How the new German government can strengthen Germany’s and Europe’s capacity to act and win back power to shape international affairs

Germany’s new federal government has begun its work at time of rapid and multidimensional international change. New threats, transnational risks, and an ever-deeper intertwining of international and domestic affairs are challenging the government’s capacity to act. Most countries – Germany included – are losing their power to shape affairs. At the same time, it is becoming more and more important to have the ability to influence international developments in order to achieve the classic domestic goals of the state: security, prosperity, and political order.

This report was produced as part of the DGAP project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator. In a ten-month process of reflection and strategy, DGAP – together with a group of renowned foreign policy experts – discussed Germany’s current ability to take foreign policy action and deliberated over how, post-Merkel, the German government should position itself in order to best deal with complex foreign policy opportunities and challenges in the future.

Action Plans on Key Challenges and Opportunities for German Policy

This online text is the introduction to and summary of the ten action plans. Download the full report here


Content of this Overview

The New Strategic Situation

New Risks Require New Approaches

Strengthening the Capacity to Act and Winning Back the Space to Shape Affairs


Action Plan for German Foreign Policy Structures

Action Plan for Security and Defense Policy

Action Plan for the Economy and Foreign Policy

Action Plan for China and Foreign Policy

Action Plan for Technology and Foreign Policy

Action Plan for Resilience and Democracy

Action Plan for Climate and Foreign Policy

Action Plan for Climate and Security

Action Plan for Migration and Foreign Policy

Action Plan for the Western Balkans and EU Neighborhood

The Project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” A Process of Reflection on the Capacity to Act in German and European Foreign Policy

We advise the new government to take an approach of “smart sovereignty.” It should make targeted use of its increasingly limited power resources in a way that prevents a further loss of scope for action and influence – and opens up new options for action through cooperation. The goal is to prevent further strategic déclassement: Germany should not have to adopt other states’ goals in key areas, but rather should put itself in a position to define and implement its own goals. In the same vein, it should be able to support its partners’ ambition when it considers these important.

The understanding of sovereignty, which since the 19th century has been based primarily on the separation of domestic and foreign policy, must be further developed for this purpose. Four tasks are key here:

  • Determining goals for and solutions to political problems and approving them politically  
  • Developing structures and processes that facilitate the analysis of internal and external developments and enable political decisions and their implementation
  • Providing resources, capabilities, and instruments for the realization of Germany’s goals
  • Offering to cooperate with partners in all three areas – i.e., on goals, structures, and resources

Like the areas of activity and problems for which they are designed, the solutions described here are interdependent and affect different areas. “Smart” means that the measures and actions taken should not only be comparatively effective at solving problems in different fields, but also minimize negative effects due to unintended consequences. This is a criterion that takes heed of the efficient use of power. The second criterion is sufficiency. There are some measures that cannot be dispensed with, even if one believes it is possible to achieve more with the same effort in other areas. This competition for resources is increasingly affecting security policy, for example through demands to spend more money on climate protection and less on defense. Arguments of this kind imply that there is a choice. But the state has a duty to provide security against all kinds of existential threats.

A few years ago, there was much discussion about Germany’s role in the world. In view of the Federal Republic’s increased power within the European Union and on the international stage, it was said at the time, the German government should assume more responsibility and leadership. Some are still making this demand today, but the international environment has changed in such a way that Germany alone can achieve less and less.

Due to its economic openness and deep international interconnectedness, Germany is particularly affected by global developments, transnational risks, and the growing systemic conflict. As a trading power in the center of Europe, the Federal Republic depends on international connectedness and political cooperation with the world. The EU is essential in all of this. It is Germany’s closest political partnership, a source of power and prosperity, and a force that sets the political framework: Germany’s geopolitical position is bound up in Europe.

The fact that Germany and the EU are today facing so many simultaneously emerging regional, transnational, and global risks and challenges demands preventive, comprehensive, and above all rapid action. The new German government has a responsibility to enable Germany to take such action. This is a comprehensive task because Germany and its partners in the EU have not yet adapted to the fundamental changes in the international environment in a way that would enable them to protect their fundamental interests.

In order to develop new options for action and the influence required to practice smart sovereignty, the new federal government must:

  • Accept conflict, including the systemic conflict between authoritarian states and democracies, as a basic feature of international relations for the next decade (Nevertheless, it should try to limit conflict.);
  • Understand that it must take up the task of protecting and asserting German and European interests in this conflict environment; and
  • Achieve the international influence necessary for this by combining classic means of foreign policy with new instruments and using them systematically.

Smart Sovereignty and the Discussion on Strategic Autonomy and European Sovereignty

The improved, strengthened European cooperation underlying the smart sovereignty approach does not aim to weaken the nation state. In some areas, for example in digitization and climate policy, the state will even have to do more to shape affairs. The idea is to cooperate closely with other governments to increase assertiveness at the crucial international level. The previous approach of separating domestic and foreign policy often still influences the political debate – see, for instance, the Brexiteers‘ motto of “Take Back Control.” But this approach no longer corresponds to reality today.

