Publication War / Peace - Europe / EU - Eastern Europe - Positive Peace - Friedenspolitik The Peace Question and Germany’s Current Foreign Policy

Long-term peace and stability in Europe can only be achieved by cooperating with Russia.

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April 2019

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Germans on Patrol
A German soldier on patrol at Camp Marmal, Mazar-e Sharif, Afghanistan. CC BY 2.0, ResoluteSupportMedia

The peace question lies at the heart of any foreign policy. This has been a general and universal truth since the foundation of sovereign states. Past generations understood and experienced history as a long string of wars, and until the mid-20th century most historians measured the success of state leaders by their military achievements.

Made up of numerous small and sovereign states, the history of the European continent in particular is riddled with warfare. This May marks the 400-year anniversary of the outbreak of the Thirty Years War, which had devastating effects on the whole of Central Europe. War atrocities, famine, and plagues resulted in mass mortality, wiping out almost two-thirds of the population of today’s Southern Germany. Signed in 1648 in the German cities of Osnabruck and Munster, the Peace of Westphalia treatywas preceded by seven years of intense negotiations—an achievement which turned out to be short-lived. In the 18th and 19th century numerous hegemonic wars ravaged the European continent, followed by the 20th century’s two world wars for which Germany bore the brunt of responsibility.

Central Europe is currently experiencing its longest period of peace in 2,000 years. As both a part and result of the European integration process, we have been able to maintain a comparatively stable state of peace for more than 73 years—including the period of bloc confrontations and the Cold War. In the face of today’s emerging challenges it is crucial that the lessons gained from these experiences are not lost but rather incorporated into current practical policies. However, we should not forget that throughout the course of history decisions of war and peace have been made by political leaders. To this day, foreign policy issues fall under the jurisdiction of governments and not national parliaments. In the German parliament fundamental debates on foreign and security policy issues are non-existent, and the white papers on security policy are exclusively government documents which rule out parliamentary debates and decisions. In theory, the German federal armed forces (Bundeswehr) undergo parliamentary scrutiny; in practice, however, their portrayal as a “parliamentary army” is somewhat of a chimera. Restricted to voting on the extent, duration, and target country of deployment, the German federal parliament’s say in military operations abroad is extremely limited. What is more, the operations themselves can only be approved or rejected and are beyond any form of debate. However, even this vague sphere of co-determination is exceptional compared to the rest of Europe and its future is far from certain. The European parliament also lacks the authority to make foreign or security policy decisions. Within the European Union’s parliamentary debate on war and peace, the voice of European citizens has no legal force.

The Peace Question Takes on New Dimensions

Today, the question of peace has taken on utterly new proportions. The age of nuclear warfare has transformed the issue of peace into a matter of survival for the entire human race. Hopes for a stable peace dividend following the end of the East-West confrontation remain unfulfilled; meanwhile, nuclear arms control and disarmament have reached an impasse. In fact, the number of global nuclear powers has increased and a large-scale modernization of existing nuclear weaponry is currently underway. A wealth of highly complex security challenges is generating global unrest. In particular, Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency has kick-started a frenzy of military confrontations and an arms race in the transatlantic West not seen since the end of the Cold War. Led by the US, NATO, and the European Union, these developments form an attempt to combat internal and external contradictions which herald the collapse of a unipolar world order. This downfall is symptomized in two interrelated processes which have become particularly evident since early 2018:

First,we are currently witnessing a renewed escalation of the political situation in the Middle East. The relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May 2018 added further fuel to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while Turkey’s attacks on Kurdish forces meant Turkey also becoming involved with the ongoing civil wars in Syria and Iraq. The West’s reaction to Syrian and Russian military successes in the War on Terror against the Islamic State can only be described as lackadaisical. Rather than initiating constructive steps towards a Syrian peace process, the US announced its revocation of the Iranian nuclear deal alongside sharp economic sanctions, thereby opening up a whole new line of conflict in the region. This was accompanied by the threat of further punitive measures against any attempts to undermine these sanctions. Clearly, the Middle East is now the site of a struggle over a political realignment aiming to roll back the influence of Iran and Russia in the region and crush Syria’s status as an independent state. For Europe in particular, the consequences of such a shift would be disastrous.

