Germany: Global Player without strategy

Author: Ralf Südhoff
Date: 7. April 2020

In the midst of the global corona pandemic, the German Federal Foreign Office is celebrating a milestone anniversary. But not only the pandemia highlights: There is little to celebrate for the ministry.

Seldom are international politics as ubiquitous as in the current climate. These should be high times for German foreign policy makers, with as of late migration policies, climate change, Brexit, and corona being at the forefront of the international agenda. The German Federal Foreign Office (Auswärtiges Amt – AA) is commemorating its 150-year anniversary these days. But is there reason to celebrate?

COVID-19: a mammoth foreign policy task

With border closures across Europe, EU video conferences, and virtual G7 summits, many adjustments are being made in the political environment in response to the corona crisis. Global collaborative efforts are as critically needed as seldom before. At the same time, Berlin is representing its foreign policy as guided by humanitarian principles rather than national interests, as defending a rule-based multilateral system. Berlin perceives itself as a global player, yet a mediator of foreign affairs, with ‘values, ethics, and a sense of responsibility at its core’. Measuring Berlin by its own standards however, it becomes clear that also beyond the challenges of COVID19, German foreign policy is failing to meet its own ideals.

This is evident when examining the actions of the German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, whose main focus in current times is on the crucial repatriation of German holiday-makers, while we hear very little on the nightmarish scenarios unfold in refugee camps in Greece and Syria, or the threats for well over 1 billion people who live in overcrowded slums globally.

While such conditions worsen, NGOs and aid organisations are imposing hiring freezes in anticipation of dramatic decreases in donations. The result? COVID19 could become another global crisis that hits the poorest of the poor hardest. The new public community spirit, which has arisen over the past weeks, could remain a humanism of the wealthy for the wealthy – overseeing or simply forgetting those who fall outside this bracket, unless we make quick and concrete measures now to protect the vulnerable.

The challenges that the Federal Foreign Office faces, the humanitarian projects and opportunities to implement new policies, call for concrete action in these troublesome times. And yet these times exemplify discrepancies between the major financial commitments made and the rarely strategic engagement of German foreign policy makers.

In the tradition of checkbook diplomacy?

Former Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher once personified ‘checkbook diplomacy’, which lay at the heart of German foreign policy for decades. During this time, while Germany engaged financially, it did not want to engage in other areas for historical reasons. Today, criticism arises that while Germany claims to engage on all levels, it is not able to do so. The best example of this phenomenon can be found in an area of which the German Federal Foreign Office is particularly proud, but is overlooked within discussions on the Corona pandemic: its humanitarian commitment.

Germany’s humanitarian aid has increased sixteen-fold in the last ten years, with funding increases of more than 400% since 2015 alone. Berlin is now the world’s second largest humanitarian donor, providing approximately 1.5 billion Euro yearly. This increase in financial aid has led to increased hopes and expectations regarding Berlin’s global role in major crises, the latter’s supra-regional impact, and on issues of life-and-death importance for those in profound need.

These expectations arise against the backdrop of the humanitarian principle of giving aid based on the core notion of providing unconditional, neutral support to those who are in greatest need, which is being threatened to an extent unseen since the end of the Cold War. A German foreign policy would be crucial to defend humanitarian values, following the most basic notion and belief that the life of every person has intrinsic value and should be protected, regardless of personal status, gender, religion, ethnicity, or identity.

The fact that this basic humanitarian principle is drifting into the shadows, away from sight and mind, cannot anymore be blamed solely on the elites in Damascus and Moscow, in Riyadh or Tehran. Governments in Washington, Brussels, Paris, Rome, and Athens have lately shied away from core humanitarian principles with their own policies. Experts for good reason speak of a ‘Shrinking Humanitarian Space’ even in the heart of Europe.

In 2019, it remained almost unnoticed how explicitly Washington was instrumentalising humanitarian aid simply for political reasons (see Venezuela), and refusing to adequately support even the most vulnerable, namely children on the Mexican border. Similarly, there was a short outcry followed by profound silence when the EU decided to stop rescuing migrants drowning in the Mediterranean prioritising migration policies over principles. Then those civilian agencies and ship captains who tried to help were criminalised. Now the situation in Greece: For political reasons, the EU let overcrowded refugee camps on the Greek Islands sink into absolute chaos. And now Athens is suspending the basic human right to seek asylum at its borders, with the explicit consent of the EU.

And Berlin? Promises are made to take in some underage refugees. Some funds have been made available. Plus, it emphasises how it is lobbying for more human approaches.

In view of the major crises: no progress at all

As we can be sure the right motives are in place, specifically in the humanitarian departments of the Foreign Office: What interests and internal power dynamics are at play when powerful Berlin cannot convince Athens to build toilet facilities for refugees? Or when the German UN Ambassador after a year as member of the UN Security Council sums up that ‘with regard to major crises, we could not initiate any progress’.

While on the one hand lack of progress can be attributed to external factors, such as the veto powers within the UN Security Council, the focus needs to be on the ministry with its systematic lack of strategic capacities and staff. For example, when negotiations began at the UN Security Council on the Syrian Crisis, the only competent German diplomat was on well-deserved leave. The issue at hand is not purely anecdotal. Structural overload is a problem. While the Office has almost twice as many resources available as ten years ago, the number of global staff employed has increased by less than 10% in the same time period. The personnel reserve needed for crisis missions is currently 1.7% of total staff, far from the necessary 8%.