That is why the understanding of sovereignty must evolve: the goal is to become capable of taking action that ensures security, prosperity, and democratic order – under both present and future conditions. In many areas, Germany can only develop this capacity to act if it works alongside other states. From Germany‘s point of view, the EU plays a decisive role in this. However, it would be too much to ask for the EU alone to assume this capacity. And it would be false to equate the necessity of developing European capabilities with a need for the EU to distance or even separate itself from the United States, as is repeatedly suggested in the debate on strategic autonomy and European sovereignty.

In today’s understanding, actors or groups of actors are sovereign when they solve the political problems of the people who entrusted them with power. The task now is to do this in a clever manner.


The power struggle between the United States and China, in which power-political, systemic, and economist interests intertwine, will remain the most important international development for the foreseeable future. A growing number of autocracies are in systemic conflict with the political West. Within their borders, states such as China and Russia are exercising increasingly technology-based control over their societies. Externally, they are questioning the existing global rule-based order and undermining international law. They are establishing their own, mostly regional, regulatory structures that allow them to maintain and increase their power.

This confrontation poses essential challenges for Germany and the EU. The stability and resilience of Germany’s own political system, of the social systems and lifestyles that have emerged in the post-World War II period, are being called into question.

External actors have long since worked their way into the critical infrastructures of politics, administration, security and defense, society, and the economy. Countries such as China and Russia are deliberately using instruments of hybrid warfare, such as disinformation campaigns, to weaken democratic states.

The EU has become less cohesive in recent years, even as the international situation has given Europeans every reason to work closely together. Within its borders, the EU is struggling not only for economic cohesion, but also to uphold the rule of law and liberal democracy. The examples of Hungary and Poland demonstrate how personal, authoritarian power can be extended step by step at the expense of democratic institutions. Transnational risks such as the COVID-19 pandemic make the political order appear even more fragile and vulnerable because they reinforce the impression that Europe’s political and economic openness is a weakness rather than a strength.

Many states in the EU’s immediate neighborhood are increasingly dependent on Russia, China, or Turkey. The arc of conflict that stretches from east to south around the EU has widened and intensified within a very short time. The number of crises that challenge Europe’s security and the European way of life, whether now in or the near future, has increased. In addition, ethnic conflicts, resource scarcity, and brain drain are contributing to the political and economic destabilization of individual states and entire regions in the European neighborhood. As a result, Germany is losing more and more room for maneuver both nationally and internationally.

Under these geopolitical and geo-economic circumstances, it is particularly difficult to provide collective goods such as climate neutrality or global vaccination protection, or to bear the immense political, economic, and humanitarian costs that would arise if the global community failed at both tasks. One question of great importance is how Germany and Europe, in the face of the economic dominance of US and Chinese players, can play such an active role that they are not doomed to adopt the standards of others. Particularly important areas in this regard are cloud computing and the production of batteries or green hydrogen.

Overall, Germany must try to formulate smart strategies, coordinate them with like-minded states inside and outside the EU, and then implement them together. A key new challenge is to shape global transformation in the areas of climate and digitalization within liberal, multilateral structures quickly enough and, at the same time, inclusively. Germany should also strengthen cohesion within the EU. Both the divergence of rule-of-law standards and the hindrances to foreign and security policy decision-making are issues that should be on the agenda of the new German government. After all, Europe’s capacity to act externally is directly linked to its ability to act internally.

Foreign Policy Begins at Home

The structure of the German federal government and the organization of government action have so far reflected a strict separation of domestic and foreign policy. There are historical and constitutional reasons for this. It is less and less feasible, however, to manage today’s political challenges along this domestic-foreign dichotomy because most fields of action of German policy have an international dimension.

Germany is in the middle of a transformation: in view of the political challenges, political actors have long recognized the necessity of taking a 360-degree perspective. The borders between the internal and external are blurring. International economic policy, international security policy, and international technology policy are increasingly coming to the fore.

However, the political institutions that have been shaped by history and grounded in constitutional law, as well as the political culture that has developed over decades, have so far prevented the adoption of a solution-finding approach suited to the problem. The country’s first “traffic light” coalition offers a chance to pave the way for bold political innovation.


