The debate about the myth and withering of the liberal international order is in full flow. To the surprise of many, not because non-Western emerging powers such as China and India are succeeding in overturning it, but because its founders – the US and the UK – are retreating from the global stage (at least temporarily).
One country that seems to be stepping up to fill their shoes is Germany. While its administrations have long shied away from taking on a leading global role, Berlin is finally realising that the shift in the global order requires a more assertive foreign policy. But given Germany’s history and culture, its ability and willingness to lead through military power is limited. It’s therefore looking for greater influence in the UN as an alternative.
No such thing as a vacuum
In a January 2018 interview with the news magazine Der Spiegel, Sigmar Gabriel, the then German foreign minister, was clear about the consequences of US disengagement from global leadership. “There is no such thing as a vacuum in international politics,” he said. “If the US leaves the room, other powers immediately walk in.” Gabriel stopped short of naming specific candidates, but there was little doubt that he was pointing towards home.
Indeed, if Berlin wants elements of the liberal international order to survive, including liberal values, free trade and the growth of democracy, it has to take a more prominent role in promoting them.
Heiko Maas, Germany’s new top diplomat, seems to be prepared to do just that. The social democrat has been keen to emphasise that Germany would not “duck away” from its global responsibilities. That includes challenges arising from Russia’s increasingly aggressive foreign policy posture. Maas has painted an image of contemporary international society as being divided between “those who promote openness and tolerance, and those who wish to return to isolationism and nationalism”. It is this divide, Maas says, which will determine Germany’s foreign policy approach over the coming years.
Hard and soft power
The first, and in many ways most necessary, condition for international leadership is hard power. So as a first step, Germany will have to invest more in its armed forces, if only to address the serious deficiencies in its military readiness. The armed forces commissioner of Germany’s parliament recently warned that the German military was in a “dramatically bad” state. Many weapons systems are non-operational and over 20,000 officer positions remain vacant. Raising the defence budget, which is still far below the 2% target to which NATO members are formally committed, is therefore unavoidable.
Given Germany’s lingering historical legacy and deeply entrenched anti-militarist culture, however, hard power will certainly not be the defining element of Germany’s global engagement strategy. Instead, Berlin will try to further expand its footprint in global governance institutions.
Key to the German model of leadership is the United Nations system. Whereas US liberal internationalists have largely regarded the global web of US bilateral partnerships and alliances as the cornerstone of the liberal order, Germany’s global governance strategy is firmly focused on UN-based multilateralism. “The United Nations is the cornerstone of the rules-based international order,” Maas recently reiterated. “Preservation and building of this order are central German interests.”
So Germany’s foreign minister is pitching for a seat at the UN Security Council. Germany is already an influential political player within the UN system – it’s the fourth largest contributor to the UN budget and the second largest provider of development and humanitarian aid. However, a seat in the Security Council in the next couple of years would certainly prop up its global leadership ambition.
The Security Council is by far the UN’s most powerful organ. Endowed by the UN charter with the “primary responsibility” for the maintenance of international security, the council has the legal authority to decide about matters of war and peace on behalf of all 193 UN members states.
Should Maas’ pitch be successful, Germany would join the Security Council as a non-permanent member. It would begin a two-year term on the council in January 2019. It would still not be on par with the council’s five permanent members (China, France, Russia, the US, and the UK), who hold a special right to veto council decisions. However, even a non-permanent seat would strengthen Berlin’s ability to influence the agenda.
Promoting an open, rule-based global order in an increasingly fragmented world is an enormous challenge. No liberal democracy can shoulder this responsibility alone. With its strong diplomatic credentials and global reputation as a civil rather than military power, Germany brings a distinct set of skills to the table. It could help preserve liberal order principles in way that is respectful towards, and even learns from, new actors and approaches to global governance.