Weighing Values and Interests in German Foreign Policy

A debate at the DGAP between Eberhard Sandschneider and Jörg Lau

11 April 2013
Event location
DGAP, Rauchstr. 17, 10787 Berlin Berlin, Germany
Invitation type
Invitation only


Unrealistic Values

To what extent does German foreign policy get in its own way by overemphasizing values? And how much does the current debate, which Eberhard Sandschneider sees as consisting largely of moralizing rhetoric, damage Germany’s ability to negotiate abroad? Sandschneider warns that it cannot respond efficiently to global problems and that it suffers a competitive disadvantage when it cultivates unrealistic values and fosters moral qualms that are all too large.

 “Up until now, the results of excessively linking foreign affairs to values have been devastating,” Sandschneider said. No ambitious goals have been achieved. External attempts to spread democracy almost always fail, and sanctions mostly miss their mark (as in Iran and North Korea, for example).

Moreover, the champions of value-oriented foreign policy often do their values a disservice when they present their causes in a way that attracts the media. Shrewd and articulate dictators are often able to capitalize on this sort of spectacular performance and place themselves in an attractive light. Sandschneider therefore calls for quieter forms of diplomacy to help promote one’s own norms.

 “The true representatives of a credible values-based policy are not the ones who wave their principles like flags but rather those in the position to ground their foreign policy decisions in open consideration of values and interests.”

A Crumbling Community of Values

“The times in which global politics followed the moral ideals of the West are past,” asserted Sandschneider. Shifts in power politics have set limits on foreign policy guided by values. Thus African countries, responding to European as well as Chinese courtship of the continent, are in a position to build up economic ties while at the same time ignoring demands for good governance. Value-based policy, moreover, is hindered by the fact that consensus about it within the West is, increasingly, crumbling.

Are Western values really in decline? The opinion is not unanimous. Jörg Lau stressed that it is not a matter of the West imposing “its” values on the rest of the world. Basic universal values – such as those upheld by the United Nations from the very beginning and those incorporated into the CSCE (or Helsinki) Process – have always found support outside of the West. “The global world has long created common rules,” Lau said. “These are the values that African dissidents also want to share with us.” Today’s dividing line no longer separates the West from the rest but, rather, separates free systems from authoritarian ones.

Values are a Foreign Policy Interest

In his response to Sandschneider’s presentation, Lau forcefully warned against sacrificing moral standards too lightly in favor of interest-driven policy. Thus did the tacit agreement to support authoritarian regimes in North Africa and turn a blind eye toward human rights abuses there – in the interest of promoting good economic ties – prove to be the wrong policy. Ultimately, this all too fragile stability damages one’s own interests as well.

“Sometimes you have to simply speak out – in a way that is loud and clear,” claimed Lau. When non-governmental organizations – for example, German foundations in Egypt or Russia – are prevented from doing their work, this calls for protest. When the German Bundestag voiced clear criticism of Russia’s deficiencies in upholding the rule of law, it led neither to diplomatic rifts nor to damaged business relations.

Artificial Contradiction

Sandschneider noted the degree to which public debate in Germany tends to be marked by extreme positions. Indeed, because of this, the discussion has at times resembled a sham debate, with an artificial and out-of-touch juxtaposition of values and interests. “Values and interests cannot be separated from each other. Quite the opposite: credible foreign policy is based on the prudent consideration of values and interests. Ultimately it is about setting priorities – and indeed, to withstand the contradictions and double standards as well.

Discussion of the subject will continue in series of events at the DGAP.