German Foreign Policy

Book Review by Manuela Glaab

Unified Germany has become capable of real international responsibility, as demonstrated by deployments of German troops in such hotspots as Kosovo, Macedonia, and Afghanistan. Shortly after 9/11 Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made clear in a speech to the Bundestag that Germany could no longer restrict itself to the “secondary assistance measures” of humanitarian, logistical, and financial aid. This “stage of German post-war policy,” he said, was now “gone, never to return.”

Yet as Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer again stressed in an address at Weimar in spring of 2002, “Intelligent self-constraint, a clear rejection of all attempts to renationalize foreign policy, and, above all, a firm commitment to full European integration must remain our constants.”

The delicate balancing act between self-limitation and self-assertion –the title of Helga Haftendorn’s comprehensive study of German foreign policy—clearly remains a characteristic of the way Germany views its foreign affairs today. At a time of rapid change in external circumstances, then, it is especially useful to review the historical development and basic principles of German foreign policy. Haftendorn, professor emeritus at the Otto Suhr Institute at Berlin’s Free University, brings a profound knowledge of the material to this comprehensive volume and makes it far more than just a chronological survey of the period 1949 to 2000. She traces systematically the interactions of an international system that for decades was determined by global bipolarity. The main theme running through the book is Germany’s course in becoming a respected member of the international community and a reunified country despite its half-century division, disastrous history, and the East-West conflict.

Haftendorn’s primary focus is on transatlantic themes: security, “the German question,” European integration,and foreign trade. She devotes one chapter to the foreign policy of the [East] German Democratic Republic before the unification of 1990. She bases all her findings on original documents on German foreign policy.

Haftendorn views the two German states as structurally dependent systems that had to demonstrate adaptability in foreign policy, often to the detriment of being able to discuss domestic problems openly. It was only when external factors changed that the foreign policy of both West and East Germany could change. Despite sharing a somewhat similar geo-strategic position, the countries developed quite differently; while the GDR was locked into one-dimensional dependence on the Soviet Union along with the other “socialist sister states,” the Federal Republic was soon able to gain significance as the “outpost of freedom.” Initially, founding father Konrad Adenauer insisted on exclusive sovereignty for West Germany and refused to recognize the rival German state to the east. Reparations, reconciliation with France, and multilateral cooperation were the heart of his strategy of integration with the West. European policy was marked by the conflicting priorities of transatlantic versus European orientation that, according to Haftendorn, further restricted German room for maneuver.

As far as security policy was concerned, there was no alternative to the Atlantic alliance with the United States, as the 1966 NATO crisis meeting in the wake of the French withdrawal from the military alliance amply demonstrated. Predictability and dependability remained the central pillars of Bonn’s foreign policy.

With East-West detente at the end of the 1960s, German foreign policy was able to take a new direction. The center-left government introduced an “Ostpolitik” of more relaxed relations with the East that greatly enhanced Germany’s scope for international action. The Federal Republic settled into a modus vivendi in Europe—and came to have some influence in the United Nations and in the new Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe in the 1970s.

In Haftendorn’s opinion, however, achieving a policy of balance as Chancellor Helmut Schmidt did in establishing the European Monetary System in the late 1970s could work only in the economic sphere. By contrast, security policy presented few opportunities for such initiatives. As a result, German interest in the maintenance of European detente was overshadowed by the new ice age between the superpowers in the 1980s. Following NATO’s decision to deploy new medium-range nuclear weapons in Europe while pursuing arms-control talks, Germany had no alternative but to accept the stationing of these missiles on its soil, despite the strong domestic opposition that helped topple the Schmidt government in 1982.

The author convincingly shows that under Helmut Kohl the “Adenauer method” was given a new lease of life in the form of “self-assertion through self-constraint.” Progress was made in European integration via the traditional method of the Franco-German tandem; unobtrusively, Germany was able to get some of its own EU proposals adopted—most notably, the conditions for the European Economic and Monetary Union.

In the 1990 “two plus four” negotiations about the external aspects of German unification the Federal Republic enjoyed some new leeway. US prodding of Britain and France and Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev’s consent to extending West Germany’s membership in NATO to cover eastern Germany were decisive in finally closing the “sovereignty gaps” in German foreign policy.

Haftendorn has, without doubt, achieved her stated aim of writing a structural history of German foreign policy that shows its development and also explains the interaction between the system and the actors. In addition, she examines the impact of domestic on foreign policy in Germany.

After 1990 there was a significant expansion in Germany’s external room for maneuver. Yet according to Haftendorn, the first decade after reunification revealed only a gradual divergence from the continuity of the Federal Republic’s external relations. Haftendorn views German participation in out-of-area military deployments (even without a UN mandate, as in Kosovo) as the most important policy change in unified Germany.

Unified Germany, however, still lacks a clearly defined role. The difficult balancing act between fears of German dominance and demands for increased Germany responsibility for maintenance of peace and stability in Europe is typical. Germany cannot exercise leadership except through cooperation with others. Following 9/11, it may be assumed that the “European imperative” has become even more important. In view of America’s prevailing tendency to go it alone, the balancing of the transatlantic relationship by strengthening the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) would appear to be more needed than ever.

In the last resort, just how far Germany can go in taking on a leading role with its European partners will depend on how far its new claims to be in on decision-making are backed up by real military capabilities.

Helga Haftendorn, Deutsche Außenpolitik zwischen Selbstbeschränkung und Selbstbehauptung 1945-2000 [German Foreign Policy between Self-Constraint and Self-Assertion, 1945-2000] (Stuttgart/ Munich: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 2001)
536 pp., E29,80.

Manuela Glaab