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date: 23 January 2021

Germany’s Foreign Policy after the End of the Cold War: “Becoming Normal?”

Abstract and Keywords

Germany is increasingly expected to behave like a “normal” international actor, that is, one who assumes international responsibility in accordance with its international stature and whose involvement in international affairs is not—or to a lesser degree than during the Cold War—circumscribed by its past. Those changes in the expectations in particular from its transatlantic and European partners have strained Germany’s international self-conception. So have changes in the domestic environment, where the constraints on German foreign policy decision-makers have grown stronger in recent years. As a result, the “civilian power” role, which shaped Germany’s foreign policy during the Cold War, has been increasingly called into question, and it is not yet clear whether it will be replaced by a new master role for the country in international affairs.

Keywords: Germany, foreign policy, civilian power, United States, NATO, European Union, Russia, United Nations, public opinion


The analytical starting point of this article is that the main trends and patterns in postunification Germany’s foreign policy can fruitfully be accounted for in terms of the interplay between international and domestic influences (Putnam 1988). Specifically, the argument is that since the end of the Cold War German foreign policy decision-makers have faced increasing international expectations for Germany to take on more responsibilities on the world stage, but at the same time have partly been held back in meeting such expectations by growing domestic constraints. The task of mediating among these often conflicting demands has become ever more challenging for German governments and has involved a gradual move away from established national role conceptions. Given the increasing tensions between international and domestic pressures and incentives, German foreign policy has become altogether more fluid and less predictable.

This marks a significant change in the two-level context of German foreign policy compared to the Cold War era, when decision-makers and constituents within Germany as well as Germany’s international partners were broadly content with the country pursuing a “civilian power” role in international affairs. Key elements of that role have been Germany’s normative agenda of “civilizing” international politics, most notably through reinforcing international law; its attachment to multilateral principles and cooperation, in particular Germany’s reflexive support for European integration; the almost absolute priority decision-makers placed on establishing Germany as a reliable and trustworthy partner to the West; and a deeply held skepticism toward power politics and the use of military force (Maull 2011, 98–103). The “civilian power” concept thus captured the co-constitutive relationship between Germany’s own understanding of its role in international affairs and complementary external role expectations, which sustained a foreign policy practice that self-consciously dissociated Germany from the foreign policy means and objectives of great powers (Kirste and Maull 1996).

Since reunification, however, the expectations by Germany’s partners about the country’s engagement in the international arena have changed, calling for Germany to behave more like a “normal” international actor—that is, “more like other powers in its class” (Hyde-Price and Jeffery 2001, 690), such as France or Britain. In particular, a “normalization” of German foreign policy would see Germany accept greater international responsibility in accordance with its international stature, notably in the economic realm, and be less circumscribed by its past in dealing with international affairs than during the Cold War, not least regarding the use of military force and the provision of international leadership (e.g., Hellmann 2000). In line with these expectations, Germany has indeed assumed a more active international role over the past two decades, hand in hand with increasing self-confidence and self-expectations of German foreign policy decision-makers (e.g., Karp 2005; Hellmann et al. 2007). However, tensions have arisen between the more demanding international environment and a domestic environment marked by an increasing number of, or stronger, constraints on German foreign policy.

Overall, the picture that emerges for Germany’s foreign policy since reunification is of a country that in an attempt to meet the demands by its main allies, not only has stepped up its involvement in international affairs but also has increasingly pursued a more egoistic and self-regarding foreign policy that places greater emphasis on domestic political interests. The latter has led Germany to take over a (co-)leadership role, for instance within the European Union (EU) or in the negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program or the Ukraine crisis. Occasionally, it has also pitted the country against its traditional partners, for instance during the military inventions in Iraq and Libya. All of this has occurred against the backdrop of a more constraining domestic arena for executive decision-makers, which resulted from the pluralization of foreign policymaking in Germany and has limited the government’s room for maneuvering in foreign policy.

