External Publications

Mar 11, 2013

Leaving the Moral High Ground

Values and interests in the German foreign policy debate

Eberhard Sandschneider, head of the DGAP’s research institute, responds to an article in the German weekly DIE ZEIT by Jörg Lau, "The German Love of Dictators," in which Lau criticized German foreign policy makers for their friendliness toward dictators and "half-democrats.”

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The debate surrounding German foreign policy is a good deal better than its reputation. In the last two decades, our public discussion has adapted to global political shifts as well as to Germany’s new role to a degree that most would have thought impossible in the early 1990s.

But often enough it is downright priggish.

This may have something to do with the tendency to stake out extreme positions. Values stand in one corner, facing off against economic interests – or, at best, security concerns – in the other. The debate falsely suggests that values and interests are mutually exclusive. However, in a foreign policy that sees credibility as the pre-requisite for success, they cannot – nor should they – be separated from each other.

Credible and effective foreign policy is based on feasibility, not dogmatism. A balance must be struck between values and interests without allowing double standards or smugness to discredit those values. Europe and the West need to accept the bitter truth that world affairs are no longer determined by the West’s morals concepts and values. As Europeans we might think this is regrettable, but to ignore the reality of the 21st century would be frivolous and naïve. Blithe allegations that values are being ignored are hardly a substitute for a pragmatic foreign policy, and they could indeed derail constructive debate.

Does this justify doing nothing when Western ideals are violated? Sometimes it does. Who can justify the opposite of doing nothing? Who gives us the right to actively interfere in the domestic affairs of another state? It is as if the international law that we claim to revere, with its stated dictate of non-intervention, did not exist. And who decides on the means of intervention and legitimizes them?

Germany has never had a tradition of restraint in its foreign policy. With the assistance of various institutions – such as the foundations affiliated with political parties – Germany has always had its hand in the affairs of other countries. These policies have often been very successful when it comes to building civil society or party systems or reestablishing a working democratic order after domestic upheavals. But the track record is less impressive for interventions pushing for regime change in other countries, not least with military means – unless you think that Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are actually standing on the threshold of stable, democratic futures.

Of the depressingly small group of parliamentarians who understand foreign policy, every member is aware that there is no alternative to dealing with dictators. We do not have to love them, but we do have to cooperate with them. Despite what critics say from the moral high ground, this does not mean we are betraying or forgetting our own values – or sacrificing them to abject economic interests. The opposite is the case. Only by keeping the channels of communication open do we have the possibility of trying to influence domestic policies in dictatorships at critical junctures. We cannot expect miracles. Domestic politics are preeminent, even in dictatorships.

Criticism of this supposed soft-pedaling toward dictators ignores an important factor: time. The peaceful collapse of East Germany would hardly have been possible during Brezhnev’s regime. While he was in power, West Germans worked with him and his system without any of the misgivings that today leave a bad taste in some mouths. Was it because our policies at the time were motivated by the noble cause of world peace rather than by economic interests – the driving force that some see lurking behind Germany’s current foreign policy?

Take Egypt for example. Today it is easy enough to criticize Europe’s position toward former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He was no democrat. We knew that then, and we know it now. Nonetheless his government protected a fragile stability in the Middle East for many years. This was in Europe’s interest – and it justified our working with his regime. Even today, with the benefit of hindsight, it is hard to specify what a reasonable alternative to this policy might have looked like. The explanation is simple and cannot be stated clearly enough: when values and interests stand in conflict, it may be necessary and reasonable for a pragmatic foreign policy to prioritize interests.

When a chancellor travels for negotiations with a non-democratic regime, she never has just one topic in her suitcase. She will want to address human rights as well as economic interests, to work on solutions to global issues like climate change but also discuss the protection of intellectual property. She has to take advantage of opportunities to cooperate, just as we expect her to be clear in stating Germany’s interests on bilateral and multilateral issues.

For these reasons, foreign policy is never monothematic. Nor should it be. It relies on the permanent balance between values and interests, which in democracies should be given regular and critical examination. They are not always incompatible, but in some unfortunate cases they are. Such contradictions cannot be avoided. At its best, discussion of these friction points will help illuminate them and make acceptable unprejudiced decisions possible. This kind of political approach needs constant debate, but the necessary space for it cannot be achieved unless participants are prepared to set aside their assumptions and their sense of moral superiority.

This text was published in DIE ZEIT on February 28, 2012. Jorg Lau’s initial article [DE] ran in DIE ZEIT on February 21, 2012.

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