Power and Global Responsibility

December 11, 2015

AGI held an off-the-record workshop on December 11, 2015, to discuss the concept of power and the use of force in international affairs with twenty future German and American leaders from academia, government, and the military. The discussion resulted in various observations and debates about the nature of power in the twenty-first century and the expectations that Germany and the United States have vis-à-vis the other in addressing foreign policy challenges broadly as well as in selected current situations and scenarios. These well-placed professionals in their respective fields discussed Germany’s increasing willingness to accept global responsibilities and the potential for transatlantic cooperation in dealing with conflict in the Middle East and tensions with Russia and China.

Understanding Power in Context

Participants initially discussed frameworks for understanding power in international affairs. One participant argued that power was not about resources or only about having control “over” something, but that it is more about a process to achieve an objective. This process and the response to it is best seen as a dynamic “flow” between actors with varying motives and interests. Thus, it is also important to understand practitioners’ perception of their actual power in contrast with the power they seek to possess.

Power in the modern world has become more diffuse, but can still be roughly identified as either coercive (e.g., military force, trade, and financial leverage), formative (shaping agendas, embedding interests and norms), or attractive (getting what you want indirectly from your culture, ideals, policies—“soft power”). While nation-states continue to use coercive power, this has become far less centralized. Other actors besides governments are involved in utilizing various aspects of power. Today, discussions of “smart power” are really about statecraft and understanding how the various aspects of power relate to each other and the consequences of their use.

German and American Perceptions of Power

Germany and the United States use all three types of power. The former thinks of itself more as a “shaping” or formative power that embeds its interests by seeking to set the agenda within Europe and, as its interests dictate, abroad. Germany has also recently been successful using its attractive power and making use of its economic and cultural influence around the world. The U.S. has long been an attractive power and is more used to being a coercive power than most countries, yet it has struggled with its limitations as a “superpower” to maintain a stable world order.

The participants addressed whether there is now a greater willingness by Germany to take a more assertive role in shaping this order. There was a general consensus that there was indeed a greater willingness from the government, but that the public was still reluctant. Berlin will continue to seek multilateral solutions along with its European partners. While it might desire to “multilateralize” U.S. actions at times, Europe still needs the United States to project power abroad and stabilize Europe’s eastern and southern borders where the liberal order is being challenged.

Responsibility and Restraint

Contrary to popular belief, Germany’s view on the use of force has not fundamentally changed and is not expected to change anytime soon. There has long been a culture of restraint in Germany in regard to the use of the military. Debates on international conflict differ from those in the United States in several ways: war is seen as having brought about Europe’s devastation rather than liberty and freedom, though some of the current generation of leaders have shifted their tone about the desirability of using military force; the threat of force is not seen as enhancing European stability; multilateral action is a value in itself; and upholding values in the international system is the principal means to promote interests. Thus, Germany will continue to strengthen its political and diplomatic tools, but not act alone as a military power.

Nonetheless, there have been pragmatic changes to the German armed forces since the 1990s. Constitutional constraints have been relaxed by the Constitutional Court and the Bundestag on several occasions and the military now has Bundeswehr officers and forces with combat experience from Afghanistan as well as other regions of conflict. The Ministry of Defense is also seeking a broad consensus on a global strategy for Europe, elements of which may be reflected in a new White Book in 2016. While the culture of restraint is still a guiding principle of German defense policy, this is not seen as contradicting the country’s new willingness to shape and take on global responsibility.

Burden-Sharing: Competing Expectations

The most heated point in the discussion regarded different expectations about defense spending and the use of coercive power. On the one hand, U.S. officials would like to see a greater German willingness to use coercive power despite its historical reluctance. This generally means maintaining modern defense capabilities and aligning the European Union on matters of common interest with the United States. German participants expressed concern that the U.S. government is overly concerned with defense expenditures and underestimates how long it will take Germany in particular to meet its NATO commitments, particularly given the new challenges from the unexpected refugee influx. Regardless of how Europe increases its coercive power in absolute terms, however, at least one American participant saw a need for greater initiative from Europe in taking responsibility for projecting power in the Mediterranean Sea area and along its periphery.

Crises with China, Russia, and Syria

International crises tend to drive the public debate and the pressure to act quickly can strain transatlantic cooperation. The participants raised several questions for policymakers to consider regarding current tensions with China, Russia, and Syria:

  • Has there been a sustained U.S.-European dialogue about cooperating to reduce tensions in East Asia, especially regarding the South China Sea? The U.S. might expect Europe to use its economic and diplomatic weight, but are there other concrete projects that can be explored?
  • What should be the response to Russia’s troubling actions and hostile rhetoric in Ukraine? Is there an effective counter to the Russian hybrid warfare now being pursued? Germany has helped the United States maintain a united front regarding sanctions on Russia, but can this be maintained given the scale of Europe’s other challenges in 2016?
  • And in Syria, how do we restore power if Assad’s regime falls and ISIS is defeated? What might be effective in light of Russia’s efforts in Syria and the Middle East more broadly? Would Germany’s posture change if the coalition suffered a serious setback against ISIS or a major terrorist attack at home?


AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room

1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW Suite 700 Washington, DC 20036 United States

AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room
1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036
United States