Secondly, the relationship between the Western world and Russia is under particular strain—a fact which the 2018 meetings between Trump and Putin in July in Helsinki or between Merkel and Putin in August at Schloss Meseberg did little to change. Notwithstanding all justified criticism of Russia, it is primarily the fault of the transatlantic West that relations with Russia have soured. This was triggered by NATO’s eastward expansion towards Russia’s western borders, as well as the demonization of Putin in the Western media—just as Hussein, Gaddafi, or Assad once were. These processes had been brewing long before the Ukraine crisis, which the West has blamed entirely on Russia. The Skripal case, which held Putin personally accountable for the March 2018 poisoning of a former double agent and his daughter in the British town of Salisbury, is only one symptom of a systematic anti-Russian propaganda campaign that has been intensifying since the beginning of the year. The US and EU subsequently imposed sanctions on Russia without procuring prima facie evidence of its guilt. For NATO this narrative of a Russian enemy is necessary to justify its ludicrous boost to its arms supply. Since the 2014 NATO summit in Wales, it is now mandatory for all NATO countries to spend two percent of their gross domestic product (GDP) on arms procurement, without any plausible plan of use having been presented at either national or NATO level. In the West, the enemy image of Russia paves over any cracks caused by differences over foreign policy and simultaneously whitewashes opposing views on domestic policy.

Ongoing political instability in the Middle East as well as increasing tensions with Russia pose major threats to European security in particular. While German and EU-backed operations in the Middle East lack an overall strategy and appear largely reluctant to respond to acts of violence, both actors use threats of violence towards Russia as an instrument of deterrence. We know only too well from the Cold War how such a policy of mutual deterrence can only produce a highly fragile stability and peace.

Since the end of the East-West confrontation internal and external conditions for European security have undergone a fundamental change. The emergence of new powers has called into question the hegemonic role of the US and its allies. Roughly 30 years on, we are now facing yet another geopolitical turning point reflected in the shift from a unipolar to a multipolar world order. The peripheries of these old and new aggregates of power are characterized by extreme instability and numerous civil and proxy wars. This is supplemented by the dramatic effects of the West’s neoliberal economic policy on poorer countries, as well as the consequences of climate change. With terrorist attacks spanning the globe, the Islamic State or Islamic fundamentalism as a whole has asserted itself as a new and unpredictable security challenge. In combination with strong population growth in Africa and the Arabic world, all of these factors exert a high level of migratory pressure on Europe. Overall, the European continent in particular faces security risks and contingencies on an unprecedented scale. The challenges confronting industrialized European countries in the post-Cold War era are characterized by the following three developments:

  • In the era of globalization and digitalization, the susceptibility of these states to hostile influences has risen considerably. In particular, their reliance on electric energy as well as on analogue and digital modes of communication makes the entire infrastructure of these countries fairly vulnerable. Even conventional wars can no longer be waged and won on the territory of the Western world, as their impact would threaten human civilization itself. The call for resilience featured in the 2016 White Paper is, therefore, sheer self-delusion.
  • New technologies have opened up new horizons for the destructive interference with armed forces and civil society as a whole, technologies that are not classified as conventional weaponry. The expansion of conflicts into outer space and cyberspace blur the boundaries between military and non-military activities—and with it the boundaries between war and peace. The increasing automation of military decisions also significantly reduces the leeway for political action.
  • We currently lack the instruments for de-escalation that have regulated or contained confrontations between rival blocs since the mid-1970s. These include the agreed mechanisms for the verification of disarmament and arms control and for manoeuvre observations as well as a number of confidence and security-building measures (CBSM).

These developments have made the industrial societies of Europe and North America particularly vulnerable should it ever come to a direct involvement in violent conflict. The dangers of the unintentional or chance escalation of conflicts have increased, while the push for escalation dominance still prevalent in military thinking poses a threat to the political process of de-escalation. This is especially true given the involvement of non-state actors in potential war zones. Considering the erratic manner in which the current US president has implemented his “America First” policy and branded Germany as a strategic opponent, the US must currently be regarded as a security risk for Europe in its own right.

