Germany's interests – and those who can help realise them

Strengthening a Values and Rules-based World Order

The fact that values and interests are inextricably linked is part of the DNA of German
foreign policy.

Status quo

The fact that values and interests are inextricably linked with each other is more or less in the DNA of German foreign policy. For Konrad Adenauer, Germany’s consistent ties to the West were not only the most promising path to security and prosperity for a nation in ruins, but were, above all, a decision in favour of freedom. The steady integration of Germany into the community of free peoples became the basis of a decades-long success story, culminating, for the time being at least, in the free and peaceful unification of 1990.

Over the past 70 years, German foreign policy has been inextricably linked to the success story of the liberal world order, with its institutions and core principles. Freedom, human rights, multilateral cooperation, peaceful conflict resolution and free trade – the commitment to these values is expressed not only in the Basic Law, but also in Germany’s membership of the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the International Criminal Court (ICC), to name just a few. It is these principles and values that have granted Germany and the West decades of prosperity and security. Germany’s prosperity, in particular, depends largely on the freedom of its citizens, the free movement of goods and services in the EU, free trade routes and access to markets all over the world. Adherence to the principles of the rule of law ensures peace in German society and at the same time achieves planning and procedural security for capital expenditure and investment decisions by foreign companies.

The situation is similar with respect to Germany’s security, which is not only ensured by investments in the police and armed forces, but first and foremost by the fact that Germany remains surrounded by friends, integrated into a close-knit network of like-minded partners. Against this background, participating in the spread of democracy, the rule of law, and freedom all over the world, and strengthening a values and rules-based world order is anything but an end in itself; instead, it is very much in the interests of German foreign policy[i].

Whenever German economic and security interests are set against democracy, justice and freedom, it must be remembered that values are also interests, and that it was the liberal world order that made the German success story of unification in peace, freedom, security and prosperity possible in the first place, that it is this order from which Germany still benefits to a great extent today, and that we will continue to be acutely dependent on this order in the future. Thus, strengthening a values and rules-based world order must necessarily be one of Germany’s foreign policy interests.

[i] E.g. Techau, Jan 2007: Deutschland muss außenpolitisch erwachsen werden, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, 10/10/2007, in: sicherheitskonferenz/als-moralapostel-droht-deutschland-zu-zerreissen-14880255. html [30/03/2020], or, with a view to the EU: Hellmann, Gunther 2016: Zwischen Gestaltungsmacht und Hegemoniefalle, Zur neuesten Debatte über eine “neue deutsche Außenpolitik”, in: Aus Politik und Zeitgeschichte, 11/07/2016.

Germany must finally grow up, come to normality in terms of foreign policy, and learn to defend its interests: demands like these have been raised again and again since reunification, often in connection with criticism of foreign policy that is perceived as focusing too much on values and morality.

It is true to say that it was not until 1990 that the reunified Germany had to get used to dealing with an increased scope for action in a world that had changed completely from one day to the next. It had to reassert its own interests and not only articulate them clearly but also pursue them in a consistent fashion. The fact that German President Horst Köhler had to resign in 2010 because he had pointed out that a country like Germany must also be prepared to use military means in an emergency [sic!] to protect its interests[i], shows how difficult such a process of adjustment can sometimes be.

Despite all justified criticism of German foreign policy after the reunification, the often presumed dichotomy between supposedly tough-minded security and economic interests on the one hand, and values and morality on the other, is misleading. The historian Heinrich August Winkler prefers to speak of material and immaterial interests[ii].

In fact, countless examples show that, in practice, values and interests can hardly ever be separated from one another in foreign policy. How do we position ourselves with respect to the democracy movement in Hong Kong, given that China is the largest market for German industrial goods? Do we involve the Chinese company Huawei in the expansion of our communication infrastructure, if it remains unclear what risks that will pose for our free society? How do we secure the supply of natural gas from Putin’s Russia, if doing so affects the security interests of our value partners in the east? How do we organise our cooperation with Turkey, given that it is connected to us in many ways and is strategically important, but at the same time is moving further and further away from common values?

Things are not made any easier by the fact that the liberal world order is currently undergoing its perhaps most serious crisis. Francis Fukuyama predicted the triumphal march of western-style, liberal democracy in the early 1990s, and yet, 30 years later there is hardly any trace of this euphoria. For the first time in many years, the proportion of free democracies in the world is declining.[iii] Global terrorism, climate change and the flow of refugees are putting pressure on the West. It is precisely in this crisis-ridden situation that the United States is showing increasing unwillingness to continue playing its role as a leading power and guarantor of a values and rules-based world order.

Instead of closing the gaps left by the gradual withdrawal of the United States from global political responsibility, the EU is also primarily concerned with itself. This is clearly a case of “out of the frying pan and into the fire”, because after the euro and refugee crises placed considerable strain on European cohesion, with the coronavirus pandemic, the Union is already in its third major crisis in just ten years – and has, with Brexit, just lost one of its most important Member States.

To make matters worse, the opponents of liberal democracy, particularly China and Russia, are getting better and better at intensifying the disintegration of the West, at expanding their spheres of influence, spreading their own values all over the world and gaining recognition for them in international institutions. Against this background, strengthening, developing and, where necessary, defending a world order based on values and rules is more crucial than ever.