Those opposing trajectories of external expectations and domestic constraints on German foreign policy contribute to Germany’s current uncertainty as an international actor, which follows from the lack of a clear role conception. Indeed, Germany’s long-standing international self-conception has been put under strain. However, while the “civilian power” role has been increasingly called into question, it is not yet clear whether it will be (or to some extent already has been) replaced by a new master role for the country in international affairs.

The remainder of this article is structured as follows. First it attends to the international environment of German foreign policy and discusses how Germany has stepped up its international engagement since reunification, focusing on transatlantic relations (including the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO) and European integration as well as, more briefly, on Germany’s relationship with Russia and its engagement within the United Nations (UN). Next the article shows how the foreign policy leeway of German governments has been constrained domestically and zooms in on the influence of the federal president, the German parliament, party and coalition politics, and public opinion. The concluding section discusses to what extent Germany has become a “normal” foreign policy actor.

The International Environment: Living Up to Rising Expectations and Demands

Transatlantic Relations

Already prior to reunification, President George H. W. Bush envisaged a greater role for (Western) Germany in international affairs. During his visit to Germany in May 1989 Bush referred to the US-German relationship as a “partnership in leadership” and placed high hopes on the country’s future contribution to the realization of his vision of a “new world order” (Hurst 1999). When a couple of months later the prospect of German reunification materialized, Bush grasped the opportunity. The reassurances provided by the American president to the other possible veto powers, namely the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France, were crucial for winning them over about the reuniting of Germany (Zelikow and Rice 1995).

Since then the reunited Germany increasingly, albeit reluctantly, has contributed to the maintenance of peace in the world. Initially, however, during the Gulf War of 1990–1991 Germany remained disengaged for the most part. Its main contribution was financial, providing some US$9 billion to the US war effort (Szabo 2007, 354), which paved the way for allegations of “checkbook diplomacy.” As expected by some commentators, Germany did not really live up to expectations (e.g., Asmus 1991). Nonetheless, starting in mid-August 1990 and ending in September 1991, Germany did deploy minesweepers, first to the Mediterranean and then, after the war fighting had ended, to the Persian Gulf, not least as a demonstration of alliance solidarity.

Germany maintained a similarly low profile during the Balkan Wars (1992–1995). German contributions, such as the deployment of reconnaissance planes to Operation Deliberate Force in 1995, had little bearing on the success of NATO’s military operations. At the same time, they played to the expectations of its Western partners. Moreover, Germany found a bigger role for itself during the postconflict phase, contributing several thousand soldiers to the NATO-led operations IFOR (Implementation Force) and later SFOR (Stabilization Force), which sought to assist local actors in the implementation of the Dayton Peace Accord (Meiers 2010, 205–207).

When NATO decided to conduct another military intervention in the Balkans, Germany contributed to the fighting part of the operation (Brummer 2012). Indeed, the country’s participation in Operation Allied Force in Kosovo must be considered a landmark for German foreign policy. It was the first participation ever in a war-fighting mission of the armed forces of the Federal Republic, the Bundeswehr. Moreover, the NATO operation was not based on a mandate by the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), which was widely seen as an essential prerequisite for any deployment of the Bundeswehr abroad. This fundamental break with Germany’s past behavior occurred during the tenure of a leftist coalition government that brought together two parties, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Green Party, which—especially in the case of the Green Party—advocated noninterventionism and even pacifism. Yet it might have taken exactly such parties, who were above suspicion of aspiring to reintroduce German militarism, to usher in a fundamental change in the country’s foreign policy. Quite interestingly, the two parties—most prominently Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer from the Green Party (Hockenos 2008, 266–274)—used the country’s past as justification for military action rather than inaction, as had been the case before. The lesson from the country’s Nazi past of “Never again war” was amended to “Never again war, never again Auschwitz,” from which followed an obligation also in moral terms to become engaged in another European country when the threat of genocide arose (Meiers 2010, 208–209). While the actual military contribution remained limited to a dozen or so Tornado aircraft and some five hundred soldiers, Germany had proven itself to be a reliable NATO ally during combat operations.

