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 is, in a sense, part of the DNA of German foreign policy. For Konrad Adenauer, firmly establishing Germany as a part of the free West was not only the most promising path to security and prosperity for a nation in ruins, but was, above all, a decision for freedom. The systematic integration of Germany into the community of free nations became the basis of a decades-long success story, whose culmination to date, was the free and peaceful unification of 1990.

Over the past 70 years, German foreign policy has been inextricably linked with 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 given 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, provides planning and procedural certainty for investment decisions by foreign companies.

Germany’s security is a similar case. It is not only ensured by investing 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 spreading 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; rather, it is very much in the interest 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 interests as well, 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 significantly today, and that we will continue to be strongly dependent on this order in the future. Strengthening a values and rules-based world order must therefore be one of Germany’s primary 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”, develop into a “normal“ foreign policy actor, and learn to defend its interests: demands like these have been raised again and again since reunification, often in connection with criticism of a foreign policy that is perceived as focusing too much on values and morality.

It is true that, after 1990, the reunified Germany first had to get used to managing a wider scope for action in a world that had changed completely from one day to the next. It had to review and redefine its own interests and not only articulate them clearly but also pursue them consistently. 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!] in order 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 reunification, the often artificially created 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 tangible and intangible interests [ii].

Indeed, countless examples show that, in practice, values and interests can hardly ever be separated from one another in foreign policy. What position should we take on 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 development of our communication infrastructure, if it remains unclear what risks that will entail 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 we share many ties and Turkey 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, hardly any trace of this euphoria is left. For the first time in many years, the proportion of free democracies in the world is declining.[iii] The impact of the Covid 19 pandemic, man-made climate change, the flow of refugees and global terrorism are putting pressure on the West.

One crisis is following hard on the heels of the other. The euro crisis and the refugee crisis already placed considerable strain on European cohesion. The Covid pandemic is now the EU’s third major crisis in barely ten years – just after it has lost one of its most important member states, the UK.

To make matters worse, the opponents of liberal democracy, particularly China and Russia, are getting better and better at accelerating the disintegration of the West, at expanding their spheres of influence, asserting their own values all over the world and 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, it must take the value dimension into account in all its decisions and properly balance it with other interests. This first of all requires engaging in an informed debate at the political and societal levels. A debate that does not artificially create 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 clear that a values and rules-based world order is an essential prerequisite for almost all other German foreign policy interests 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.

While Germany was always an outspoken champion of a values and rules-based world order in the past, it did not always practise what it preached. This entails the risk of foreign policy moralism[i], which is why it urgently needs to be backed up by appropriate action. This includes a stronger and more targeted engagement in international institutions, along with the necessary investment in its own defence capability and the assumption of international responsibility. It explicitly does not include proselytising other countries, with or without sword in hand. The experience of the past few decades has clearly shown that these ventures are rarely successful and that they can, at worst, provoke massive defensive reactions. We need to find an appropriate balance between solidarity with the fight for democracy all over the world, commitment to those who are politically and socially oppressed and supporting the establishment of the rule of law.

If German foreign policy seeks to strengthen a world order based on values and rules, it cannot do so on its own. It needs the support of appropriate partners, starting with the countries of the EU and the United States of America, continuing with the other partner countries in NATO but not stopping there. Especially in crisis situations, German foreign policy must look beyond Germany’s own back-yard: 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 asserted internationally. The following chapters explain which countries could serve as partners, 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 Division;
Sebastian Enskat is head of “Democracy, Law and Parties” in the Analysis and Consulting Division.

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

Last update: Augst 27th, 2021



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.