Sep 21, 2021

Action Plan for German Foreign Policy Structures

How Germany Can Better Make, Communicate, and Implement Foreign Policy Decisions

Germany’s decision-makers in the field of foreign and security policy are facing major challenges in a rapidly changing environment. The complex mix of often new issues, technologies, and players is testing the federal government’s capacity for political analysis and action. Geopolitical and geo-economic interests are becoming more and more intertwined with technological dependencies – a development that threatens Germany’s security and prosperity. It is difficult to pinpoint the individual ministries responsible for addressing these challenges, as they usually involve cross-cutting issues.

This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of the DGAP Report Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator.

An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.


1. Holistic Thinking and Joint Action: Connecting Relevant Policy Fields
2. Anticipation: Developing and Integrating Foresight Capacities
3. Establishing Permanent Arrangements: Encouraging Strategic Debates


In light of the rapid changes in the international system, the clearly deteriorating strategic situation, and the far-reaching transformation brought about by digitalization, it is high time for Germany to establish a better institutional basis to underpin its foreign and security policy. The federal government is responsible for improving its ability to deal with parallel, complex crises and long-term developments.

By introducing more modern institutional links within the federal government, with the involvement of academia and civil society, and by deliberately organizing strategic debates both in closed-door settings and in the public sphere, Germany would enhance its capacity to take early, well-thought-out action.

These proposals are not a meaningless institutional exercise. Creating new fora and opportunities for debate can lead to the emergence of new analyses, perspectives, and solutions that differ from those previously available. Political will is not a binary concept that is either present or non-existent. In any good strategy, political action is the outcome of a constant weighing of objectives and means while seeking to answer the questions: What can I achieve, and what do I want to achieve? This is done by people who bring together their ideas and strategies through institutions and processes. Who is involved in a decision-making process, how and when these people come together, and what decision-making powers they have are all factors that have a significant impact on the options considered, the substantive decisions taken, and their implementation.

Change is only possible, however, if it is supported in the political and societal circles in which the decision-makers operate. Simply announcing decisions is not enough; instead, those involved need to have an opportunity to debate the right solution and must then be able to explain the outcome. Moreover, this process must take place in advance of a crisis, not in the middle of it.

This ties in with a third issue: foresight. Political ideas need to be developed, as do tools and instruments, often over a period of years. Decision-makers have to try to anticipate the future. This includes projecting the course of unavoidable trends and clear-cut developments, but also thinking through scenarios that anticipate unknown but plausible developments.

While political reflection processes in recent years (white papers, reviews, strategies) have analyzed new developments in depth and have in some cases adopted an interministerial approach, decision-making structures and processes have been left largely untouched. This was primarily due to recognition of the fact that an integrated approach, while widely regarded as objectively necessary, raised tricky questions in terms of the power balance between different ministries and between coalition partners (e.g., in the case of the 2016 White Paper on Security Policy and the Future of the Bundeswehr). The 2018 coalition agreement did more to illustrate the problem than address it: under the heading “Ensuring Capacity to Act and Strategic Capabilities in Terms of Foreign, Security, and Development Policy,” it merely recommended greater support for several think tanks. Since then, the pace of political developments around the world has been accelerated further by the COVID-19 pandemic and the heightened great-power rivalry. Germany’s coalition negotiations in fall 2021 offer a major opportunity both to renew the federal government’s analytical capabilities in the field of foreign and security policy, and to adapt Germany’s outdated decision-making structures and processes to reflect today’s challenges. This window of opportunity must not be allowed to pass unused.

Without renewal and adaptation, German foreign and security policy risks amounting to nothing more than mainly reactive responses to external crises.

Without renewal and adaptation, German foreign and security policy risks amounting to nothing more than mainly reactive responses to external crises. It would then fall increasingly short of what is needed to match the scale of the new threats. On the other hand, a genuine evolution of capabilities and structures could enable the federal government to show greater leadership in the action it takes. A new framework and sense of direction would be brought to the essential task of assuming responsibility in Europe and around the world. Germany could take more coherent action, despite the vicissitudes of expected crises. At the same time, this would pave the way for more coherent communication with the public and with Germany’s partners and allies.