The relationship of Germany with NATO, and the United States in particular, was further strengthened in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The day after the attack German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder (SPD) pledged Germany’s “unconditional—I emphasize: unconditional—solidarity” with the United States (Bulletin 2001). Schröder followed up his words with action. Germany participated in both the antiterrorism mission Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), focusing on Afghanistan and the Horn of Africa, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.

In the case of OEF, Schröder even put his chancellorship on the line to make Germany’s participation possible. The goal and purpose of OEF were heavily contested within the coalition government, especially within the ranks of the Green Party. At first glance, opposition within the governing coalition seemed to be hardly consequential, since the opposition parties, particularly the conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) and their Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), were in favor of supporting OEF. However, given his previous unequivocal public pledge to support the United States, Schröder wanted to obtain a “chancellor’s majority” (Kanzlermehrheit) in the Bundestag in support of the deployment. This is why he opted for linking the vote on Germany’s contribution to OEF with a vote of confidence based on article 68 of the Basic Law (Grundgesetz, GG)—a first in Germany’s parliamentary history. As a result, Schröder lost the support of the opposition parties, who showed little desire to help the chancellor out of his predicament resulting from disagreements within the governing coalition. Thus, the buck was passed to the Green Party, whose members of parliament had to decide on whether to keep the coalition government in power. Schröder’s gamble paid off. The eight members of the Green Party’s parliamentary group who had categorically ruled out supporting OEF—and whose nay votes would have cost the governing coalition its majority—decided to split their votes: four voted against, the other four “had” to vote yes. This way Schröder got the desired chancellor’s majority, and Germany contributed to OEF (Brummer and Fröhlich 2011, 5–10).

While Germany’s actual contribution to OEF remained negligible in the following years—for instance, the contingent for Afghanistan was limited to one hundred soldiers—it shouldered a much heavier burden in the context of the ISAF mission. To give but a few examples, together with the Netherlands, Germany served as lead nation between February and August 2003. Then, after NATO took over the mission, Germany assumed ISAF’s Regional Command North, where it established, among other things, two provincial reconstruction teams. In 2010–2011 Germany’s troop contributions reached a total of some 5,350 soldiers. Overall, Germany was the third largest troop contributor to ISAF, trailing only the United States and the United Kingdom.

Nonetheless, Germany was at times heavily criticized by NATO partners (e.g., Dempsey 2008). The latter were particularly unhappy with the caveats that Germany had put on the use of its troops, making the country “the poster child of caveats” (Saideman and Auerswald 2012, 76). Most important, those caveats essentially confined the area of Bundeswehr operations to the northern part of Afghanistan, which especially in the first few years of ISAF was much less contested than the eastern and southern parts of the country, where troops from, among others, the United States, Canada, and the Netherlands were put in harm’s way and suffered a considerable number of casualties.1

Thus, from the mid-1990s onward Germany had increasingly shouldered responsibility within the framework of NATO operations. Against this background, as well as against Germany’s historical obligations to the United States, the Schröder government’s categorical rejection of the US-led invasion of Iraq was all the more unexpected. Playing to anti-American sentiments and a deep-rooted skepticism about the use of force among the German public in the run-up to the 2002 federal election, “Germany was, for a time, at the forefront in articulating the anti-intervention argument” (Kaarbo and Lantis 2003, 202), next to France and Russia. As a result, the German-US relationship reached “an unprecedented freezing point” (Schöllgen 2004, 232). Germany’s provision of some low-profile assistance to the United States, for instance by taking over security duties at US installations in Germany, granting overflight rights, and sharing intelligence (Baltrusaitis 2010), was insufficient to thaw the relationship.

The bilateral relationship did not improve until a change in the German government in 2005, when Angela Merkel from the conservative CDU took over the chancellorship. The better personal rapport between the respective leaders—first between Merkel and Bush, then between Merkel and Obama—has clearly helped matters, as did Germany’s above-mentioned contributions to NATO operations in the Balkans and Afghanistan, its participation alongside the five permanent members of the UNSC in the nuclear talks with Iran, and its leadership role inside the EU with respect to both the eurozone crisis and the conflict in Ukraine. With the United Kingdom being more inclined to detach itself from the European integration process rather than assume a leading role in it, Germany has become the primary point of contact in Europe for the United States. The appreciation of the expanded role of Germany in international affairs, and of Chancellor Merkel in particular, was mirrored in granting her the opportunity to address both houses of Congress in 2009—Merkel was only the second German chancellor to receive that honor, after Konrad Adenauer in 1957—and awarding her the US Medal of Freedom in 2011.