As described below, the new federal government must lay the foundation for successful action in the current environment in substantive and organizational terms:  

  1. Domestic and foreign policy developments can no longer be separated. The challenges are so complex that the political responses to them must necessarily be interlinked. The major societal challenges – climate transformation and digitalization – can only be addressed if the international dimension is taken into account.
  2. Networked external action, in which all relevant actors contribute to a cross-cutting policy approach, must be based on interconnected thinking and planning at home by actors who think across policy areas and responsibilities. In many respects, however, the structures of German foreign policy are not yet designed for this.
  3. Due to Germany’s social and economic openness, coupled with its international interconnectedness and interdependence, vulnerability has become the norm. Cross-sectoral and cross-border shocks – including those caused by targeted external interventions – will be impossible to avoid. The boundaries between war and peace are becoming blurred. The goal of state action must be to strengthen the resilience of society, the economy, and democracy, both internally and externally.
  4. This will require a more decisive and effective European policy. In a world of ideological system competition, global interconnectedness, and advancing technologization, no one state on its own can guarantee the security of its citizens. Resilience for Europeans therefore means resilience as Europeans.
  5. Many changes in the political, economic, social, and ecological systems in which Germany is embedded are irreversible. Some risks have already resulted in damage (for example, to climate systems) or become tangible threats (for example, to social peace). In many cases, they have shaken the system’s foundation, undermining its ability to regenerate. A return to the status quo ante is no longer possible, or hardly possible at all.
  6. Over the past decade, politics, economics, society, and ecology have become so interdependent that selective policy approaches cannot achieve necessary success. Those working at the intersection of individual policy fields must not only coordinate over desired results but also consider positive or negative feedback effects.


To be capable of action, Germany must change the character of its foreign policy: away from a reactive, ad hoc policy that seeks to limit damage, and toward a proactive policy that systemically and rationally seizes opportunities and shapes affairs. What the German government needs here is leadership: as a partner in international (crisis) diplomacy, Germany must be able to identify internationally compatible goals and lead by example. This also entails cultivating a willingness to share risk and the ability to make decisions, even under great uncertainty.

The German government will only be able to successively act more proactively and with more foresight, however, if society accepts this. One of its greatest tasks over the coming years will be to advocate to citizens, civil society, and the business community for an active German foreign policy – and to defend it against attacks from within and without.

Germany must also become better at recognizing chances, exploiting them, and even creating them – whether the issue is conflict resolution and prevention, promoting innovation and boosting competitiveness, or multilateral cooperation. The new German government must develop a realistic and responsible self-image and understanding of its role. Germany is and will remain the pivotal European player when it comes to opening the door for better policies in Europe and in global partnerships. Its power potential is still so great that its actions count – not because Germany alone can solve problems, but because its decisions and actions have serious consequences for its partners and opponents, sometimes even more serious than for Germany itself. This is also how its partners and rivals view the Federal Republic.

For the new federal government, too, the EU will be Germany’s constitutive political, legal, and economic framework, which must be strengthened and defended against attacks from within and without. In addition, Germany should cultivate proven and essential partnerships and alliances that go beyond the EU – for example with the United Kingdom, the United States, and the countries of the European neighborhood. No less important will be to establish new, possibly issue-specific networks and alliances to meet global policy challenges. German foreign policy has always been successful when it has offered entry points for the foreign policy of important partners and like-minded countries, for example when shaping European integration and the EU’s eastward enlargement, or negotiating the Iran deal (JCPOA).

If Berlin continues to persist with its wait-and-see attitude, Germany will become increasingly unattractive as a partner within the EU and in the transatlantic relationship, NATO, the WHO, and other organizations and alliances. Punching below its weight in this manner would shrink Germany’s room for maneuver. The demeanor of the new German government should be defined by a combination of the will to act, foresight, and a controlled willingness to take risks.


Seeing Germany’s Recent Federal Elections as a Window of Opportunity

A policy of small steps – that is, a “business as usual” approach – over the next four years would not be enough to strengthen Germany’s ability to act and open up new room for maneuver. The federal elections in September 2021 and subsequent coalition negotiations were an opportunity to critically rethink the status quo and renew German foreign policy.

How can this opportunity for renewal be seized? Under the leadership of the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP), a group of renowned German experts met in a strategy group from the end of 2020 to the summer of 2021 to develop recommendations for action for the new German government and catalyze reform. The following recommendations do not cover all policy areas of importance to Germany; rather they represent a selection. However, the approach underlying the recommendations has implications for all of the Federal Republic’s foreign policy activities and for the way old and new partnerships should be shaped. In our view, the following tasks should have priority:

  • Reforming the structure of German foreign policy
  • Shaping security and defense comprehensively
  • Strengthening the German economy and shaping globalization
  • Holding one’s own in the systemic competition with China
  • Asserting oneself in the global competition in the technological sphere
  • Strengthening internal resilience and repelling attacks against democracy and society
  • Making Germany a leader on climate protection
  • Counteracting the conflict effects of climate change
  • Implementing a more effective and humane asylum and migration policy
  • Improving the prospects of European integration for the Western Balkans

We make concrete proposals for how to improve Germany‘s and Europe‘s capacity to act in the thematic areas listed above. For each topic, an action plan analyzes the key challenges and opportunities for German policy. These action plans distinguish among problems of analysis, of coordination, and of implementation. They contain concrete recommendations on the partners and instruments German foreign policy should work with – in the short, medium, and long term – to pursue certain goals. There is a tension here between what is absolutely necessary and what can be implemented in the short and medium term. In view of the international challenges, the German desire for “perfect” must not be the enemy of “good.”