The Afghanistan crisis has illustrated the federal government’s difficulties when it comes to anticipating crises, planning for them, and managing them optimally. Although key information about developments in Afghanistan was available in the form of embassy reports and intelligence, it was not assessed holistically or adequately in substantive and political terms. The necessary coordination and decision-making processes among the relevant ministries, the intelligence services, and the crisis unit at the Federal Foreign Office fell short of what was needed.

Structural changes and strategy development processes are not a panacea. They are no substitute for political will, and they cannot preempt the political decision-making process in concrete situations. But given the cross-cutting nature of many new challenges, which the federal government has so far been unable to address properly due to the ministries’ distinct tendency to think in terms of ministerial silos, new instruments must now be created to support early, coherent, and decisive action.

Taking Stock

Unlike its allies – such as the United Kingdom with its Integrated Review or the United States with its National Security Strategy – Germany does not have a comprehensive foreign and security policy strategy. In the last electoral term, several strategic approaches and policy guidelines were published, including the federal government’s 2016 White Paper and policy guidelines on specific regions and topics, for example on crisis prevention (2017) and the Indo-Pacific region (2020). However, foreign and security policy strategy is meant to be defined primarily at the level of the European Union and NATO.

Both the federal government’s white paper and the policy guidelines on crisis prevention call for the development of an interministerial, “integrated” approach in foreign and security policy. In practice, however, there is often a lack of coordination: firstly, between the operational level and the political leadership and, secondly, between the ministries at the highest political level. Examples of this include uncoordinated statements from the cabinet (e.g., on the northern Syria initiative) and parallel communications (e.g., six different strategies in relation to Africa in six years). The lack of coherence not only demonstrates the communication failures and turf wars that exist between the ministries; it also prevents consistent communication with the public, and contributes to uncertainty on the part of precisely the European and transatlantic allies on whom Germany depends when acting in the field of foreign and security policy.

Mechanisms to elevate outcomes at working level to the strategic-political (cabinet) level are particularly lacking.

Various formats already exist for interministerial coordination on matters of foreign and security policy. Coordination takes place primarily at the weekly meeting of the state secretaries – the highest-ranking officials in the ministries – and at the joint intelligence briefing attended by the state secretaries and the heads of the security and intelligence services. Meetings on specific issues are also held at the level of the state secretaries, and there are task force formats at the level of heads of directorate. However, these meetings are not regular or mandatory. As a result, interministerial coordination often depends on political will or the personal relationship between those involved. Mechanisms to elevate outcomes at working level to the strategic-political (cabinet) level are particularly lacking.

Germany has a Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat or BSR) – a cabinet committee whose permanent members are the Federal Chancellor, the head of the Federal Chancellery, and the federal ministers responsible for foreign affairs, justice, defense, economic affairs, and development. However, it deals primarily with the authorization of arms exports. Plans to upgrade the BSR to make it a coordination body – proposed in the 1998 SPD-Green coalition agreement and the 2016 White Paper – came to nothing. One argument that has repeatedly been put forward against upgrading the BSR is that in Germany, a country traditionally governed by coalitions, any move to concentrate decisions in the Federal Security Council would tilt the balance of power toward the Federal Chancellery to an unacceptable degree. It is true that the balance between the Federal Chancellor’s power to determine policy guidelines and the principle of ministerial autonomy must be preserved, for both political and constitutional reasons. However, these concerns should not be allowed to continue to block improvements to decision-making mechanisms for foreign and security policy.

