A German-American Dialogue of the Next Generation

September 30, 2016

The eight participants of the Society, Culture & Politics Program group came together for their first virtual meeting on September 30, 2016. The topic of discussion was Civil Society, Conflict Resolution, and Reconciliation

The discussion revolved around several focus questions:

Is there a distinctive approach to Germany’s global role in promoting conflict resolution and reconciliation?

Germany’s distinct historical experience has always played a role in its foreign policy approach, which differs from that of countries like France and the UK. Germany has been a “civilian power” and has ruled out a military approach to international crises. This approach is changing: Defense Minister von der Leyen has raised a change in her speeches and the 2016 White Paper emphasizes Germany’s military engagement.  Germany has traditionally relied on multilateral alliances and adhered to UN resolutions. But, as witnessed in the Ukraine crisis, this is also changing. Conflict resolution and reconciliation should be considered separately as the first can include military involvement, whereas the latter focuses on non-military means. A gradual change in Germany’s foreign policy approach can be observed and military involvement is no longer ruled out (e.g., Afghanistan). The term “enlightened self-interest” was suggested: Germany is tied to Europe and NATO and combines universal values with pragmatic interests. The pacifist approach is also fading because of a leadership vacuum in Europe and the U.S. The “reluctant hegemon” continues through this. Nonetheless, in the civil society discourse the military approach and the traditional approach are still being debated. Reconciliation (with neighboring countries like Poland) still plays a big role in Germany. The new Peacelab 2016 initiative by the foreign ministry focuses on crisis prevention through diplomacy: avoiding crises, resolving conflicts, and stabilizing conflict areas.

What kind of power is Germany?

Foreign Minister Steinmeier has coined the term “reflective power” which, despite the need to reinterpret its foreign policy principles and adapt to a new world, stays true to three beliefs: restraint, deliberation, and peaceful negotiations. In his Review 2014, the three terms were crisis, order, Europe. The reaction to the term reflective power has been mixed:

  • Arrogance – other countries do not reflect? We are smart and know better.
  • Germany takes the moral high ground again, others are the war mongers.
  • Germany wants to be different.
  • No other nation asks others how they view their foreign policy approach.
  • Denotes responsibility and still focuses on bilateral approach and conflict resolutions without military force.
  • Positive connotation, but does not encompass all aspects of Germany’s foreign policy.

Does the new approach leave space for civil society to be involved in foreign policy?

The role of civil society is to question, restrain, and caution, and to remind government leaders of who they are representing. Civil society can experiment more than elected officials can. Civil society’s involvement can be both positive and negative (e.g., reluctance to accept more refugees; expression of xenophobia). Civil society can fill bridges over gaps of the past (Germany-Israel). Personal exchanges (youth, science, the environment) are very important. Civil society fills the frame of foreign policy with life. Civil society can:

  • Influence government policies
  • Act independently with foreign policy efforts

Civil society exerts different influences in different countries: in the U.S. it is foreign policy influence; in Germany more in culture and society. With Russia, civil society influence is becoming more and more difficult.

Do economic actors have a role in civil society? Are there things civil society can do that official foreign policy cannot accomplish?

Business and trade can have a positive impact on the relations of two countries, especially if followed by other exchanges. Investment typically leads to other things. (Israel is a good example.) Whereas foreign policy is esoteric, top down, and separate from everyday lives, civil society can create relationships. Although it is a slow process, civil society can foster impressive and long lasting connections that governments could not accomplish. Two sides can be seen:

  • No constraint and acts quickly
  • Moral issues, takes a long time

Official foreign policy acts fast: one decision.

Civil society, through the influence of technology, can have very negative consequences. The lack of trust in governments is increasing and civil society, by filling this gap, can be negative. Two distinctions of civil society emerge:

  • Elite and expert-led, thoughtful civil society (as in Germany; can be institutionalized)
  • Grassroots/populist approach (“uncivil society” as being experienced currently in the U.S.)

Civil society is changing in many countries for the worse.

Which issues should be raised regarding civil society’s role in foreign policy and conflict resolution?

Civil society as the power of the people to influence governments, its value and potential, the responsibilities of individuals and the elite in civil society.

The role of Germany’s strong and positive civil society: how does it strengthen civil society in other countries in Europe where the far right and populism is growing?

The dangerous and increasing polarization of the two sides of civil society. The good sides (elite think tanks) works with the government, the bad sides work against it. The two sides do not communicate. The Internet proliferates this polarization and radicalization. There is a drifting apart of public consensus.

What is Germany’s role in conflict resolution and how does Germany see this? Is there are boundary in civil society, e.g., when looking at the U.S. as a policeman of the world?

Polarization is important to explore. Whose voices are heard and whose are not. What is the role of non-traditional reconciliation actors like trade and the environment?

Polarization of politics and civil society. Uncivil vs. civil. In Germany, so far, there has been a unified front of established parties against the right-wing movement of Pegida and AfD. Can the populist onslaught be halted? It is a German power question. Can Germany rise to the occasion again like in the euro crisis? Germany’s soft power and civil society: does it have limits?

Civil society as a policy liability and facilitator. The issue of the time-frame. The message of different actors have immediate or long-term effects. Also interesting would be to measure the impact of social media on civil society.

Conflict resolution, reconciliation, and civil society. Is Germany exporting this model? How does the German government view civil society in this regard? How does the government foster civil society in post-conflict countries?

Meeting report written by Susanne Dieper.