Action Plan for German Foreign Policy Structures

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

In the field of foreign and security policy, Germany is increasingly confronted with cross-cutting challenges. While the strategy processes of past years recognized this interconnectedness and complexity, they have not sufficiently reformed structures and processes of decision-making. To become more capable of action, the next federal government must modernize the structures of governance, improving its ability to deal with parallel, multilayered crises and long-term developments and anticipate foreign policy opportunities and challenges. It must not only strengthen its institutional networking, but also actively – together with academia and civil society – do more to bring strategic debates into the political and public spheres.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • In order to ensure good coordination at the highest political level on complex, inter-departmental foreign and security policy issues, the Federal Security Council (Bundessicherheitsrat or BSR) should be upgraded into the central body for foreign policy coordination in the Federal Government. The next legislative period should begin with a process to define a German foreign and security policy strategy that is based on a broad concept of security and involves both the German public and international partners. Once this progress is complete, the BSR should present the new strategy and monitor and support its implementation.

  • The federal government should do more to bring foreign policy debates into the German Bundestag, for example by publishing an annual report on the “Germany’s place in Europe and the World”. In addition, the federal government and parliament should seek out opportunities to involve civil society, for example by setting up an annual national security week in the Bundestag.

  • Foresight capacities should be better connected across ministries and integrated into government practice. The government should initiate an interdepartmental foresight process, incorporating its results into the work of the BSR. The Federal Academy for Security Policy (Bundesakademie für Sicherheitspolitik) can serve as a platform for an exchange on methodology.

  • The exchange of personnel between politics and research should be intensified in order to strengthen foreign policy expertise in the ministerial apparatus and make scientific policy advice more practically relevant.
Read the complete action plan for German foreign policy structures here.


Action Plan for Security and Defense Policy 

What Germany Must Do for Security, Defense, and Peace

As an open, globally interconnected country, Germany’s own security is inextricably linked to that of its European neighborhood and the world. Yet the geostrategic environment is deteriorating drastically. New factors – such as China's pursuit of global dominance, Russia's revisionism, America's ambivalence towards its role as security guarantor, new weapons technologies, and information operations like propaganda and disinformation – are making Germany more vulnerable. While Europe's neighborhood is increasingly becoming the scene of competition between major and regional powers, Europe itself has long been the venue for the global competition between systems. The new German government must renew German security, defense, and peace policy in order to maintain its room for maneuver and confront strategic challenger.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • The federal government should strengthen national strategic capability by taking three steps: creating a Federal Security Council capable of action, tasking a security policy commission with proposing new principles, and bringing in civil society to help shape security.

  • By summer 2022, the German government should enable a qualitative leap forward with regard to the integration of the EU and NATO. The foundation for this should be an analysis of European security that both organizations find coherent. On this basis of this, it would be possible to determine a European level of ambition that both the EU and NATO would work to fulfill, using their specific instruments and strengths. European states should contribute more to NATO's conventional capabilities – doing so would also strengthen the EU.

  • One focal point for European contributions could be the European Joint Force (EFJ). Germany can promote the implementation of the EJF by reviving the framework nation concept and expanding it to include armaments.

  • Germany should complement its efforts to meet NATO's two percent target with an initiative to adjust spending metrics, for example by recognizing contributions towards strengthening climate security, cybersecurity, and innovation as well as promoting projects with third-party partners.

  • Germany should pass a Bundeswehr Planning Act to enable greater planning certainty with regard to the financing of Bundeswehr projects. The Bundestag should also launch a full equipment initiative.

  • In its talks with its NATO allies, Germany should promote a disarmament initiative for intermediate-range nuclear missiles. To this end, it must actively contribute to collective security and adhere to the NATO principle of nuclear deterrence. It should accept France's invitation to a strategic dialogue on the role of nuclear deterrence and involve other European partners in discussions.

  • The goals and instruments of crisis prevention must be reorganized, and representatives from civil society should be involved in this process. Strategic capability development should be further developed with other ministries in an integrated manner. Germany should play a leading role in building up a European stabilization corps – and contribute fifty percent of the required capabilities.

  • Germany, together with the EU, NATO and G7 partners, should ensure it is in position to secure access to technologies and, if necessary, to deny access to rivals. It should embed its export policy more deeply in strategies for specific countries and regions, as well as pursue a systematic opportunity-and-risk approach.

  • To increase Germany's resilience to hybrid and multi-layered threats, the federal government should hold regular exercises and simulation games at all levels (federal, state, local) and with all actors (civilian, military, governmental, private). Institutions deemed critical should be subjected to regular stress and functionality testing.
Read the complete action plan for security and defense policy here.


