The Gold Medal for Foreign Policy Goes to Germany

Berlin’s approach to the world is far better than its reputation.

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a press conference after a meeting between German State Premiers on November 18, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a press conference after a meeting between German State Premiers on November 18, 2021 in Berlin, Germany.
Olaf Scholz looks on during a press conference after a meeting between German State Premiers on November 18, 2021 in Berlin, Germany. Pool/Getty Images

If you were handing out Olympic medals for foreign policy over the past couple of decades, which major world power should get the gold? Some observers might say China, which has vastly expanded its economic and military power, increased its influence in key international institutions, and avoided the costly quagmires that the United States fell into repeatedly. But China has stumbled of late under Xi Jinping, and its increasingly heavy-handed approach at home and abroad has tarnished its image, alarmed its neighbors, and made others wary about its future intentions. An early medal favorite, China’s recent performance deserves no better than a bronze and might not earn a spot on the medal stand at all.

What about Russia? Vladimir Putin has played a weak hand well over the past 20 years, but his handling of foreign policy hasn’t made Russia safer—if it has, why is he so worried about Ukraine? Nor has he left Russia better equipped to compete effectively in the decades ahead. Russia’s leaders may crave recognition of their country as a great global power, but their governing model is of limited appeal, and other countries are going to shape the future more profoundly than Moscow is. Barring a rift between Beijing and Moscow (something the United States and others would be wise to encourage), Russia will be relegated mostly to a spoiler role as China’s junior partner.

Despite many enduring advantages, neither the United States nor United Kingdom can be regarded as serious medal contenders either. The United States has stumbled under Democrats and Republicans alike and so has Britain under both Labour and Conservative governments. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to blindly follow the George W. Bush administration into Iraq in 2003 was an obvious own goal, and the Tory-led decision to exit the European Union has left Britain poorer, less influential, and in the hands of politicians whose mendacity far outstrips their competence.

If you were handing out Olympic medals for foreign policy over the past couple of decades, which major world power should get the gold? Some observers might say China, which has vastly expanded its economic and military power, increased its influence in key international institutions, and avoided the costly quagmires that the United States fell into repeatedly. But China has stumbled of late under Xi Jinping, and its increasingly heavy-handed approach at home and abroad has tarnished its image, alarmed its neighbors, and made others wary about its future intentions. An early medal favorite, China’s recent performance deserves no better than a bronze and might not earn a spot on the medal stand at all.

What about Russia? Vladimir Putin has played a weak hand well over the past 20 years, but his handling of foreign policy hasn’t made Russia safer—if it has, why is he so worried about Ukraine? Nor has he left Russia better equipped to compete effectively in the decades ahead. Russia’s leaders may crave recognition of their country as a great global power, but their governing model is of limited appeal, and other countries are going to shape the future more profoundly than Moscow is. Barring a rift between Beijing and Moscow (something the United States and others would be wise to encourage), Russia will be relegated mostly to a spoiler role as China’s junior partner.

Despite many enduring advantages, neither the United States nor United Kingdom can be regarded as serious medal contenders either. The United States has stumbled under Democrats and Republicans alike and so has Britain under both Labour and Conservative governments. Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair’s decision to blindly follow the George W. Bush administration into Iraq in 2003 was an obvious own goal, and the Tory-led decision to exit the European Union has left Britain poorer, less influential, and in the hands of politicians whose mendacity far outstrips their competence.

Who’s left? Well, if I were awarding the medals, I’d hand the gold to Germany. If the primary goal of any country’s foreign policy is to increase its security and prosperity without doing too much damage to its expressed political values, then Germany’s performance over the past several decades is undeniably impressive. The conditions that made this strategy possible are now disappearing, however, and the big question—as newly-elected Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives in Washington to meet with President Joe Biden—is whether Germany can and will adjust.

Since reunification in the early 1990s, Berlin has managed to pull off a remarkable trifecta. First, it has remained a close security partner of the United States and is still able to remain a free rider on American protection. Germans continue to regard the United States as the first responder whenever trouble arises, and they work hard to make sure that Uncle Sam embraces that role. Moreover, Germany has managed to retain this privileged position despite having openly opposed the U.S. decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and successfully resisted repeated U.S. pleas to take on a fair share of collective defense. The Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all tried to get Germany to boost its defense capabilities, but Berlin is still far short of the 2 percent of GDP defense spending target that NATO set eight years ago. Germany doesn’t spend its defense budget very efficiently, either, so it doesn’t get as much usable capability as it should. But these shortcomings have yet to have significant negative consequences. As America’s vigorous response to the current crisis in Ukraine suggests, Germany can still count on the United States to come to its aid whenever the wolf is at the door.

