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Today’s (German) Foreign Policy - Why It Is About All Of Us
by Lena Krause

Every successful strategy has an expiry date. In his book “Foreign Policy being at Loss – And Why It Needs Society’s Support” Volker Stanzel explains why Germany’s foreign policy urgently needs to be updated.

One solution he suggests for bringing about such change is the Global Diplomacy Lab.

If you ask people in the street to describe the term “foreign policy”, you will most likely hear words such as “diplomacy”, “treaties”, “conflicts”, “security” and many others. All of these words perfectly describe what foreign policy is about. But at the same time, there is so much more to it. One factor which many people don’t have in mind is the fact that foreign policy is not only about politicians giving important speeches, but about every single one of us and how we engage in politics.

In his book “Die ratlose Außenpolitik – und warum sie den Rückhalt der Gesellschaft braucht” (“Foreign Policy at a Loss – And Why It Needs Society’s Support“), German diplomat and former ambassador Volker Stanzel looks back at decision-making processes in German foreign policy throughout world history, shows why current German foreign policy is stuck in the past, and explains why it is vital to update it and to include more voices from civil society.

He acknowledges the successes of some of Germany’s most important and esteemed politicians such as Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and Helmut Kohl who, after World War II and during the Cold War, brought Germany back onto the international political stage. He highlights that Germany, as an important, influential and respected country would not be in its current position without its post-war foreign policy. However, in turbulent times like these, he reminds us of the need for change and explains why politicians finally need to let go of foreign policy-strategies that were successful more than 50 years ago.

In order to fully understand his argument, we need to travel a little bit back in time.

1. Post-war Germany

I was born in 1996, six years after Germany was reunited. I belong to the first generation after my parents to live in a united and peaceful Europe. I am a child of the European Union with all the advantages that brings.

Above all, I’m lucky.

I have never had to experience any kind of threat to my life or the lives of the people I love. I grew up in a world of endless possibilities, in which peace was “normal”. But I also grew up in the midst of globalisation, the rapid spread of digital technology, international Islamist terrorism and climate change.

In fact, the world we know today is the only world I have ever known.

Still, my generation in particular tends to forget to acknowledge the rapid development that Germany underwent from 1945 onwards. After the Second World War, Germany showed great resolve as regards re-establishing itself as an independent country by improving transatlantic relations and fostering multilateralism. Although Germany’s reputation in the world was shattered, German politicians were determined to take their country’s fate into their own hands as much as they could. However, during the 1950s and 1960s, German foreign policy was characterised by the need to compromise and make concessions to occupying powers and neighbouring countries. Konrad Adenauer, Willy Brandt and many others knew that in order to rise again, there needed to be reconciliation and an in-depth process of examining and coming to terms with the National Socialist past.

In the end, German foreign policy was very successful in the second half of the 20th century. Nevertheless, success creates a type of comfort that can prove fatal.

2. Germany today

At first glance, there are some perceptible similarities when one compares the above-mentioned aspects of German foreign policy from 1945 and onwards with today’s foreign policy. This is exactly what Stanzel identifies as the reason for today’s foreign policy being at a loss. In his view, Germany has failed to adapt its foreign policy to the huge social, economic and political changes of the past decades. The continuity and comfort of German foreign policy has led to a dead end.

Certainly by the post-1989 period, if not already during the Cold War itself, there was a need for change in foreign policy. There had been immense shifts on the political world stage and new powerful social actors such as international organisations, multinational corporations and NGOs had emerged. Digital transformation started and slowly created what we call a “global village”. However, Germany continued working with a virtually unchanged foreign policy, which made it become more prone to errors.

With the dissolution of the former Soviet Union, Germany missed its chance to lead a united Europe that could stand up to the United States. Instead, argues Volker Stanzel, Germany, in a world that constantly kept moving closer together, continued primarily focusing on re-establishing its own strength without sufficiently considering the importance of alliances and regional cooperation.

3. What the future could look like

Stanzel is convinced that foreign policy and politics in general need to open up, especially to civil society. He demands that responsibility for political decision-making processes be shared in order to enable the public to actively decide instead of “just having a say”.

This is where institutions like the GDL, and every single one of us, come in.

Governments now face significantly higher expectations than they did 50-years ago. New technologies and digital transformation enable us to follow political decisions and their direct and indirect consequences immediately. Politics have not only become faster and broader, but also much more emotional. This is why Stanzel believes that civil society must be integrated more closely into political decision-making processes. Instead of limiting itself to traditional and formerly very successful ways of shaping foreign policy, Germany needs to undergo a cultural change in foreign policy, Stanzel says. Citizens need to be actively involved in the exchange between politics and public discourse. This will be necessary in order to re-establish trust in politicians and political institutions and to foster their legitimacy.

The GDL is a perfect example of a body that aims to shape modern foreign policy in a way that involves experts, but most importantly members of the public, in order to have the broader vision on political issues that is needed more than ever today.

After all, politicians are only humans, too, and it is not only up to them to transform German foreign policy. It is also up to every one of us.

Published on January 10, 2020.

About the author

Lena Krause is a project coordinator and former GDL intern with strong interests in the fields of international relations, foreign policy and social sciences. 

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