Action Plan for the Economy and Foreign Policy 

How Germany Can Strengthen Its Economy and Shape Globalization 

Germany's foreign economic policy is characterized by numerous tradeoffs – for example, between promoting growth and upholding universal values, between environmental standards and trade agreements, or between economic goals and security policy interests. When it comes to balancing economic and foreign policy interests, the rising tension between the United States and China has an especially large influence on Germany’s actions. Both powers use economic pressure points to push through their geopolitical interests. Germany is particularly affected by this due to its strong focus on exports. The next federal government should develop a strategy for how Germany can counter external pressure on its own economy and that of the EU. Another key question is how Berlin can take advantage of its competitors’ and rivals’ economic pressure points in the future to pursue German and European interests. In order to remain capable of action, Germany must address its own weaknesses – for example, in public administration and the promotion of young talent – and play an active role in shaping globalization.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • Germany's economic strength is directly linked to the economic and political resilience of the eurozone and the EU as a whole. In addition to diversifying value chains, German foreign economic policy should therefore work to create a more resilient eurozone and thus a more resilient EU. Key building blocks include completing the banking union, integrating capital markets, and guaranteeing a greater quantity of safe assets.

  • There is a risk that critical technologies and digital infrastructure become the target of long-term takeover strategies, for example through targeted Chinese investments in the context of the new Silk Road. Germany should arm itself against an increase in such attacks. In order to mitigate the risk of hostile takeovers of key EU technologies, Germany should advocate investment controls on the EU level. It is also essential to invest more in promoting innovation, to advance the diversification of value chains, and to prioritize technologies that allow Germany to avoid being dependent on individual states.

  • Germany should contribute to a European foreign policy that at once anticipates and actively shapes the consequences of the Green Deal and the decarbonization agenda for Europe's neighborhood. For instance, the EU should promote clean energy production in countries that depend on fossil fuels with a view to creating new sources of revenue and maintaining economic and political stability. Germany and the EU should also seek an agreement with the US on a carbon border adjustment mechanism, as this would also create incentives for China to reduce its emissions.

  • Germany and the EU should make an active contribution to controlling the pandemic and boosting global preparedness by expanding European production capacities for vaccines and critical medical products. The German export model can only continue to function if the COVID-19 pandemic can be ended without doing lasting damage – politically and economically – to third countries. Ending the pandemic is also a precondition for Germany and the EU to reduce the disruptive potential of Chinese and Russian vaccine diplomacy.
Read the complete action plan for the economy and foreign policy here.


Action Plan for China and Foreign Policy

What Germany Must Do to Hold Its Own in the Systemic Competition with China

China presents a challenge to Germany on many levels, from the competitiveness of its industry to the robustness of its democratic institutions. For too long, Germany and the EU have relied on a “change through trade” (Wandel durch Handel) approach, which has not paid off. On the contrary, China now is now a threat to the international rules-based order and Western democracies. Only in cooperation with the EU can Germany clearly position itself vis-à-vis China – yet disunity is paralyzing the EU. In order to avert the systemic challenges posed by China's rise and Germany’s potential loss of prosperity and competitiveness, the new government must change the course of its China policy.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • China policy must be perceived as a cross-cutting task for society as a whole, not just as an issue for foreign or trade policy. The government should strive to ensure that countries, municipalities, the business community, and civil society are well placed to deal appropriately with the new realities.

  • One of the responsibilities of a new expanded, upgraded Federal Security Council should be to deal with China policy. Before each meeting, specialist departments of the respective ministries should confer with one another. A "China Staff" consisting of renowned representatives of science, administration and civil society should advise the Federal Security Council.

  • The German government should establish and fund “China information exchanges” that provide targeted advisory and educational services to communities, schools, businesses, and other social actors.

  • The strategic approach to China should be adjusted: the relationship should not be categorized as one with either a “partner, competitor, or strategic rival,” depending on the policy field. Instead, those working in each policy field should examine how the systemic rivalry also affects partnership and competition.

  • On the EU level, the German government should advocate the introduction of qualified majority voting for foreign and security policy. At the same time, it should work with partners to create a group for deeper cooperation – an “open pioneer group on China” – as part of an effort to overcome logjams. This group, which should also be open to non-EU partners, should define which interests, values, and measures constitute a principled EU-China policy.

  • In close coordination with like-minded partners, Germany should actively participate in creating an alternative to the Silk Road Initiative. The joint communication on EU connectivity, the Blue Dot Network, and the “Build Back Better” initiative are suitable starting points.
Read the complete action plan for China and foreign policy here.


