By Emanuel Skoog

German foreign policy has over the last decades been an oxymoron. An economic dynamo with the possibility for an integral leadership role in Europe, however, the country has often been accused of subscribing to a too cautious or uncooperative approach in addressing European and transatlantic challenges [1]. At the same time, expectations pertaining to German leadership have only continued to grow as frequent internal and external crises have plagued the continent. In response to these developments, Germany has in a significant manner stepped up its foreign policy posture from the Ukraine conflict to the Eurozone crisis [2]. The environment within which Germany operates has radically altered with the Brexit referendum and with the election of Donald J. Trump as the President of the United States (U.S.). After decades of a foreign and security policy centred on caution and restraint there has been a convergence among a majority of the political leadership on the need for stronger German leadership [3]. However, the institutional order within which Germany can exercise its leadership is at risk of changing dramatically. The European Union (EU) risks becoming an increasingly fragile and fractured Union and the transatlantic relationship appears to be in danger with the U.S. signalling that it might significantly decrease its role as the ultimate guarantor of the international liberal world order it established after World War II (WW II); an order in which Germany has been able to prosper [4]. The aforementioned factors pose a number of novel questions for the German leadership concerning how its foreign policy should be developed and organised in a more tumultuous environment both within the EU and on the global stage.

German foreign policy in a historical context

Ever since the end of WW II, German leaders have adopted a relatively tame foreign policy; the idea among its leaders that their country should refrain from exercising leadership on the global stage was resolutely anchored within the political leadership [5]. The prevailing view in Bonn and then Berlin was that the country is best served when firmly anchored in European and international structures [6]. However, Germany has come a long way from the period when “no-one – neither abroad nor within Germany – wanted [Germany] to play a strong international role” in the words of the former German President Joachim Gauck [7]. The country’s evolution commenced even prior to the end of the Cold War. Especially the “Ostpolitik” – West Germany’s policy of reaching out to East Germany and other countries located within the orbit of the Soviet Union – exemplified that the country could and should pursue its own foreign policy objectives [8].

The most noticeable aspect of this evolution has been within defence. Germany’s military capabilities may still have substantial weaknesses and limitations, however, its leaders have decided to deploy forces overseas in Afghanistan, Mali and to the Middle East which would have been unthinkable a couple of decades ago. In Europe Germany is embracing a dramatic shift in its approach to defence by integrating brigades from the Czech Republic, the Netherlands and Romania into the Bundeswehr [9]. For the aforementioned smaller countries, the initiative is one way of getting Germany more involved in the development of a new European security architecture whilst circumventing the complicated politics surrounding German military expansion [10].

However, the evolution of its foreign policy is not only limited to the military domain. Germany has taken an active role working on complex political issues ranging from the negotiations surrounding Iran’s nuclear programme, the Ukraine conflict or to handle the refugee crisis as a foreign policy challenge [11], underscoring the different vectors Germany is pursuing in relation to the adaptation of a more assertive foreign policy both in Europe and globally.

The way forward

Cooperation within a rules-based European and international order will continue to remain Germany’s priority. A newly elected U.S. president adopting a more isolationistic U.S. foreign policy, a growing tumultuous political situation in the EU together with rising political and security tensions in the neighbourhood of the EU will continue to force Berlin to engage in power politics [12]. However, Germany’s potential for an even greater leadership role is subject to both external and internal limitations. In Europe there still exits a fear of Germany embracing a more hegemonic role [13]. The country’s capabilities remain limited and as a result it will largely restrict it to a European role: Germany will never replicate the U.S.’ unmatched ability to deploy and project power on an international scale [14]. Lastly, there is also the risk that expectations from both EU partners and the U.S. may outpace the ability among the German public to get accustomed to the country’s changing and more assertive role- this calls for prudent leadership and a careful approach moving forward in order not to lose the public’s support [15]. Therefore, Germany’s more assertive foreign policy of late cannot be taken for granted and Germany should recognize that increasing weight on the international stage is an ambition that will lead to its own novel set of complications. However it will also present possibilities to shape an economic, political and security order more in line with Germany’s interests.


[1]. Berlin’s Foreign Policy Dilemma: A Paradigm Shift in Volatile Times: and Germany cannot afford to be a geopolitical bystander:

[2]. See note: 1

[3]. See note: 1

[4]. See note: 1

[5]. A More Assertive German Foreign Policy: and The time for German leadership has arrived:

[6]. See note: 5

[7] Note to Berlin: Power and responsibility in foreign policy:

[8]. See note: 7

[9]. Germany is Quietly Building a European Army Under Its Command:

[10]. See note: 9

[11]. See note: 7

[12]. See note: 1

[13]. Leading from the centre: Germany’s role in Europe:

[14]. See note: 1

[15]. See note: 1

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