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Germany's foreign policy: A tricky balancing act

May 7, 2023

Germany's Foreign Minister, Annalena Baerbock, has made democracy and human rights the centerpiece of her foreign policy. Those values, however, don't always line up with national interests.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Petersburg climate meeting in Berlin May 3, 2023
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Chancellor Olaf Scholz don't always see eye-to-eye on foreign policy prioritiesImage: Kira Hofmann/photothek/imago

A foreign policy that is "values-driven" is sealed in the coalition agreement between the three parties that have governed Germany since late 2021: the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), Greens, and neoliberal Free Democrats (FDP). 

While "interests" also get a nod, it is "values" that Annalena Baerbock, the foreign minister from the Greens, emphasizes the most: democracy, rule of law and human rights.

When she travels the world on behalf of the German government, Baerbock speaks highly of "value partners." These are countries such as South Korea, which she recently visited, that see eye-to-eye with Germany and other Western countries when it comes to what they say they stand for.

At the same time, Baerbock doesn't hold back from denouncing nations that don't check the values box. These includes China, the world's second-largest economy and Germany's most important trading partner, which she visited last month.

Baerbock's counterpart, Qin Gang, did not take the scolding lying down. "What China needs least is a schoolmaster from the West," he said at a joint news conference.

Chinese officials are not the only ones to push back against Baerbock's approach. Critics in Germany are concerned that it is overly hostile, especially when dealing with a country as economically vital to Germany as China.

Her "values-driven" policy is, in reality, a "confrontation-driven foreign policy," journalist and philosopher Richard David Precht recently said on the program he co-hosts on public broadcaster, ZDF.

For others, though, Baerbock doesn't go far enough. When Jamshid Sharmahd, a German-Iranian dual citizen, was sentenced to death in Iran, his daughter accused the German government of being all bark and no bite.

A balancing act

The balancing act between values and interests is neither new nor easy. Nor can the two be "cleanly divided," said Karoline Eickhoff, a Sub-Saharan Africa analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), a Berlin-based think tank. "Their relationship often becomes relevant when foreign-policy decisions have to balance values and one's own interests."

Other foreign-policy observers note the downsides to letting values take the lead because "it massively reduces room to maneuver needed for compromise," Johannes Varwick, a professor of international relations at the University of Halle, told DW.

"Geopolitics is the laborious business of balancing interests. That doesn't mean overlooking human-rights violations in favor of economic interests. But it does require competence and empathy when assessing and understanding the historical and sociopolitical development of other countries."

Daughter of German-Iranian sentenced to death speaks to DW

Germany isn't unique in trying to pursue a values-based foreign policy. The European Union does, too, when it talks of "good governance." For decisions regarding development aid, for example, the EU says it examines the extent to which a potential partner takes action against corruption, violence against women or environmental degradation.

Autocratic states, such as China and Russia, see things differently. Russia supplies weapons and China builds infrastructure around the world without demanding respect for democratic norms and human rights. This has increased the global footprint of China especially, in part at the EU's expense.

Hypocrisy in foreign policy

Many people across the African continent appreciate China's hands-off approach when it comes to the internal affairs of their countries and view the European approach as "paternalistic," according to a study by the German-based Friedrich Naumann Foundation.

There is also plenty of hypocrisy baked into European foreign policy.

"Europe's commitment to human rights when working with countries in Africa is regularly called into question when it comes to migration policy decisions," Africa analyst Eickhoff told DW.

Still, it is far from a foregone conclusion that China's approach will prevail. Increasingly, people across Africa are growing more skeptical of Chinese influence, according to Afrobarometer, a non-profit based in Ghana that tracks public sentiment on the continent.

Rich democracies have more recently woken up to the problem. In an effort to reboot relations with the Global South, cooperation should be "at the same level, not just in the interest of exploiting raw materials based on unfair agreements," Baerbock said during a meeting of G7 foreign ministers in April in Japan.

Finding allies against Russia

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has put values-based alliances to the test. The war is a blatant example of a stronger country disregarding the sovereignty and borders of a weaker one. Still, countries like Brazil and India, which Western countries have long counted as partners, have abstained from United Nations votes condemning Russia.

"These countries are looking out for their own interests and also complain about double standards," international relations expert Varwick said. "Few want to be drawn into a new global conflict between democracy and autocracy fueled by the United States."

He pointed out, however, that these countries' resistance to supporting Ukraine was not the same as supporting Russia.

The values question is even one among the closest allies, such as France. Following his recent trip to China, French President Emmanuel Macron advised his European partners to stay out of crises "that are not ours." He warned against becoming a "vassal" to the United States, a comment which angered many policymakers in Berlin.

If a country wants values to guide its foreign policy, and do so credibly, SWP's Eickhoff said, those values start at home. A government must "apply high standards to its own behavior, and not just make demands on partner countries to change theirs," she said.

This article was originally written in German.

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