Action Plan for Technology and Foreign Policy

How Germany Can Assert Itself in the Global Contest over Technology

Technologies – especially in the digital domain – are drivers of innovation and the decisive indicators for (future) competitiveness, economic strength, and resilience. However, the USA and China are dominating the global race for technologies. Germany is losing hold of the leading role it once had in central key technologies, a development with geostrategic consequences. As dependence on the US and China increases, the risk of becoming a battleground for great power competition rises as well. China’s technological dominance also poses numerous threats to freedom of expression and respect for human rights. Even though these challenges are well-known, there is a glaring lack of digital expertise within the government in Berlin. What is more, there is a lack of coordination in government on technology-related policies. The contradictions and conflicts of interest in German technology policy are increasing.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • In technology policy, Germany must become more agile when it comes to identifying and shaping technological innovations. The German government should therefore make digital technology policy a cross-cutting task and systematically build up political expertise and networks. If the new government does create a digital ministry, it should be a central building block with support from strong political leadership and competencies in the areas of broadband expansion, administrative digitization, research funding for key technologies, regulatory issues in the digital economy, and innovation funding. It should also be responsible for the foreign policy dimension of technology policy. An alternative to such a ministry could be a technology task force with its own budget in the Federal Chancellery.

  • In addition, all government departments must systematically take technology issues into account. In many respects (new) technologies can drive change and contribute to solutions in other policy areas. Promoting innovation is desirable not only from an economic perspective, but also to mitigate climate risks or to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • A post for foreign technology policy should be established at the highest level in the Federal Foreign Office. It is particularly important for Germany to address its own dependencies and vulnerabilities, better understand China's interests and strategies, and develop a strategy for dealing with them.

  • Germany must promote innovation within its borders and throughout the EU. This will require more targeted investment: in human capital, in the development of key technologies, and in the translation of good ideas into economically successful products.
Read the complete action plan for technology and foreign policy here


​​​Action Plan for Resilience and Democracy

How Germany Can Repel Attacks on Its Society and Democracy

Western democracies are increasingly exposed to cyberattacks and other forms of hybrid threats that strike at their foundations. Among these threats are hacking attacks on state institutions such as the Bundestag, the deliberate spread of misinformation in times of crisis, and the sabotage of elections. Increasingly large segments of the German population are turning to online-based media offerings and are thus more exposed to disinformation campaigns or deep fakes. Germany should work with its EU partners to find answers to these complex threats so that democracy does not suffer irreversible damage.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • Among the general public, Germany should actively promote resilience-building measures to counter cyber threats and disinformation among the general public. The COVID-19 pandemic should have made it clear that German crisis management needs to systemically consider the risk of disinformation campaigns. In addition, the government should modernize and improve its communications.

  • At the EU level, a new European Public Service Broadcaster should contribute to the transparency of decisions in the multi-level system. An independent ratings agency could help check the factual content of news reports, especially on social media. In addition, policymakers should seek to use regulation to achieve greater transparency and increase trust in the internet. To this end, in negotiations over EU regulations Germany should push for identifiable online identities, which would help citizens distinguish between bots and people on social media.

  • Structures for dealing with hybrid threats should be strengthened or newly created at the EU and German levels. For example, the purview of the National Cyberdefense Center (Nationales Cyber-Abwehrzentrum) should be expanded to counter hybrid threats, and the detection of external disinformation and propaganda (see the work of the EEAS’s East StratCom Task Force) should be improved at the national level. The German government should enhance the cybersecurity of critical infrastructure, especially government agencies. At the same time, it is important to invest in scientific research projects on hybrid threats. The EU Agency for Cybersecurity (ENISA) should serve as a platform for EU member states to discuss hybrid threats and, following a joint process, develop guidelines for dealing with hacking and disinformation.
Read the complete action plan for resilience and democracy here


Action Plan for Climate and Foreign Policy

How Germany Can Become a Climate Leader

By ratifying the Paris Agreement, Germany has committed itself to become a leading climate nation. The new government urgently needs to take action, both to reduce emissions and adapt to climate change. The catastrophic floods of July 2021 showed that the safety of citizens is at stake; however, Germany is also affected by extreme weather events abroad. The transformation of the German economy will affect foreign relations. For the sake of its external credibility, Germany must step up its own emissions reductions and climate adaptation while also engaging in global climate and development policies. Finally, it must prepare for new geopolitical realities arising from the global energy transition and help shape the transformation in third countries.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • The new German government should treat the fight against the causes and consequences of climate change as a cross-cutting issue. Climate, foreign, security, and development policy goals should be better linked. All government ministries and agencies should strengthen their climate education and training. Moreover, political decisions should be systematically reviewed across ministries for climate risks in order to create the basis for a coherent foreign climate policy. These reviews should not only aim to ensure that Germany achieves the 1.5-degree target of the Paris Agreement, but also actively support Germany's partners efforts to do so.

  • Relatedly, Germany should allocate more resources to climate finance and development aid. The coalition agreement should recognize the linkage between development, climate, and security as well as set aside a higher share of the budget for development policy.

  • Germany should advocate the standardization of climate standards and climate risk disclosures, particularly in the context of the Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures (TCFD).

  • Germany should work to ensure that development banks and international financial institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF take greater account of climate change. In addition, the KfW, the German state-owned investment and development bank, should be tasked with developing standards for the disclosure of climate and transformation risks.

