Germany’s unserious and naïve foreign policy not only fails to appreciate the challenges of the 21st century, it risks the security of all Europe in the process.
Germany is the linchpin of modern Europe, dominating the Continent economically and politically. Since its unification in 1871 – and its reunification in 1990 – Berlin has been the region’s center of power. Territorially, it sits smack in the middle of Europe, straddling the Baltic and North Seas and incorporating several of the region’s major rivers, from the Rhine and the Oder to the Elbe and the Danube. It has major influence in the European Union, NATO, and the G7; oftentimes, this influence is enough to maneuver policy in a profoundly pro-German direction, as was seen after the 2009 financial crisis. Not counting nations on the European periphery (Russia and Turkey), Germany has the largest population in the region. It has the largest economy by far, exceeding its nearest competitor, France, by over a trillion dollars. Its major corporations export their goods across the globe, earning profits from every inhabited continent. In short, Germany is the most important nation on the European continent. Where it goes, Europe tends to follow – either by democratic choice or by bureaucratic fiat.
And that’s precisely why the Teutonic nation’s fundamentally flawed and foolish foreign policy is such a clear and present danger to the security and future prosperity of the West.
The Biden administration has a fatally flawed understanding of our position vis a vis our geopolitical adversaries; their consequent reluctance to capitalize on weakness betrays American interests.
Geopolitics has always moved quickly in the modern era, accelerated by rapid communications and technological progress. Swift nautical vessels carried letters across vast distances in the Early Modern period; railways connected the world even faster, fundamentally altering the human perception of time itself; wired telegraphy made it so that messages could be transmitted as quickly as electrical currents could flow, while wireless telegraphy – the radio – created mass culture as we know it; television and satellite coverage made those messages into a natural audiovisual medium, bringing global events into sharp focus. Now, in the 21st century, information can flow from one corner of the world to the other instantaneously and powerful human and computer networks can work together to analyze, contextualize, and present this data nearly as quickly. This technology allows decision-makers near-total perception of the information environment. The task of statesmanship is to understand this information, determine what is salient and what is not, and – ultimately – to make choices on that basis.
Regrettably, the Biden administration is failing on that crucial task. Instead of making timely strategic and tactical decisions to forward our national interests and grand strategy, they have seemingly adopted a policy of reluctance. In an era of rising Great Power competition and conflict, we are signaling impotence with respect to our two primary geopolitical antagonists – Russia and China – just as they are each dealing with significant weaknesses of their own. This is exactly the time we should be showing strength and capitalizing on the challenges of our rivals, but instead we are proving indecisive and hesitant. That is a recipe for disaster.
November 2022 has been a busy month in terms of international affairs. We’ve seen continuing protests against the theocratic regime in Iran, major counteroffensives by Ukraine against Russia, and the COP27 global climate conference in Egypt. In this Foreign Telegram, we discuss all three – recapping recent events, analyzing their impact, and explaining why you should care about each. So sit back, relax, and enjoy this tour around the world of foreign policy!
In episode 3 of the Rational Policy Podcast, host Mike Coté premieres a new recurring format – the Foreign Telegram. In this Foreign Telegram, for October 2022, Mike discusses three major topics in international affairs that have been on his mind over the past few weeks: Italian elections, Iranian protests, and the escalating Russo-Ukrainian War. Starting off, Italy’s recent parliamentary elections are briefly explored and mainstream narratives about the right-wing victors debunked. The reaction to this event is a microcosm of the broader trend over the past decade or so of populist issues being overlooked by the EU. Next, Mike talks about the growing anti-regime protests in Iran which were sparked by the religious police killing of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, for the “crime” of improper hijab. He recaps the situation, analyzes the potential impact, and lays out several suggestions for US policy. Also touched on are some common criticisms of this hawkish and direct approach. Lastly, the escalating war in Ukraine is broken down and major recent events explained, from the Ukrainian counteroffensives, to the Russian mobilization and annexation of Ukrainian territory. Mike also considers the Nord Stream pipeline sabotage, the nuclear rhetoric emanating from Moscow (and isolationist reactions), and what may happen next. Tune in for this comprehensive session on foreign policy and America’s role in responding to recent events.
The relationship between values and interests in foreign policy is complex and nuanced, but putting the former ahead of the latter is a recipe for disaster.
Foreign policy has always been a balance between two major factors: values and interests. Prior to the modern era, that balance was struck by an individual – generally the monarch – and his advisors, who were unaccountable to the public but for exceptional situations. That made the calculation far more simple, as did the fact that values rarely came to the forefront in an age of despotism and conquest. The exception to that rule was the influence of religion, which was used as justification for external policy for thousands of years, from the Roman crushing of the Jewish revolts to the Islamic conquest of infidel lands to the myriad Crusades which recurred throughout the Medieval period. Still, those values often coincided with interests; for example, the Crusades were also about trade routes, Byzantine geopolitical security, and personal prestige. At other times, strong values were overcome by national interests, as they were when France, led by the indefatigable Cardinal Richelieu, allied with Protestant powers in the Thirty Years War against their fellow Catholics, the Habsburgs of Spain and Austria.
The balance became far more complex and difficult in the age of mass democracy, liberal capitalism, and human rights, where national values grew in importance, especially in the United States and other Western powers. The era of universal values and rights ushered in by the Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions brought foreign policy idealism into the realm of reality, where values and high ideals are privileged above supposedly base considerations of interests. Politicians and movements around the world embraced this idealism, from American President Woodrow Wilson to the international communist movement. In reality, however, idealism – the hyperfocus on values – has consistently been an abject failure for national interests. In the case of Wilson, his Fourteen Points promoting national self-determination were foundational to the post-WWI period and, despite their intention to promote peace in Europe, led into the even greater disaster of World War II. A foreign policy focused too much on interests, however, can lead to similarly bad outcomes and compromises; Nixon’s opening to China was canny strategically, but also bolstered Mao in the middle of the devastating Cultural Revolution. As with so much of life and politics, balance is critical and different situations call for different tactical approaches.