However, in recent years some major irritants have arisen that put a strain on the bilateral relationship. They include Germany’s abstention in 2011 in the UNSC vote on Resolution 1973, which established a no-fly zone over Libya, and the country’s subsequent nonparticipation in the NATO operation Unified Protector. In the UNSC Germany, which was a nonpermanent member at that time, was the only Western country that did not support the resolution, which led to harsh criticism not only from partner countries, but also domestically (Müller 2011). In some respects the situation resembled that of the Iraq intervention in 2003, with Germany once again refraining from supporting key allies and ending up in the company of possible challengers of the Western order, including China and Russia, who had also abstained. More recently, Germany has been criticized by representatives from the US administration and members of Congress for its handling, or rather alleged mismanagement, of the crises respectively over the eurozone (e.g., Landler and Kulish 2012) and Ukraine (e.g., BBC 2014). Conversely, German decision-makers were incensed, for instance, when the wiretapping of Chancellor Merkel’s mobile phone by the National Security Agency (NSA) became public in 2013. In uncharacteristically blunt words, the chancellor referred to those activities as “an absolute no-go among friends” (Zeit Online 2013). German decision-makers also exhibit unease about the strategic implications that the American pivot, or rebalancing, to Asia is likely to engender for the future of the transatlantic alliance (BMVg 2013).

Overall, since reunification Germany has become a much more self-confident partner of the United States, who does not shy away from openly disagreeing with, and at times even refusing allegiance to, the superpower. Indeed, German decision-makers exhibit reduced inhibitions about disappointing American expectations if they are seen to go against domestic constraints. Having said that, the United States remains the indispensable partner for Germany on all matters of strategic importance. Despite occasional frictions and (mutual) disappointments, German decision-makers are patently aware of this fact. As Chancellor Merkel remarked in her speech before both houses of Congress: “Germany and Europe will also in future remain strong and dependable partners for America [the United States]. That I promise you” (Bulletin 2009). Nothing indicates that this promise is about to be broken anytime soon.


The end of the Cold War and the prospect of German reunification raised concerns among the country’s neighbors about a resurgence of German hegemony in Europe.2 Accordingly, both France under President Francois Mitterrand and the United Kingdom under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher initially tried to block reunification. As mentioned in the previous section, reassurances from the United States, for instance relating to continued American troop deployments in Germany and the latter’s continued membership in NATO, were crucial to winning them over, especially in the case of the United Kingdom (Thatcher 1993, 792–796). In addition, France wanted to see Germany further involved in the European integration process (Lappenküper 2011, ch. 9).

German Chancellor Helmut Kohl (CDU) used the European integration process to assuage concerns about the country’s intentions after reunification (Kohl 2007, 385–387). Germany agreed to swap its national currency, the Deutschmark, for a common European currency, the euro. While decisions to that effect had already been made prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, reunification accelerated the introduction of the common currency (Sadeh and Verdun 2009). In addition to pushing the project of European economic and monetary integration, Kohl together with Mitterrand proposed in April 1990 to let the European integration process evolve toward a political union. The result of those activities was the Treaty of Maastricht, which entered into force in November 1993. This treaty led to the creation of the EU, which was no longer confined to the economic realm like its predecessors, but extended cooperation to the realms of foreign and security policy as well as justice and home affairs. By placing Germany at the center of a deepened European integration process, Kohl was able to alleviate fears among the country’s neighbors regarding a reunited Germany.