The West’s Manichean World View and Its Zealous Foreign Policy

It is incumbent on German and EU foreign policy to find more consistent and creative ways of prioritizing the peace question. Federal governments have always styled themselves as advocates of a foreign policy that promotes stability and peace in Europe. However, the theory and practice of such a foreign policy contradict one another. Obscured behind the phraseology of a value-based foreign policy, this contradiction is not readily apparent. As Ischinger and Messner argue, “[a]s a whole, Germany should commit more fully to her international responsibility in accordance with our national values.”[1] For the authors, the key terms in this process are, among others, “peace”, “freedom”, “democracy”, “prosperity” and “justice”.[2] These are all promising terms with plenty of room for interpretation and choice. When it comes to their implementation in foreign policy, however, we must not forget that these are by no means the central political categories of all states the world over, but merely constitute “the values of an open, liberal society”.[3]

This value system is propped up by the transatlantic West’s Manichean worldview which divides the world into good and bad, “us and them”. This worldview rests on the West’s self-perception as the apex of human civilization compared to the other cultures or civilizations that co-exist in the approximately 200 countries of the world. In the words of Samuel P. Huntington, “Western belief in the universality of Western culture suffers three problems: it is false; it is immoral; and it is dangerous.”[4] According to Huntington, conflicts between different civilisations or cultural groups—especially those of the periphery—stem from the West’s failure to acknowledge different cultural values around the world. The wars in the Balkans and the Middle East have merely confirmed this prediction. Even if one does not share Huntington’s vision of a “clash of civilizations”, the deep rift of contradiction that runs between the West and the rest of the world remains indisputable.

The absolutization of Western values in Germany’s and EU foreign policy reflects an essentially missionary, neo-colonialist stance, while the value system of the West is portrayed as the undisputed catalogue of universal human values. Taken from the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Western concepts such as fundamental rights, freedom, and political democracy are overemphasized and presented in a one-sided and biased manner. The concomitant claim to superiority expressed by Western culture is conducive to conflict and as such poses a threat to peace. This can be illustrated by two examples at the core of German and European foreign policy:

Firstly, as part of the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) the policy of the EU’s Eastern Partnership (EaP) aims to convert the six post-Soviet states of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Belarus to the Western value system without these countries having any prospect of accession to the European Union. The Barroso ultimatum of February 2013 clearly and dramatically demonstrated this stance when head of the European Commission Barroso ruled out Ukraine’s accession to the EU should the Ukraine choose to join the Eurasian Economic Community.[5] The events that followed—EuroMaidan, the fall of then-president Viktor Yanukovych, the riots in eastern Ukraine, and Russian annexation of Crimea—characterized the unfolding of the entire Ukraine crisis.

Secondly, we have the double-track strategy of deterrence and dialogue with Russia. This is in historical continuity with the 1967 Harmel report on all white papers of the Bundeswehr predating the 2018 NATO summit in Warsaw. Deterrence and dialogue are two sides of the same coin. Both aim—with varying degrees of threatened violence—to proselytize Western ideas and are by no means concerned with recognition of the status quo and mutual equality. Here, it is important not to overlook the fact that a policy of dialogue can be very effective in preventing war.

In practise, Germany’s value-based foreign policy fundamentally contradicts its domestic policy: the tolerance of cultural diversity officially practised by the government on a domestic level is contrasted by a cultural intolerance beyond its national borders. The value-based foreign policy practised by Germany and the Western world as a whole ignores the recognition of the value systems of other political cultures as equal.

The Peace Question—Beyond Anti-Militarism and Pacifism

A left-wing criticism of German and European foreign policy must therefore pursue a more comprehensive approach. Rather than focus solely on the aspect of militarization, it must target and expose all existing flaws and loopholes in current foreign policy. Until today, however, none of the parties in the Bundestag has critically examined the value orientation of German foreign policy.

The dilemma of Die Linke lies in its lack of a coherent concept and vision for meeting the foreign policy challenges of the 21st century. Die Linke is essentially a party of opposition, not affirmation. When it comes to the peace issue, the party’s focus on anti-militarization is both its major strength and weakness. It is resolutely against any form of military operations abroad, against NATO, against any form of arms export, against a European military union, against the militarisation of security policy in general. However, in its self-perception as a peace party Die Linke crucially lacks a concept for a foreign policy of peace. The peace issue encompasses more than anti-militarism and pacifism: one can be committed to peace without being a pacifist and without necessarily agreeing with every detail of a consistently anti-militarist stance.

Reducing the peace issue to pacifism and anti-militarism carries the implicit danger of sectarianism and the exclusion of potential partners. In view of the emerging complexities of the peace issue in contemporary society, such a limitation is counterproductive for the peace movement.

