Steinmeier’s active foreign policy. Learning from Sweden

During the recent weeks Germans witnessed a push towards a more active foreign policy. Foreign minister Steinmeier (SPD), Minister of Defense von der Leyen (CDU) and the federal president pushed an initiative  towards the readiness for military action in conflicts. They argued, carefully, that Germany is too big (as an economy) to stay out of world politics and its culture of military restraint (always remembering what military force escalated in during WW1 and WW2) might be obsolete in the 21st century. While I must admit that their tone is generally quite diplomatic and well considered, I don’t like the underlying implications and the way the discourse is developed:

There are no reasons given

Shortly after the debate started, it was speculated that Germany should aid its french allies in Mali, without giving any reasons besides “they are our allies, we should help”. While  solidarity might be a useful criterion for sending troops to some distant shore, it should not be the only one. Remember, we supported ISAF in Afghanistan purely because of solidarity with our American friends (who thanked us by spying on our top politicians and the overall society, thank you very much!). Clausewitz taught us that the use of military reasons is a means to a political end. In this case, the end is not clear and the general benefit from the mission in Mali remains unclear. There is no ambition whatsoever to tell the German electorate why it is important to go to Mali and this is highly risky. The German electorate does not like military engagement, therefore they lack the support for their troops in foreign countries. Afghanistan was a disaster because of that: because our politicians feared the electorate, they did not call it a war, thereby somewhat discrediting the troops and the whole mission in this sense (lack of troops, proper equipment, psychological treatment of soldiers after battle contact etc.). If you ask Bundeswehr soldiers, they are highly critical of this mission because they got no support from the general public, which they swore to protect and serve.

The means are poorly chosen

The underlying tone of the debate seems to repeat the common mistake of early UN peacekeeping and the European Security and Defense Policy in general, which is: throwing troops at conflicts and hope they resolve them, our in the case of EU: building up military components without any clear idea how to use them. The UNO learned during the crisis on the Balkans, that this might not be the best idea ever. The Europeans still have to learn their lesson. Remember, the EU has battle groups ready for the exact purpose that Steinmeier and von der Leyen have in mind: short term missions to secure core interests. But instead of relying on the well-trained, well-suited and well-equipped transnational EU forces, they want to send Bundeswehr soldiers, with relatively poor equipment and, even worse, no real political will or support by the general population (or a European consensus). Sweden’s foreign minister Carl Bildt rightfully asked the Germans: “Why not use battle groups?” and the Swedes might be right here.

There is no general vision and no values

Reasons for this lie in the structure of the EU itself. Because of the disperse interests of the member states, there is no clear direction and there is no clear perception of common values. Many states perceive the control over the military as the last instance of state-sovereignty, a more and more contested concept in times of globalization and europeanization. This is somewhat sad because it leads to the situation that the EU is not willing or able to support those who share its values. The list of missed a few opportunities during the Arab spring or right now in Ukraine grows longer. What is particularly disturbing is that in both cases, the Arab spring and Ukraine, young people are marching the streets and protesting their undemocratic regimes, thus demanding the very values that the EU stands for. There are people over there who are willing to fight and die for the freedom of speech and the general rule of law, whereas in Europe the support for democratic system is declining and the politicians are more busy saving banks. In the meantime, America is turning into a autocracy with an Orwellian style surveillance apparatus which does not care for human rights (Guantanamo and other secret prison camps), the rule of law (obstacles for minorities for the federal elections, secret courts that approve every intrusion in civil liberty rights), human rights (declining the combatant status of war on terror prisoners, having kill-lists of unwanted suspects) and International Humanitarian Law (fighting a secret drone war in Pakistan) if it does not fit their interest. America is losing its appeal as leader of the free West. Europe soon might be the only force in the world that truly stands for the rule of law, civil liberties, human rights and disarmament. But the Europeans choose not to aid those, who support its very core values: the protesters in Lybia, Syria, Tunesia in Ukraine or even those in Hungary who try to prevent the country from turning into a fascist state. By remaining silent Europe discredits itself as a normative power in the world.

Active Foreign Policy

It is not just problematic that there is no vision, it is a problem that there is no will. Steinmeier’s “active foreign” policy is aiming at the wrong direction. Active does not necessarily mean military! Recent conflicts in the world show, that sending troops to conflict regions often does not help at all. See Afghanistan, see Iraq, see Georgia. In the most cases, military engagement makes things worse or only contains a conflict as long as the troops are there, only to erupt again as soon as they are withdrawn. Active means taking a position and arguing for it, even when facing criticism. The Swedish Social Democrats coined the term active foreign policy which means that, by virtue of a neutral state, Sweden should not remain silent in world political issues. Because of its unique position between the East and the West during the Cold War, Sweden could serve as a neutral mediator between the world political parties, pushing developments such as nuclear disarmament, strong internationalist norms like collective security via the UN, development aid for third world countries and support for democracy building around the world. Furthermore, Olof Palme engaged in active criticism of the superpowers, especially concerning the crimes of allied forces in Vietnam. Palme aimed at supporting those who share internationalist values and condemned those, who broke them which resulted in Nixon calling him “that swedish asshole”, because he would not stop criticizing the US. Furthermore, Sweden served as a neutral platform for many international conferences and was highly involved in the shaping the Helsinki Accords. This was possible because of a strong adherence to its core norms: egalitarianism, universalism and strong adherence to the rule of law and human rights. What is worth mentioning in this regard is, that Sweden was a highly armed and military ready country during the Cold War: but it only engaged in a civil, active foreign policy.

Active European Policy

Translating this to the European level would mean that Europe should speak loudly if there core norms are at danger.  Whether it is anti-democratic movements in Hungary or Greece, human rights abuses in Russia or the USA or whether it is the massive breach of privacy rights because of secret services in the UK or USA. It is not enough if the commission always remains silent on these issues. Strong words are the first steps and sanctions are the second. As the biggest economic area in the world, it possess the power to change things in its neighborhood. Why not use some of the billions of Euro for saving banks for supporting democratic movements and state building with “Marshall-Plan”-like measures? It worked in the case of Germany. Furthermore, this would give the European citizens a common vision and might increase belief in the European idea, thus containing anti-EU resentments growing because more and more money is extracted from the poor to save banks. It might be necessary that Europe begins standing on its own feet: if the Americans do not care for civil liberties anymore, so the EU should do it. An active foreign policy should many an active, European foreign policy and not a national one.

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