THE BLOG

Germany's Post-Reunification Foreign Policy

Germany has played an outsized role in Europe after reunification in 1990. But that role has largely been economic. There were many fears at the end of the Cold War that a reunified Germany would destabilize Europe. Margaret Thatcher kept a map of Germany's 1937 borders in her purse to illustrate her anxieties about the "German problem," and many of her French and Polish interlocutors didn't need convincing. But those fears never came to pass. With one or two exceptions, Germany went along to get along.

One of those exceptions was Germany's decision in 1991 to recognize the independence of Croatia and Slovenia, which went against the recommendations of both the United States and the UN. Another exception was the decision in 2003 to withhold support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But in general, Germany has kept its head down and focused a great deal on domestic issues.

"Germany certainly in a sense increased its stature in the European Union at the very least," foreign policy expert Philipp Rotmann of the Global Public Policy Institute told me in Berlin last February. "On the other hand, the whole endeavor of unification took up a lot of energy and resources of various kinds, financial the most obvious, but also a lot of political energy and social energy. Germany was very busy with itself in the first decade. This whole business of coming to terms with reunification -- and what it means, and how we treat different life stories in this country -- is far from over."

Coming to terms with reunification also required creating a unified foreign policy after 1990. For the most part, however, this meant absorption more than integration. The East German army was radically downsized and absorbed into the West Germany military. Retirement was an important part of this process.

"The diplomatic corps similarly got retired," Rotmann explained. "A few people who were relatively young and junior at the time are still hanging around in the reunified diplomatic corps. But basically like most state institutions, it was a Western takeover of the East. And that's also how the people feel about it, including those few people who have made a career in these institutions in the army or in the foreign office. In the foreign office, there's more of an intellectually aware cadre of people who are very careful not to marginalize people. And obviously for people who joined later, there's been no problem in general, but they are a small minority and don't exist at certain levels of seniority yet."

The East German experience of foreign policy did not contribute much to post-reunification relations with the world. "Basically post-unification German foreign relations with other countries have been a continuation of West German relations with these countries," Rotmann concluded. "West Germany had relations with the Communist countries. In some cases, East Germany had the better embassy, and so the reunified Germany got to take over the East German embassy, because it was the nicer one. In Ethiopia, for example, it's the most beautiful embassy we have in Africa. It was the old German embassy of the German empire. But after the Second World War, the Ethiopians gave it to the East Germans rather than the West Germans. That's as much as I can say in terms of special relations to Eastern European and Communist countries."

We also talked about relations with NATO, the German experience in Afghanistan, peacekeeping, and the debate within Germany about humanitarian intervention.

The Interview

How would you characterize the shift in German foreign policy after 1989?

There's a kind of mainstream description of it that I'm sure you're familiar with: that German foreign policy, to some extent, normalized after the end of the Cold War. Like any of these characterizations, it has a kernel of truth. But it's also very hard to quantify, and you can find many exceptions. Germany certainly in a sense increased its stature in the European Union at the very least. On the other hand, the whole endeavor of unification took up a lot of energy and resources of various kinds, financial the most obvious, but also a lot of political energy and social energy. Germany was very busy with itself in the first decade. This whole business of coming to terms with reunification -- and what it means, and how we treat different life stories in this country -- is far from over.

So, on the one hand, there's some increased weight, but it is less a matter of increased activism or increased sense of purpose and more a matter of increased expectations that have come from the outside, which are much more problematic for many politicians and diplomats. The weight can be measured obviously in terms of the very simple measures of power and influence and prestige, such as GDP and population. It can also be measured by the kind of soft power of having reunified peacefully, with the Korean delegations asking us about what's going on and how they could prepare for the eventuality. Since all this hit us precisely when we Germans were so busy with ourselves, it was very hard to meet these expectations.

The tip of the spear, the extreme cases of military deployments, showed this. In 1991, during the Iraq War, Chancellor Kohl had money to give: nothing else, just lots of money. Then, during the 1990s and into the Afghanistan War, the question was: what can, should, must Germany contribute? It was always under an obligation to its allies. But the independent evaluation of whether it was good or bad, of what precise German interests would be affected in a place like Afghanistan or not affected in Iraq, always played a minor role. Obviously in the Iraq case, for once the German government broke with the United States. But before that, it was always a mixture of Western and multilateral impulses.

One of the first controversial decisions for German foreign policy after 1989 was the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia. How would you assess that more than 20 years later?

I think it's a very interesting rare case that I don't fully understand. I've never researched this particular decision in depth. It was a rare moment of activism for Germany, which usually went down the path of least resistance and followed whatever the Americans did, or perhaps in some ways, what the French and the British did, especially in those early years after of unification. So it's a curious outlier that I can't really explain right now. Given the history of the Balkan wars, it has obviously had negative consequences, but I'm not sufficiently an expert on this to judge how much of a difference it made. Ultimately it was part of a pattern of partisanship, with the French on one side and the Americans and Germans on the other. We now know that both sides had blood on their hands at that point. So, it was a problematic decision, but I won't necessarily say that something else would have been that much less problematic in a situation like that.

As a rare example of activism, has it had any impact within German foreign policy, or has it remained a singularity in that respect?

I don't think people analyzed this and said that it was a model or "never again." If I just look at the last 20 years, it has remained an anomaly. Perhaps it was just a weird confluence of factors that led to a policy that Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher and his advisors cooked up at the time. We don't stick our neck out as a matter of course. We might do it in exceptional circumstances, like in the Iraq decision, but not on a general basis.

There seemed to be a choice point sometime over the last 20 years about where Germany and France in particular would decide to put the emphasis in terms of military force: to stay with NATO structures or to develop an independent European capacity. There is an independent European capacity, of course, but it remains relatively small. I'm curious how the German position has evolved on that issue, looking at these two options.

To read the rest of the interview, click here.