This should not read as a polemic against the clear anti-military stance of Die Linke. Rather, it is a plea for establishing a complex vision of a peace policy. A foreign policy truly dedicated to promoting peace must extend beyond pacifism and anti-militarism. With this in mind, I would like to put forward six points for further debate:

  • An active peace policy means supporting the renunciation of violence and participating in active, cooperative international relations on the basis of the equality and self-determination of different peoples. These are simultaneously the highest principles of conduct of the Charter of the United Nations.[6] A foreign policy of peace is a foreign policy on equal footing. This requires the acknowledgement of other political cultures, other historical experiences, other ways of living, and values as lawful and equal. It also means renouncing missionary work as well as efforts aimed at transformation and regime change.
  • At the same time, this means taking into account the particular interests of other nations. This entails knowledge of their historical context, i.e. an “understanding” of one’s political partner or opponent. Understanding someone else’s standpoint does not mean agreeing with it. However, “understanding” one’s political partner or opponent is a prerequisite for pursuing any form of reasonable foreign policy. In this sense, being an “empathiser of Putin” should become a prerequisite for a realistic foreign and security policy with Russia rather than a slur.
  • A peace policy always implies a proactive foreign policy that seeks to prevent conflicts from the outset. German and European foreign policy in the world’s crisis regions—the Middle East, including Afghanistan, or the African continent—consist of little more than a few misguided efforts at crisis management and the removal or alleviation of war damages. There is currently no long-term perspective on how to address these problems. A consistent foreign policy of peace requires a shift from crisis management to crisis prevention. This means focusing on basic future-oriented goals, i.e. designing said policy to match the desired outcome.
  • A peace policy also means dispensing with enemy stereotypes. These stereotypes are always laced with hate, intolerance, and exclusion. Instead we need cooperation, a willingness to reconcile and tolerance—both at home and abroad. Here, the peace ethics of Christianity and the hands-on peace work of the Christian Church can provide valuable inspiration.
  • In particular, a peace policy means enforcing and strengthening international law instead of adhering to the “law of the strongest”. Above all this means doing away with double standards in the assessment of international problems or legal breaches. Only in this way can we overcome the credibility crisis of the West. At present, foreign policy practice amounts to little more than finger-pointing at political adversaries. Blatant violations of international law as seen in the Iraq war or the drone attacks against alleged terrorists are ignored, tolerated, or even justified by the German government and mainstream media. Questionable Russian activities, on the other hand, generate exaggerated media attention or even turn out to be sheer fabrications. A prime example for the German media’s fixation on Russia is the 2018 case surrounding the Russian-British double agent Skripal and his daughter. In such cases a peace policy must focus on strengthening international organisations such as the UN, the OSCE, and their specialized institutions.
  • Finally, a constructive peace policy must also focus on tying the peace question to the social question. A stable peace between individual states and civilisations will only be achieved when poverty, underdevelopment, environmental destruction, and neo-colonial exploitation are overcome. Peace—at home and abroad—is based on solidarity and justice. This, too, could be the core of a value-based left-wing foreign policy.
European Security—With, Not Against, Russia

These six points are not an end in themselves but are closely related to the question of the military. As a benchmark for assessing current tendencies in Germany’s armaments, the military, and alliances policies, they also pave the way towards other alternatives. From a German standpoint, the crux of the peace question lies in the issue of European security. In order to achieve stability across the European continent and its periphery, it is crucial to foster friendly relations with Russia as the largest continental power. In a geographical sense, Russia is 5,000 miles closer to Europe than the US: as emphasised repeatedly by Egon Bahr, Russia is our unmovable neighbour. Peace in Europe can only be ensured with, and not against, Russia. Therefore, creating a common European security structure that includes Russia must become a top priority for German and European security policy.

It is precisely our differences with Russia that force us to hold onto this goal and make positive progress towards such a joint policy. Despite all existing differences of opinion with Russia, there is simply no alternative to this security partnership. The anti-Russian sentiments fostered in the Baltic States and Poland, although historically grounded, do nothing to change this. In this respect there can be no doubt that when it comes to safeguarding peace and stability in Europe, the interests of the US and Germany vary greatly.

The Peace Movement Can Only Be Effective Within the Context of a Broad Alliance Policy

Given the obstacles facing peace and stability in Europe, how can we nonetheless bring about positive change? The answer to this question can be found in the peace movement itself. Considering the peace question as a global issue for humanity we reach the same conclusion: the peace movement can only be successful if its activities follow a broad policy of alliance. Although the peace movement is currently a low-key actor in Germany the concept of peace is nonetheless firmly rooted in society, transcending all classes and political parties and permeating all aspects of civic life. Compared to the rest of Europe, the shadow of the two World Wars is particularly present in the collective German consciousness. This has been confirmed by all recent sociological research conducted on the issue of war and peace. At the same time, few topics polarize public discussion as much as the peace issue. Even the Left is deeply divided on this issue, as parties seem adamant to style themselves as the only “true peace force” within the country. This rivalry within the Left is the Achilles’s heel of today’s peace movement, barring broader political success.