At the same time, Germany has maintained a good working relationship with Russia, despite frictions following the Russian seizure of Crimea in 2014 and the renewed confrontation over Ukraine today. Germany is Russia’s second-largest trade partner (with bilateral trade valued at nearly $50 billion), and trade has expanded at an annualized rate of more than 6 percent since 1995. Among other things, these economic ties have provided Germany with vast quantities of Russian natural gas. German dependence on Russian energy has led to repeated wrangling with the United States (most notably over the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline project) but never to a complete rupture, not even under former U.S. President Donald Trump. This policy made good sense from a purely German perspective: Access to Russian gas supplies kept its factories humming and its homes heated, even as Berlin began phasing out reliance on nuclear power. It’s possible that Germany’s dependence is short-sighted and will eventually came back to haunt it, but it has paid off handsomely thus far.

Third, Germany has also remained on good terms with a rising China, and its industries have profited enormously from these ties. China is now Germany’s largest trading partner, with a volume of trade (despite the COVID-19 pandemic) of more than 212 billion euros in 2020. According to the German Foreign Office, “China views Germany both economically and politically as a key partner in Europe. The regular high-level coordination of policy conducted through a large number of dialogue mechanisms, as well as dynamic trade relations, investment, environmental cooperation and cooperation in the cultural and scientific sectors, are key elements in bilateral relations.” Although human rights issues remain a source of friction (especially for Germany’s Green Party), and the German population has an increasingly unfavorable image of China, Berlin has successfully maintained a cordial working relationship with Beijing and managed to maintain its lucrative commercial ties to China. (And before you condemn the Germans for unprincipled greed or naivete, bear in mind that China-U.S. trade has been increasing, too, despite the tariffs imposed by Trump and continued under his successor Biden.)

Has German foreign policy over the past few decades been perfect? Of course not; no country can boast a perfect record, and Germany is no exception. Germany’s premature recognition of Croatia and Slovenia in 1991 accelerated the disintegration of Yugoslavia and helped precipitate the destructive Balkan Wars, and its insistence on strict fiscal austerity during the eurozone crisis probably delayed European recovery and contributed to the emergence of European populism. German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s admirable effort to open the country to refugees from the Syrian civil war was a rare political misstep from which she had to retreat, although its foreign-policy consequences were relatively minor.

Overall, however, Germany’s ability to stay on good terms with Russia, China, the United States, and its European neighbors has been remarkable. Its measured approach also tells us a lot about the incentives and opportunities that medium powers face in a world of several great powers. So long as relations among the great powers are not too polarized, medium powers such as Germany have every reason to navigate between them and to avoid getting caught up in great-power quarrels.

Germany has managed this task adroitly. It has done so in part by remaining visibly committed to existing institutions such as NATO and the EU, thereby muting those lingering (and, in my view, ill-founded) fears that Germany might one day revert to the role of an aggressive revisionist power. Its foreign-policy elite has worked overtime to nurture trans-Atlantic policy networks, through organizations such as the German Marshall Fund and the Munich Security Conference. At the same time, the German government has also kept the lines of communication open to Beijing and Moscow, and resisted efforts to treat contemporary world politics as a zero-sum competition based on conflicting ideologies. German foreign-policy elites rarely speak the language of realism out loud—if anything, they tend to sound like die-hard liberal institutionalists—but one could argue that this pragmatic approach to foreign policy has been consistent with a realist sensitivity to the prevailing distribution of power and a ruthless willingness to do what is in Germany’s national interest.

Yet Germany’s successful run may not be sustainable for much longer. As the late Robert Jervis emphasized in his book System Effects, when relations among the major powers grow more contentious, they become less tolerant of ambiguity, and medium powers can lose their freedom of maneuver. As Sino-American relations become more competitive and Sino-Russian ties continue to deepen, it will be harder for Germany to stay on good terms with the three great powers. The crisis in Ukraine notwithstanding, Americans are unlikely to keep subsidizing German (and European) security if its NATO allies try to remain neutral in an emerging standoff between Washington and the Beijing-Moscow partnership. Under these conditions, Berlin will have to choose a side. If, as I expect, it opts for continued alignment with the United States and NATO, that will also be an opportune time for a serious discussion of a new division of labor between the United States and its European partners.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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