. Such a Berlin initiative could also be a positive signal that Germany is ready to embrace the necessary change, is ready to free itself from the status quo, is ready to not to shrink away, but rather to accept its key responsibility for peace in and around Europe.
The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.