A peace-oriented process demands the acceptance of other political cultures, values, and traditions—both at home and abroad. This also means exercising tolerance towards potential coalition partners and their respective social, political, or religious background. The peace movement can only exert influence on real foreign policy if its individual members can agree on fundamental common goals. This also means that individual demands must occasionally be side-lined in favour of a common goal, and a minimal consensus is often the most feasible goal.

In view of the pluralist tendencies within the peace movement, the Left—both as a party and a political spectrum—must be willing to engage in broad political alliances that reject ideological prejudices, personal reservations and policies of exclusion, as well as entitlement claims to leadership positions. History shows it was precisely this struggle for leadership that led to the fragmentation and downfall of left-wing forces in the past. The division of the Left has always catered to the strengthening of bellicist forces.

We need a peace movement that transcends all party boundaries as a broad collective movement. The left-wing popular movement launched by Sahra Wagenknecht in the summer of 2018 takes a large step in this direction. However, the peace movement is even wider in scope, as its pluralist tendencies can also include other, more middle-class leanings. We should not entertain any illusions or unrealistic expectations in this respect: the peace movement will continue to be highly heterogeneous in nature. An increase in mutual tolerance does not rule out disputes, and a broad peace alliance signifies cooperation on the basis of concrete actions, not fraternisation per se.

Plenty of approaches to such broad peace alliances already exist. It is only a matter of generating wider publicity and support. One example is the Abrüstungsaufruf der Friedensbewegung (“call for disarmament by the peace movement”), inaugurated by Sahra Wagenknecht, Sigmar Gabriel, Antje Vollmer, and Sevim Dagdelen in the autumn of 2017. In November 2016 the cross-party initiative “Détente Now!” went public with the support of politicians from Die Linke. This initiative remains highly relevant and has also been well-received in middle-class circles. The core objective is to overcome the emerging East-West conflict currently posing the central obstacle to peace in Europe. In this context, it may prove useful to consult the previous German government’s foreign policy guidance document titled “Preventing Crises, Resolving Conflicts, Building Peace”. Signed and published shortly before the parliamentary elections in September 2017 by Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Secretary Sigmar Gabriel, the document quickly fell into oblivion. It draws on a broad public debate held under the slogan “PeaceLab 2016: Krisenprävention—weiter denken” (crisis prevention—thinking ahead). Significantly, this document bears a completely different political signature than the 2016 Bundeswehr White Paper. It is also remarkable that it consciously does not portray Russia as a threat and challenge to national security, but instead gives central importance to the issue of crisis prevention.[7] I am by no means advocating an a priori acceptance of this document—it contains too many elements of a neoliberal missionary and transformation policy to be adopted without criticism. However, in the context of the peace issue it undoubtedly serves as a stepping stone towards reaching a broad social consensus for a new policy of détente.

Wilfried Schreiber is Colonel ret. and former professor at the East German Military Academy of the National People’s Army (NVA) in Berlin. He has worked with the Dresdener Studiengemeinschaft Sicherheitspolitik (Dresden College of Security Policy, DSS) and is a member of the discussion group on peace and security policy (Gesprächskreis Frieden- und Sicherheitspolitik) at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung. This article first appeared in German in Eine Welt ohne GewaltTranslation by Joanna Mitchell and Carly McLaughlin for lingua•trans•fair.


[1]  W. Ischinger and D. Messner, Deutschlands neue Verantwortung. Die Zukunft der deutschen und europäischen Außen-, Entwicklungs- und Sicherheitspolitik, Berlin: Econ, p. 209.

[2]  See ibid., p. 4 and 7.

[3]  ibid., p. 209.

[4] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996, p. 310.

[5] On 1 January 2015, the Eurasian Economic Community reformed as the Eurasian Customs Union with a common external tariff. Its members include the five post-Soviet states of Armenia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Belarus.

[6] See the Charter of the United Nations, Chapter 1, Article 1.

[7] The only mention of Russia can be found on page 72 in Chapter 3, “Goals, approaches and instruments of peacebuilding”, which is written in the style of the White Paper.