  • Germany should actively advocate EU climate policy and defend the CO2 border adjustment in its diplomacy.
  • While there are good metrics for greenhouse gas emissions, it remains difficult to compare and evaluate adaptation measures. Therefore, Germany should mobilize an international task force on adaptation metrics.

  • Germany should invest more in cross-border science funding and push for the disclosure of climate and weather data, in Europe and around the globe.
Read the complete action plan for climate and foreign policy here.


Action Plan for Climate and Security

How Climate Change Fuels Conflict and What Germany Can Do About It

As an export-oriented economy, Germany has a major interest in stability abroad. Climate impacts – in the form of extreme weather events or tipping points in the Earth system – are already exacerbating and fostering conflicts, as the example of the Sahel shows. Germany must improve its ability to recognize crises early on. It should also make a greater contribution to managing socio-ecological crises abroad and ensure that the issue of climate and security is given greater priority at the multilateral level.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • Different ministries’ approaches to climate and security issues should be brought together insides the ministries with the most competence in this area. This could be achieved by setting up an inter-ministerial steering security group for climate and security, with members drawn from the Chancellor's Office, the Foreign Office and the ministries of defense, economic cooperation, environment, and the interior, which would regularly exchange information at the level of department leaders.

  • As part of the implementation and further development of the Guidelines for Crisis and Conflict Prevention, the German government should make new voluntary commitments – the aim should be to increase funding and staffing in ministries and foster the ability of the scientific and NGO communities to better identify risks.

  • At the EU level, Germany should push for crisis prevention guidelines with a focus on non-traditional security risks. In the same vein, it should push for the prioritization of climate security at UN level, through the Group of Friends, and advocate the appointment of a special envoy for climate and security.

  • The government should strengthen its expertise in climate security issues. The same applies to international task forces. A pool of experts could advise German missions abroad on climate risks on the ground. More support should be given to scientific research.
Read the complete action plan for climate and security here.


Action Plan for Migration and Foreign Policy

How Germany Can Limit Irregular Migration and Help Refugees

In recent years Germany has been unable to achieve its policy goals with regard to refugees and irregular migration. There is a lack of a coherent European asylum and border policy. Foreigners in Germany who are obligated to leave the country are rarely deported; at the same time, many migrants who attempt to reach Europe die on the way. Asylum rights and human rights standards are violated at the EU's external borders. Fear and a populist narrative of “mass migration” distort the asylum debate in EU member states. The next German government should work to implement cooperation initiatives and pilot projects that promote a humane and realistic asylum policy in the EU and throughout the world.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • Germany should try to persuade Malta and Italy to resume the coordination of sea rescue mission. Together with other EU countries, Germany should form a coalition of countries willing to take in people, with the aim of finding a country to take in people rescued from the Mediterranean within twelve weeks.

  • At the EU's external borders, Germany should help set up a pilot project involving several member states located both on the EU’s external borders and in its interior: the border authorities of Germany and the Netherlands would cooperate with authorities from the EU Mediterranean countries and implement a system for examining applications within a period of eight weeks.

  • The EU should conclude new agreements, in particular with Morocco and Tunisia, for the effective repatriation of persons who entered the EU irregularly and are now obligated to leave. In return for these states’ cooperation, the EU should open legal mobility channels, especially by easing visa requirements.

  • Germany should offer Greece and Turkey a new EU-Turkey declaration that commits Germany to accepting up to 40,000 refugees per year in exchange for the rapid implementation of asylum procedures in Greece and the repatriation of those not in need of protection.

  • Within the framework of the Global Compact on Refugees, Germany should campaign for the renewal and further development of the international asylum system and work to improve the quality and reception capacity of asylum systems in third countries. In cooperation with UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF, it should initiate a multi-year global budget for refugee assistance in countries of first arrival. It should also work diplomatically to encourage middle-income countries to take in more people in need of protection.
Read the complete action plan for migration and foreign policy here


Action Plan for the Western Balkans and EU Neighborhood

How Germany Can Contribute to Lasting Peace in the Balkans

Since the end of the Yugoslav Wars, German and European foreign policy has aimed to support stability in the Western Balkans. The decades of peace in the region can be considered a success, but the new mobilization of ethnic tensions and increases in military spending show that there is a growing risk of a return to instability. There is a close link between the credible prospect of accession to the EU and the implementation of reforms in the region. Given the skepticism about enlargement in some EU member states, however, the accession of new states has become implausible. Through a new initiative, Germany should give the states of the Western Balkans new prospects of accession and contribute to resolving disputes.

The action plan formulates the following recommendations:
  • Germany should back a new two-stage accession process. The goal of negotiations with all six Western Balkan states would remain full accession, but a concrete intermediate goal would be offered as well: full access to the European single market.

  • A “Southeast European Economic Area” should be created by 2030, integrating the region into the EU single market. This larger single market could also help to overcome bilateral border tensions (Serbia-Kosovo).

  • At the same time, the promotion of the rule of law, democracy, and human rights should be a central part of the process, as should regular anti-corruption reports by the European Commission.