Pursuing a joint strategy first requires an analytical consensus and joint thinking about the future. Approaches such as the PREVIEW mechanism at the Federal Foreign Office help with early crisis detection and reaching a joint understanding of a given situation. In addition, the “Federal Government Situational Analysis Centre (Foreign and Security Policy)” was established in 2019. Despite this, a common situational analysis is still lacking, as is a political assessment and evaluation of that situational analysis. At present, there are a large number of usually unconnected approaches in individual ministries, for example in the Chancellery’s Policy Planning Staff; the Federal Ministry of Defense’s Office for Defense Planning; and the Federal Foreign Office’s Directorate‑General for Humanitarian Assistance, Crisis Prevention Stabilization, and Post‑Conflict Reconstruction known as Directorate-General S.

There are also shortcomings when it comes to integrating academic expertise with political realities. The institutional boundaries slow the flow of information, despite the urgent need for expertise on issues such as policy toward China, climate change, and approaches to new technologies. In Germany, unlike in partner countries, the “revolving door” between political practice and analysis is, with a few exceptions, almost at a standstill.

Greater capacity for action requires broader, more innovative debates

The Bundestag’s work leaves little room for grappling with strategic foreign policy issues. Its debates are often limited to current affairs. Yet broader discussions are needed, both in parliament and in the public sphere, to develop a consensus and build strategic awareness. This is even more important given that foreign and security policy now blurs the line between the external and the internal; it is, consequently, a task for the whole of society. That said, the public’s risk awareness and understanding of threats are often not in line with those of the federal government. This makes it difficult for Germany and the EU to take coherent action in the field of foreign policy. Security policy debates only occasionally attract public attention, which may be partly attributable to the fact that they are often conducted in a reflexive manner. Greater capacity for action therefore requires broader, more innovative debates.

The new federal government is thus confronted with the challenge of responding to the new reality with an analysis and structures that meet the challenges posed by the wide-ranging nature and complexity of the issues, and by the need to be able to respond rapidly and coherently. At the same time, the federal government must help to overcome the inertia caused by ministerial interests. New bodies or processes must reflect the special features of Germany’s system of government – i.e., coalition governments, the principle of ministerial autonomy, and the federal structure of the state. The “European reflex” in Germany’s actions in the field of foreign and security policy must also be further strengthened to consistently take into account how German policies are perceived by European and international partners, and how they affect them. It is also vital to ensure that decision-making in Germany can link up with European decision-making processes.


 1.     Holistic Thinking and Joint Action: Connecting Relevant Policy Fields

Upgrading the Federal Security Council

The Federal Security Council should become the central cabinet committee for issues of foreign and security policy to develop a joint understanding of near- and long-term challenges (see also the Action Plan for Security and Defense Policy). It should provide a forum for strategic policy debates at the political level and facilitate concrete, timely decisions on matters of strategic importance – in other words, it should not engage in micromanagement. It should meet regularly, for example every month or two months. Its strategic planning dimension should be kept separate from the work of the federal government’s crisis task force. This will institutionalize strategic planning at the level of the federal ministers in a way that is compatible with the German constitution.

A fixed group of ministries should be represented on the Federal Security Council, including the Federal Chancellery; the Federal Foreign Office; the Federal Ministry of Defense; the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development; the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy; the Federal Ministry of the Interior, Building, and Community; and the potential new federal ministry for digital affairs. Other participants (ministries, the German states, the intelligence services) should attend on an ad hoc basis, depending on the topic and challenge being discussed. This format should operate on the basis of a broad concept of security with particular emphasis on, for example, geo-economic and geo-technological issues, cybersecurity, or the link between climate and security. Human security and sustainability also belong in this spectrum.

The thematic groundwork to support the committee should be organized in such a way that the ministries retain a strong position: They would provide the expertise, while the Federal Chancellery would merely be responsible for coordination. Lead responsibility for other coordination formats at the level of the state secretaries and below, some of which already exist, should remain with the federal ministries. The Federal Security Council would continue to discuss decisions on arms exports as well.