Whereas Kohl has been a European by conviction, who—not least in light of his own biography (Kohl was born in 1930)—considered the integration process integral to the preservation of peace in Europe, his successors—both of whom were born after World War II—have developed a more pragmatic position (Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet et al. 2010). While clearly not calling into question Germany’s continued participation in the integration process, Schröder and Merkel have placed greater emphasis on the costs and benefits of integration. For the most part, Germany is no longer willing to act as paymaster, solving disagreements among member states by opening up its purse, and it has also shown itself willing to bend rules if it deems fit. Cases in point are Schröder’s albeit largely unsuccessful efforts to reduce the German contributions to the EU’s budget during negotiations over the multiannual financial framework 2000–2006 (“Agenda 2000”) and his government’s eventually successful effort to fend off punitive proceedings by the European Commission when Germany did not meet the deficit to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio of 3 percent, as required of members of the eurozone by the Stability and Growth Pact (Harnisch and Schieder 2003; Müller-Brandeck-Bocquet et al. 2010, 173–252). Ironically, it was at the insistence of the Kohl government that this pact had been made in 1997 in order to maintain the stability of the common currency.

At least until the financial crisis unfolded, Chancellor Merkel proved to be closer to Kohl’s perception of Europe as being first and foremost a peace project whose functioning occasionally requires German financial largesse. Indeed, after assuming the chancellorship in November 2005 Merkel’s first major accomplishment on the European scene was to broker a compromise deal for the EU’s financial framework from 2007 to 2013. This included a transfer of some €100 million that were originally earmarked for assistance to Poland (Marhold 2006, 18–19).

Still more crucial, though, was Merkel’s role in rescuing the treaty reform process. When in mid-2005 the Treaty for a Constitution for Europe (TCE) was rejected in referendums in France and the Netherlands respectively, the European integration process reached a low-point. To pull Europe out of the crisis, high hopes were placed on the German presidency of the Council of the EU, and thus on the chancellor, in the first half of 2007. Merkel lived up to the expectations and managed to broker an agreement on treaty reform at the June 2007 European Council (Wendler 2010, 537–542). While dispensing with statelike symbols, such as calling EU directives “laws” and creating the post of a “foreign minister,” the compromise salvaged most of the TCE’s more substantive modifications to the existing treaties pertaining to institutional reforms (see Bache et al. 2014, 172–179). Overall, the German Council presidency proved crucial for the successful conclusion of the treaty reform process, which culminated in the Lisbon Treaty that entered into force in December 2009.

In recent years Germany’s EU policy has been dominated by the eurozone crisis. In battling the effects of the crisis, Germany has become the leader of Europe, albeit mainly by default. On the one hand, expectations arose simply because Germany has by far the largest economy among the eurozone members. In addition, though, the inability of the other major EU member states to take over the lead has also pushed Germany front and center. France is hampered by a weak and unpopular president, and the United Kingdom not only has shied away from adopting the euro but is rather contemplating whether to stay inside the EU in the first place. Thus, with two of the “big three” relegated to the sidelines mostly for domestic reasons, all eyes have turned to Germany to provide guidance during the crisis. As the then Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, stated in November 2011:

The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland would be the collapse of the Euro zone. And I demand of Germany that, for your own sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity.

(Sikorski 2011; emphasis in original)

While Germany has indeed offered the requested guidance during the crisis, this has more often than not failed to win over other EU member states, especially smaller ones, as was characteristic of Kohl’s European policy. Instead, the German emphasis on austerity (spending cuts) has further deepened the North-South divide among EU member states. Whereas the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands mostly support Merkel’s policies, countries from the South, such as Greece, Italy, and to some extent also France, advocate for more public spending in the hope of kick-starting growth (Hall 2012).

Overall, in times of austerity Germany seems increasingly unwilling—and in part also unable—to act as the “paymaster” of the integration process. While not calling into question the process as such, calculations on the costs and benefits of European integration have increasingly gained prominence, particularly since the sovereign-debt crisis has hit Europe. During this crisis Germany has—more inadvertently than by design or aspiration—taken over a leadership role in Europe. Paterson (2011) called Germany “the reluctant hegemon.” To be sure, German leadership in the integration process is by no means a new phenomenon, but contrary to earlier decades, when the country went out of its way to win over partners, Germany has increasingly become more prepared to advocate its positions unilaterally if necessary.