[i] E.g. dpa/Reuters 2010: Bundespräsident Horst Köhler tritt zurück, in: Die Zeit, 31/05/2010, [06/04/2020].

[ii] Winkler, Heinrich August 2019: Ein normatives Projekt in der Krise, 08/05/2019, p. 6, documented in: emeriti-ehemalige-professor_innen/gedeswestens/personen/prof-dr-heinrich- august-winkler/ein-normatives-projekt-in-der-krise_8-5.2019 [30/03/2020].

[iii] Freedom House 2020: Freedom in the World 2020: A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy, in: BOOKLET_Final.pdf [29/04/2020].

If German foreign policy is to strengthen a world order based on values and rules, then it must take the value dimension into account in all its decisions and appropriately balance it with other interests. This requires engaging in an informed debate at the political and societal levels. A debate that does not presume a misleading dichotomy between supposedly tough-minded security and economic interests on the one hand, and values and morality on the other. A debate that makes it clear that a values and rules-based world order is an essential prerequisite for almost all other interests of German foreign policy or is at least the best way to achieve it. A debate that also addresses the question of what price we are willing to pay for strengthening a values and rules-based world order.

In the past, Germany has always emerged as a vocal supporter of a values and rules-based world order but has not always been ready to follow-up on its words with the corresponding deeds. This carries with it the risk of foreign policy moralism[i], and therefore there is an urgent need to underpin this with appropriate action. This includes a stronger and more targeted engagement in international institutions, along with the necessary investments in its own defence capability and the assumption of international responsibility. This in no sense means proselytising in other countries, whether with or without a sword. Experiences of the past few decades have clearly shown that the success of such undertakings is poor and that, if worst comes to worst, they can provoke massive defensive reactions. We need to find an appropriate balance between solidarity with democracy efforts all over the world, commitment to the politically and socially oppressed and providing support in establishing the rule of law.

If German foreign policy wants to strengthen a world order based on values and rules, it cannot do so alone. It needs the support of appropriate partners. It starts with the countries of the EU and with the United States of America, which for Germany, despite everything, is the “indispensable nation”. It continues with the other partner countries in NATO but does not stop there. Especially as the USA is increasingly withdrawing from its responsibility for a world order based on values and rules, and the EU and its Member States are not in a position to close the resulting gaps, German foreign policy must look further afield: to the periphery of Europe, to the Middle East, to North and Sub-Saharan Africa, to Japan, to Australia, and last but not least to Latin America.

All over the world, there are partner countries that already share our values or that are at least prepared to enter into a dialogue about those common values that should also be enforced internationally. The following chapters explain which countries could serve as partners and in which regions of the world, and what the values are that link us to them.

Peter Fischer-Bollin is head of the Analysis and Consulting Department;
Sebastian Enskat is head of “Democracy, Law and Parties” in the Analysis and Consulting Department.

[i] Cf. Lübbe, Germann 1989: Politischer Moralismus. Der triumph der Gesinnung über die Urteilskraft.



as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Since the beginning of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea, which violates international law, parts of the country have not been under the control of Kiev. It is in Ukraine that it will be decided what significance internationally recognised borders will have in 21st century Europe, whether territories can be unilaterally altered, and whether the right of the (militarily) stronger will again take precedence over the sovereignty, self-determination, territorial integrity and inviolability of borders.


as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Secularisation and modernisation have shaped Tunisia’s policies since independence in 1956 and especially under the leadership of then President Habib Bourguiba, and continue to have an impact today. Recent representative surveys show that Tunisians feel that they belong first and foremost to their country, then to Islam, and only to a much lesser extent to the Arab world. A clear majority, especially in comparison to the neighbouring countries of Libya, Morocco, and Algeria, favour the separation of state and religion.


as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Despite its relatively small population of approximately 28 million inhabitants, Ghana is growing in relevance for Germany. This is evident not least of all from the fact that Ghana has been included in the Compact with Africa project since 2017, and became one of Germany’s reform partner countries in the same year. Ghana’s willingness to accept reforms in the economic and fiscal policy sector, along with its general conditions, which are relatively stable compared to many other Sub-Saharan African countries, made Ghana an interesting partner for the G20, and especially for Germany (as a reform partnership).


as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

In comparison to other Latin American countries and despite its modest size, Uruguay serves as a model with its impressive political and socio-economic status. In a region that is not always stable, the country can look back on a long democratic-republican tradition with functioning institutions and a diverse media landscape.


as a partner for strengthening a values and rules-based world order

Germany has a vital interest in maintaining and consolidating a world order based on the values of liberal democracy and on the centrality of the United Nations (UN). Given the USA’s global withdrawal, which the coronavirus pandemic has made even more evident, Germany needs to pursue this goal together with other international partners. India’s importance can hardly be overestimated in this respect: India is already the largest democracy in the world, and within the next decade it will replace China as the most populous country. Like Germany, the subcontinent at the Indo-Pacific interface is dependent on a solid security structure, an open trading system, and free navigation in international waters. India is severely affected by the consequences of global warming due to its vulnerable ecosystems and is reliant on multilateral approaches to solve this global problem.