The work of the Federal Security Council should be supported by a permanent secretariat, with half of its members being experts and methodologists (on subjects such as big data, strategic foresight, etc.), and half being representatives of relevant ministries. The secretariat should prepare expert reports and suggest topics for discussion by the Federal Security Council on its own initiative. It should also ensure that the BSR has links with German and international experts and similar bodies, and engage in substantive dialogue, for example with the EU, NATO, and the United Nations. The aim of the secretariat’s work should be to provide optimal substantive support for the members of the BSR, but also to facilitate uncomfortable discussions at times to enhance anticipation and imagination as well as raise awareness at an earlier stage of issues when action is needed.

A Look at Germany’s Partners: The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom set up a National Security Council (NSC) in 2010. It serves as a coordination mechanism for joint strategy development and implementation on the basis of a common situational analysis. The NSC is supported by a secretariat that now has 200 members of staff; it is attached to the Cabinet Office (similar to the Chancellery in Germany) and is headed by a national security adviser. The NSC includes representatives of the Prime Minister’s Office; the Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office; the Home Office; the Treasury; the Cabinet Office; and the government departments responsible for defense, business, trade, and justice. It is possible for meetings to be attended by other government departments, the Chief of Defense Staff, the heads of intelligence, and the leader of the opposition. The meetings are prepared under the leadership of individual government departments in “implementation groups,” in which the issues and draft decisions are discussed on an interdepartmental basis before being debated at the political level. An interdepartmental situational analysis is also developed for the NSC, based on analyses produced by intelligence services, security agencies, and government departments.

Progress is regarded as having been made in terms of improved political coordination, a view expressed in a parliamentary assessment published in 2019, for example. The Foreign, Commonwealth, and Development Office has not seen its influence decline – it continues to play a key role in the NSC’s work. The Integrated Review 2021 goes so far as to call for even greater interministerial coordination and more far-reaching competences for the NSC.

Agreeing on a Strategy Development Process for the First Year of the New Federal Government

All new structures should be developed on the basis of substantive premises and priorities. This is the only way to ensure that their usefulness for Germany’s security and prosperity is clear and can be communicated convincingly to the German population and Germany’s partners. The first step should therefore be a strategy development process that takes the foreign and security policy objectives set out in the coalition agreement and determines which are short-term, medium-term, and long-term priorities – in addition to refining and operationalizing these objectives. This process should also be used to reflect specifically on what objectives Germany can secure with which partners and in which alliances. Lead responsibility should rest with the Federal Chancellery, embedded in the structure of the Federal Security Council.

This kind of strategy development process – unlike the coalition negotiations – allows the involvement of European and international partners and perspectives, for example by means of bilateral consultations and focus groups on specific topics. It thus increases the transparency and dependability of German foreign and security policy for partners and allies. The process should begin early in the electoral term to ensure that it reaches its full potential in establishing binding policies. Processes launched at a later date can all too easily be used primarily to subsequently rationalize decisions that have already been taken on an ad hoc basis.

All federal ministries should be involved in the strategy development process, if possible. The process should, and must, also explore new dimensions where the “internal” and the “external” intersect, making them comprehensible for the ministries (one example is the topic of 5G and network security). The capacity to act and to lead in the field of foreign policy requires as broad a domestic consensus as possible; for that reason, civil society should be involved from the outset, for example via citizens’ forums and forums at the level of electoral districts.

Foreign policy requires continuity, credibility, and dependability

The strategy development process should result in a national security strategy. The Federal Security Council will then have the task of advancing the implementation of the objectives formulated in it and submitting an annual report to the German Bundestag. Each year, when the report is submitted, the Federal Chancellor should deliver a speech on foreign and security policy, along the lines of the annual State of the Union address given by the president of the European Commission (see also the Action Plan for Security and Defense Policy).

2.     Anticipation: Developing and Integrating Foresight Capacities

To enhance the resilience of Germany’s foreign policy and its crisis management capabilities, strategic foresight should be made a higher priority to allow a better assessment of short-term, medium-term, and long-term risks. To this end, the federal government’s existing foresight initiatives (for example in the foresight division at the Federal Chancellery, the Future Forum (Zukunftskreis) established by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research, or PREVIEW at the Federal Foreign Office) should be better integrated into government practice. An interministerial foresight process should be launched, and “focal points” for foresight issues should be designated in all ministries. The results should feed into the work of the Federal Security Council.