In recent years Russia3 has re-emerged as one of the most important focal points of German foreign policy. Of course Russia, or rather the Soviet Union, had already been crucial in the context of German reunification. At first the Soviet leadership under President Mikhail Gorbachev was deeply suspicious of German reunification, particularly if a reunited Germany was to remain a member of NATO (see Biermann 1997). Similarly, a withdrawal of Soviet troops from the territory of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was initially out of the question. Both developments would have weakened the Warsaw Pact at the expense of the Western alliance. In the end, though, the reunited Germany stayed inside NATO, and Soviet troops were later withdrawn from eastern Germany. The United States and Germany were crucial for winning Gorbachev over, the former mostly by cooperating with the Soviet Union in strategic and military affairs (e.g., the conclusion of the START treaty), the latter mainly by intensifying the economic and financial relationship (e.g., by providing food aid or granting credits) to the Soviet Union (Hanrieder 1995, 241–244).

The conclusion of the Two-Plus-Four Agreement in September 1990 paved the way for reunification and also for a fully sovereign German state. During the remainder of the 1990s the economic dimension increasingly gained in prominence in the bilateral relationship (Stent 2007, 441). In the political domain, however, some problems arose. From the German viewpoint, these included Russian president Boris Yeltsin’s inability to modernize Russia and his decision to intervene in Chechnya (1994–1996); from the Russian viewpoint, they comprised, for instance, Germany’s support for enlarging NATO to include former members of the Warsaw Pact. Still, not least due to the personal friendship that developed between Kohl and Yeltsin, the bilateral relationships developed smoothly for the most part.

A personal rapport also developed between Chancellor Schröder and President Vladimir Putin, who succeeded Yeltsin in 2000. Nonetheless, German foreign policy continued to be “anchored in the middle of the Atlantic” (Hacke 2002, 296), as one observer stated in 2002. The following year, however, this certainty was about to be challenged. In the run-up to the US-led invasion of Iraq, a temporary “axis Paris-Berlin-Moscow” (Schöllgen 2004, 237) took shape. Support from France under President Jacques Chirac and Russia under Putin was imperative for Schröder to demonstrate that Germany was not alone in its rejection of the American regime change policy for Iraq. A similar impression of a deepening of the German relationship with Russia at the expense of traditional partners arose close to the end of Schröder’s chancellorship. With the political backing of both Schröder and Putin, an agreement was reached for constructing a gas pipeline (“Nord Stream”) running through the Baltic Sea, thus connecting Russia and Germany directly while bypassing the territory of traditional transit states. In several Eastern European countries, most notably Poland, this accord between the two big states despite the objections of their smaller neighbors raised massive concerns (Hellmann 2007, 454).

Chancellor Merkel has not walked in the footsteps of her predecessors. From the outset Merkel, whose parents moved to the GDR a couple of weeks after her birth, has been rather critical toward Russia. Early in her chancellorship, she did not shy away during visits in Moscow from criticizing her host for the developments in Chechnya, the country’s human rights record more generally, or the problems that civil society organizations were facing (Langguth 2009, 435). Still, despite dissent on substantive grounds and the existence of “personal animosities” (Bierling 2014, 244–245), Merkel maintained a working relationship with Putin.

The relationship soured dramatically, however, after the Russian annexation of Crimea and its subsequent involvement in the eastern part of Ukraine. Indeed, Merkel has been among the most outspoken critics of Putin’s expansionist policies. For instance, in May 2015, during a joint press conference with Putin in Moscow, she remarked with an eye on the bilateral relationship: “The criminal and illegal annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine have led to a serious setback to this cooperation” (Bundesregierung 2015). Merkel’s exasperation with Putin has also found expression in the exclusion of Russia from the G-7 (formerly G-8) meetings under the German G-7 presidency in 2015 and in Germany’s contributions to NATO’s enhanced rapid response force (“spearhead force”), which has been set up in reaction to Russia’s policies toward Ukraine.