  • Germany should work to strengthen the Council of Europe, which Kosovo should join, making it the last Western Balkan country to do so. The implementation of judgments of the European Court of Human Rights throughout the region should become a central prerequisite for EU integration.
Read the complete action plan for the Western Balkans and EU neighborhood here


This online text is the introduction to and summary of the ten action plans. Download the full report here



This report was produced as part of the DGAP project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” which is funded by Stiftung Mercator. The original German text was published on September 20, 2021, after a ten-month process of reflection and strategy in which DGAP – together with a group of renowned foreign policy experts – discussed Germany’s current ability to take foreign policy action and deliberated over how, post-Merkel, the German government should position itself to best deal with complex foreign policy opportunities and challenges in the future.

In several virtual, confidential workshops, a lively exchange took place on the challenges facing German foreign policy, the goals it should pursue, and the instruments and partnerships it should have at its disposal. Inspired by this intensive discussion, the experts involved in the “Ideenwerkstatt” project drafted action plans for various sub-areas of German foreign policy, which contain concrete recommendations for action and are addressed to the new German government. All participants contributed to this project in a personal capacity. Not all participants agree with every recommendation in this report. Whereas the introduction is the responsibility of the entire group of experts, the action plans reflect the opinions of the individual authors.

The expert group of the “Ideenwerkstatt” was supplemented by a Policy Board, which brought together political decision-makers from different political parties and served as an immediate political sounding board for the analysis and strategy recommendations developed by the expert group. In this capacity, the Policy Board provided important food for thought that was incorporated into the strategy process of the “Ideenwerkstatt.” However, the Policy Board is not responsible for the content of this report.

Please note that this English text is an edited and slightly updated translation of the original German version that was published in September 2021 as Smarte Souveränität (DGAP Bericht Nr. 17).


Dr. Christian Mölling, Research Director and Head of the Security and Defense Program, DGAP

Prof. Dr. Daniela Schwarzer, Executive Director Europe and Eurasia, Open Society Foundations; Former Director, DGAP


Prof. Dr. Petra Bendel, Head of the Research Department Migration, Flight, and Integration (MFI) of the Institute for Political Science, Friedrich-Alexander University Erlangen-Nuremberg;  Chairwoman of the German Council of Economic Experts on Integration and Migration (SVR)

Prof. Dr. Christian Calliess, LL.M. Eur., Chair of Public Law and European Law, Freie Universität Berlin

Prof. Dr. Marcel Fratzscher, President, DIW Berlin (German Institute for Economic Research)

Dr. Stefan Heumann, Member of the Board of the Stiftung Neue Verantwortung (SNV)

Gerald Knaus, Chairman of the European Stability Initiative (ESI)

Dr. Claudia Major, Head of the Research Division on International Security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP)

Dr. Friederike Otto, Associate Director, Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University

Dr. Tim Rühlig, Research Fellow in the Technology and Global Affairs Program, DGAP

Dr. Constanze Stelzenmüller, Fritz Stern Chair on Germany and Transatlantic Relations at the Center on the United States and Europe, Brookings Institution

Dr. Kira Vinke, Head of the Center for Climate and Foreign Policy, DGAP

Dr. Guntram Wolff, Director, Bruegel


Dr. Anna-Lena Kirch, Coordinator of the Project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik” and Research Fellow at DGAP’s Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies

Serafine Dinkel, Assistant of the Project “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik”


Dr. Thomas Bagger, Director of Foreign Policy, Office of Germany’s Federal President

Dr. Franziska Brantner, Member of the German Bundestag

Ekkehard Brose, President, Germany’s Federal Academy for Security Policy

Dr. Markus Kerber, State Secretary, Germany’s Federal Ministry of the Interior and Community

Nico Lange, Chief of Executive Staff, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Defense

Siemtje Möller, Member of the German Bundestag

Dr. Norbert Röttgen, Member of the German Bundestag

Dr. Nils Schmid, Member of the German Bundestag

Dr. Ellen Ueberschär, Member of the Board, Heinrich Böll Foundation

Jakob von Weizsäcker, Chief Economist and Director General for Economic and Fiscal Policy and Global Economy, Germany’s Federal Ministry of Finance


Bibliographic data

Mölling, Christian, Daniela Schwarzer, Christian Calliess, Serafine Dinkel, Stefan Heumann, Anna-Lena Kirch, Friederike Otto , Claudia Major, Gerald Knaus, Tim Rühlig, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Kira Vinke, and Guntram Wolff. “Smart Sovereignty.”

DGAP Report No. 1, January 18, 2022, 96 pp.

This is the final report of the “Ideenwerkstatt Deutsche Außenpolitik,” a project funded by Stiftung Mercator. Find more information on its work and publications here.

Please note that this English text is an edited and slightly updated translation of the original German version that was published in September 2021 as Smarte Souveränität (DGAP Bericht Nr. 17).