Methodological issues must be coordinated on an interministerial basis. The Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik) can be used as a platform for exchange among the ministries and for international networking on foresight issues. The development of an improved German foresight approach should be guided by European and international foresight networks and products. These should be analyzed and examined as possible options for Germany (for example: the European Strategy and Policy Analysis System, a foresight network at the level of the EU institutions, or “Global Trends 2030,” a report published by the National Intelligence Council).

A Look at Germany’s Partners: Finland and France 

In Finland, foresight activities are coordinated and promoted in the Prime Minister’s Office but are regarded as an exercise in “thinking ahead” for the whole of society. The Government Foresight Group, which includes academics, coordinates the national work of the foresight network. In each electoral term, the government submits a “Report on the Future” to Parliament” that deals with strategic issues that are relevant for the future. Ministries also develop their own specific Future Reviews.

In France, the “alerte précoce” process acts as an early warning system. Roughly every two months, an informal dialogue takes place between government ministries and the intelligence services. An assessment is carried out for a time horizon of three to six months using the following categories: (1) foreseeable changes in the international context, (2) upcoming events/elections/dates, (3) conceivable and probable disruptive scenarios in current and ongoing crises, (4) “signaux faibles” (weak signals), i.e., signs of potential new crises that are already starting to emerge. 

3.    Establishing Permanent Arrangements: Encouraging Strategic Debates

Foreign policy action requires a balance between crisis-driven ad hoc measures and a long-term strategy that lays the foundations for better management of future challenges and disruption. It is important to secure the necessary public backing for this – foreign policy requires continuity, credibility, and dependability. Continuous interministerial coordination and strategy development processes on the part of the federal government are important components of this. They should be supplemented by measures that facilitate the exchange of personnel between politics and research, enhance foreign policy debate in the Bundestag, and raise public awareness of foreign policy opportunities and risks.

Boosting Exchange Between Ministries and Scientific/External Experts

The exchange of personnel between politics and research should be significantly intensified. Making it easier to cross from one side of the divide to the other would, if advocated by the political level and facilitated at the institutional level, result in greater expertise in the ministerial apparatus and, at the same time, make scientific policy advice more practically relevant. This requires less rigid personnel structures in public authorities; in particular, posts for experts should be created, and a review should be undertaken of the principle of rotation and the principle that staff should be generalists. Institutional intermediary structures between policy-makers and scientific experts should also be created.

Opportunities for Strategic Debates in the Bundestag 

The German Bundestag is the right forum to review the priorities and policies established at the beginning of the electoral term. The federal government should make a commitment to publish an annual “Report on Germany’s Place in Europe and the World.” A report of this kind, drawn up under the lead responsibility of the Federal Security Council, would give parliament a suitable opportunity to hold strategic foreign and security policy debates that go beyond current affairs and mandates for missions and, simultaneously, reflect on the implementation of the national security strategy. As a one-off measure, the government could conceivably also establish a “Commission on German Foreign and Security Policy” composed of independent experts and selected members of the public that aims to reach a societal consensus on matters of foreign and security policy. These measures, together with a “national security week” in parliament, would serve the important purpose of broadening the debate and raising awareness of external threats and the necessary political measures resulting from them.

Bibliographic data

Schwarzer, Daniela , and Christian Mölling. “Action Plan for German Foreign Policy Structures.” German Council on Foreign Relations. September 2021.

This Action Plan is an edited and slightly updated translation of the German text that was originally published on September 20, 2021, as part of DGAP Report No. 17 Smarte Souveränität (“Smart Sovereignty”). It was written in the framework of the project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” about which you can find more information here.


An English PDF of this text, including the infographics, can be found as a chapter in the DGAP Report “Smart Sovereignty.” Download the full report here.

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