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Germany's foreign policy dilemma

September 14, 2021

Germany's foreign policy is explicitly values-based. But what happens when democracy, the rule of law and human rights collide with the logic of trade and business?

Leopard tank at a weapons trade fair in Abu Dhabi in 2017
'Leopard' tanks are part of German arms sales to the Middle EastImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Gambrell

On its homepage, Germany's foreign ministry lists "peace and security, the promotion of democracy and human rights, and commitment to multilateralism," as the guiding principles of German foreign policy.

Just a few lines later, however, it says that Germany, as a trading nation, has a particular interest in an effective foreign economic policy "that helps companies to tap into international markets and to improve the conditions for doing business."

So what happens when these two fundamental principles collide?

Angela Merkel and SAnas Modamani
A famous 'selfie' Syrian refugee Anas Modamani took of himself and Chancellor Merkel in 2015Image: Anas Modamani

It is perhaps no surprise that the German government welcomed the mass protests and striving for democracy in what became known as the "Arab Spring" — even if that movement by and large ended in failure and frustration. It is moreover commonplace to hear German politicians condemning human rights abuses in the Arab-speaking world, including torture, the incarceration of opposition activists, the oppression of women.

Germany also took in some 770,000 Syrian refugees and provided rapid and unbureaucratic support for many at a time of great suffering and need.

At the same time, though, Germany has worked hard to build trade ties with countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Countries that — in view of their human rights records — Germany should perhaps really be shunning. And above all, representatives of business and politics are all too often willing to turn a blind eye to the lucrative trade in military equipment. And worse, say critics.

Protesters on the streets of Cairo
The 'Arab Spring' saw thousands of protesters take to the streets in Cairo in 2013Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Dramatic impact on domestic policy

The high number of refugees alone makes it hard to understate the importance to Germany's vital interests of its ties in the Middle East, says Guido Steinberg, an expert on the region at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. "In 2015, we witnessed how events in the Middle East as a whole, including in north Africa, can have a dramatic impact on the domestic situation in Germany," Steinberg told DW.

Germany must, believes Steinberg, come up with a clearer definition of its interests. He outlines three priorities. Firstly: preventing further proliferation of nuclear weapons in the region. Secondly: avoiding large-scale refugee flows by boosting regional stability. And thirdly: an effective anti-terrorism strategy.

Also among those calling for a more "robust approach towards the Arab world" is Kerstin Müller, a Middle East expert at the German Council on Foreign Relations. Speaking to DW, she first and foremost questioned the reasoning behind arms sales to the United Arab Emirates: "The UAE is Germany's biggest trading partner in the region. The two sides even maintain what is termed a "strategic partnership." And although the UAE is deeply immersed in the Yemen war, it can still purchase arms from European and German sources."

Reporters Without Borders protesters
On the anniversary of the death of Jamal Khashoggi, activists protest against the incarceration of blogger Raif Badawi in Saudi ArabiaImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Exports worth billions

Germany, it seems, has few inhibitions when it comes to arms deals with questionable partners. That is the conclusion to be drawn from a statement issued earlier this year by the Economics Ministry in response to a question put forward by the Green Party.

According to the statement, in the year 2020, the German government gave the go-ahead for arms exports worth around 1.16bn euros ($1.36bn) to countries embroiled in the conflict in Yemen or Libya: Egypt, Qatar, UAE, Kuwait, Jordan, Bahrain, as well as NATO member Turkey.

Kerstin Müller is also highly critical of potential deals with Saudi Arabia, which have, however, been temporarily put on hold — a measure that Müller believes should have come much sooner: "After the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia came under a lot of pressure and a moratorium was put on arms deals," she says. "In my opinion, though, its role in the Yemen war or even its troubling human rights record would have sufficed to put a blanket ban on arms shipments to Saudi Arabia."

Not only is Berlin's arms policy inconsistent, it also contravenes its own guidelines for exports of military equipment, which in times of conflict or crisis prohibit the delivery of military equipment to so-called third countries — defined as neither European Union nor NATO members (or "NATO-equivalent," such as Australia).

Meanwhile, there is growing pressure in Germany for a reappraisal of the country's Middle East policy.

Heiko Maas fist-bumping Abdul Hamid Dbeibah in front of flags
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas (r) welcomed Libyan Premier Abdul Hamid Dbeibah at a peace conference in Berlin in June 2021Image: Michael Sohn/AFP

Time to take on more responsibility

Germany is facing a tense parliamentary election at the end of September that will also signal the end of Angela Merkel's 16-year term in office as German chancellor. Whoever emerges as the next leader is going to have his or her work cut out for them in dealing with the United State, which looks set to keep up the pressure on Berlin to play a more decisive role on the international stage.

It looks likely that Germany will increasingly be expected to take on more responsibility — including in the Middle East, where it has so far had a minor role as a conflict mediator, such as in Libya.

Houthi 'government': War won't stop until Saudis quit Yemen

New source of tension: Extreme weather events

The global community is facing an unprecedented existential challenge in climate change, which can only be contained or combatted if markets and morals are made to augment each other. As in so many parts of the world, the Middle East, too, is threatened by a spiraling number of extreme weather events that Stefan Lukas describes as "accelerants for already-existing problems." His fear is that the region will be further destabilized, pushing more and more people to join the many refugees already trying to make their way to Europe.

"And that of course leaves us facing a big problem. Because if we start telling Libya, Saudi Arabia, or UAE to leave their oil in the ground, they are not going to be amused. After all, their revenues are mainly derived from fossil fuel sources," cautions Lukas, a lecturer at the Bundeswehr Command and Staff Academy for the Middle East in Hamburg

Stefan Lukas says there is no alternative to aligning markets and morals: "The bottom line is that it is both a moral and economic imperative for Europe to help the countries of the Middle East come up with new options and new incentives, including economic incentives."

Climate change can, he adds, become a "pathway towards multilateral peacebuilding."

He maps out an ambitious vision: "A coordinated environment and climate agreement could spark a move towards greater political cooperation. And that, in turn, could help us to build a bridge between morals, on the one hand, and market-driven egoism on the other."

This article was translated from German.

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