Currently, 73 individuals within the entire ministry are responsible for humanitarian aid worldwide, and less than 1% of total staff control approximately 25% of the budget. According to the ministry’s internal calculations, other donors invest twice (Great Britain), three times (USA), eight times (EU) or even ten times (Switzerland) as much into their staff, in comparison to every Euro in aid they give. One consequence is that the Federal Audit Office (Bundesrechnungshof) has revealed almost 2.5 billion Euro from the total budget have been spent by the ministry in recent years without adequate auditing. The proposed solution to solve this issue is the establishment of a new federal agency.

Furthermore, hardly any other country today has such a centralised structure as the German diplomatic service, despite having 227 foreign missions located around the world. Even Niels Annen, Minister of State at the Federal Foreign Office, has critically drawn attention to the issue, questioning ‘How can we involve our missions abroad in the decision-making process here at our Berlin headquarters?’. Other donors no longer make important decisions solely in the capital; rather they have decentralised processes and involve experienced humanitarian experts on the ground in Nairobi, Beirut or Bamako. But Germany? When questioned by the parliament, the Foreign Office could not name one specific expert in any embassy who is responsible for dealing with major crises on the ground.

Moreover, as all staff are rotated, all staff members start from scratch on a new subject area on average every three years. The result is an absence of local networks and a lack of expertise, weakening the sustainable impact of major German initiatives such as in the Libya crisis. An archaic concept of knowledge management further hinders decisive action from occurring.

While the Office is currently moving forward with its new humanitarian strategy, emphasising opportunities for innovation and digitalisation, and financing innovation labs with hip slogans such as ‘failing forwards’, it still lives in a world of paper files. Even the sharing and parallel processing of documents on ‘share points’, which is common practice in every small start-up today, is still in the pilot phase within an organisation that houses almost 7500 employees.

The issues within the ministry go beyond management, involving differing interests and structures within the AA and beyond. Representatives have conflicting standpoints within the ministry and even within single departments. As an example, Department S – ‘S for Stabilisation’ – oversees humanitarian projects. Germany’s stabilisation policy however follows its own guiding principles and is structured around pursuing German interests over humanitarian values, focusing ‘primarily on the crises and conflicts that particularly affect German and European security interests’.  

Take the Sahel as an example. The Federal Foreign Office describes countries such as Mali as a prime example of how ‘diplomacy, armed forces, and police operations … work with stabilisation and sustainable development projects towards a common goal’. Meanwhile, humanitarian aid workers on the ground strongly challenge this view. They perceive international involvement to be related to the West’s politically-based interests regarding migration, military, and security in the context of the fight against the Islamic State. For humanitarians, this stands in the way of NGO mission’s impartiality and neutrality which helps protect employees in volatile situations. Besides, those involved in this field, such as the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University, lament that the necessary expertise for ‘impacting dynamics of conflict’ through stabilisation policies has not yet been developed, and is ‘often still unknown, perhaps also uncomfortable terrain’ for the Federal Foreign Office.

Plea for a value-oriented German foreign policy

A foreign office that has the authority to implement its own initiatives and is united on core issues would be of paramount value within the Federal Government, surely also in post-corona times, since the roles of the Federal Foreign Office, the Chancellery, and the Ministries of Defence, Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) are often contradictory, and conflicts between defence and foreign ministers are now being discussed on the public stage. Moreover, the German predilection for strict compliance to rules and regulations halts progress that could be made. For example, efforts for closer co-operation between the BMZ and AA are limited due to conflicting requirements of the Ministry of Finance. The latter’s response to calls for better cooperation is an insistence that budgeting laws be met and tasks be strictly separated, and the application of the same transparency measures for humanitarian aid in Syria bombing raids as applied for the construction of kindergartens in Munich-Pasing.

Who decides on how Germany engages on an international scale, in ways that some hope, while others fear? Foreign observers have raised the question as to whether Germany needs to have a national security council that coordinates government policy. After all, who decides the outcome of concrete questions, when it comes to defending ethical values against political interests? When it comes down to weighing up what matters more in the case of arms export to war-torn countries – the millions of civilians suffering in Yemen, or shipyards and jobs in German Wolgast? When the decisions relate to providing corona-specific funding to the world’s poorest and not to focus only on packages to support the German economy? Who is defending humanitarian priorities and prioritising these?

Today in Berlin, in Europe, and in the world’s major crises, a German foreign policy based on humanitarian values, and a ministry that is strategically, culturally, and in its human resource policies appropriate to the 21st century context might be more important than ever before. However, how long the path to this goal is and how fundamental the issues to be fixed, was recently highlighted by Minister of State Niels Annen: After 150 years of existence, he declared it is necessary to create a Federal Foreign Office that exemplifies ‘team spirit rather than autocratic behaviour, collegiality rather than believing in your own superior knowledge, and feminism rather than patriarchy’.

Ralf Südhoff is Directior at the Centre for Humanitarian Action (CHA). Prior to joining CHA, he worked for the UN for 12 years, most recently in Jordan as the Director of the UN World Food Programme Regional Bureau for the Syria Crisis. Before he worked as Advisor to Ms. Uschi Eid, State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development.

A short version of this blog was published on April 4, 2020 in Süddeutsche Zeitung.