While Merkel has proven crucial in formulating the West’s response to Putin’s policies (Bierling 2014, 261), she has refrained from severing ties with Russia. Since a solution to the Ukraine crisis cannot be found without Russian cooperation, Merkel is inclined to accommodate Putin’s interests to some extent. A case in point are the “Normandy format” meetings, which brought together the leaders of Germany, France, Russia, and Ukraine and led to the conclusion of the “Minsk II” ceasefire agreement for Ukraine in February 2015. Similarly, Merkel has gone out of her way to emphasize that a deepening of the EU’s relationship with countries such as Ukraine and Georgia is by no means a guarantee of the latter’s future accession to the organization (Bulletin 2015).

Overall, the quality of the German-Russian bilateral relationship has deteriorated significantly since reunification. Nowadays, Russia is rather perceived as posing a challenge to Europe’s post–World War II territorial order. This does not preclude cooperation with the country, as the discussions over Ukraine illustrate. The continued interdependence between the two countries in the oil and gas sector also stabilizes the relationship to some extent (Szabo 2015). Nonetheless, trust is running low on both sides, and a solution to the most pressing issue, namely the conflict in Ukraine, seems nowhere near. Accordingly, the prospect of a “post-Western German foreign policy” (Kundnani 2015, 109), which places (much) stronger emphasis on Russia (or China, for that matter), seems remote. Indeed, rather than seeing a mutually beneficial partnership evolve, the two countries are more likely to engage in zero-sum games in the years to come.

United Nations

Finding multilateral solutions to international problems, thus enhancing the solutions’ legitimacy, is among the key foreign policy goals of a “civilian power” (Kirste and Maull 1996, 300). For Germany, the primary institution in the pursuit of multilateralism has been the UN. German reunification has not ushered in any changes in that respect. The country continues to consider the UN, and especially the UNSC, the preeminent multilateral forum for solving international conflicts, preferably diplomatically but if need be also by mandating the use of force. According to the most recent German white paper on defense, the UN “Charter provides the fundamental framework of international law that governs international relations,” and the organization as such “is of critical importance to the resolution of the multitude of issues that arise from an expanded concept of security” (BMVg 2006, 8).

While Germany’s commitment to the UN has not wavered, some of its policies toward and within the UN have caused frictions with its key allies, thus illustrating the country’s more assertive foreign policy. Germany’s lack of support in the UNSC for the United States in the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003 and its abstention during the UNSC vote on establishing a no-fly zone over Libya in 2011 have already been mentioned. Particularly damaging for Germany’s image as a steadfast supporter of multilateralism in general and the UN in particular was that in the case of Iraq, Chancellor Schröder stated publicly that Germany would refrain from supporting an intervention irrespective of whether it was mandated by the UNSC (Schöllgen 2004, 234).

Another example of more egoistic or self-regarding behavior that at times goes against the expectations of the country’s partners is Germany’s stance on reforming the UNSC, where multilateral goals pertaining to a joint seat for the EU have increasingly been replaced by the pursuit of obtaining a national seat (Hellmann and Roos 2007, 12). That goal gained in prominence not only because of the aspiration to take on greater international responsibilities commensurate with Germany’s global economic clout and to increase the country’s status, but also, more narrowly, because of the domestic contestation resulting from Germany’s participation in UN-mandated military missions, in which a permanent seat promised a greater say in decisions on the use of force.

The idea of reforming the UNSC gained prominence during the Kohl governments. Whereas Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher (Free Democratic Party [FDP]; in office until 1992) focused on enhancing the European voice inside the UNSC by acting through the two permanent European members—France and the United Kingdom—his successor Klaus Kinkel (FDP; in office until 1998) advocated a narrower “national” perspective, which perceived Germany as “a natural candidate” (quoted in Hellmann and Roos 2007, 13) for a permanent seat should there ever be a reform of the UNSC.

Still, during the chancellorship of Kohl, Germany only “halfheartedly” (Hüfner 2007, 490) pushed for a permanent seat, not least since the chancellor himself was not fully convinced of that goal. This was about to change under the Schröder government, in which the pursuit of a permanent seat became the predominant issue for Germany’s UN policy (Opitz 2007, 295), especially during the chancellor’s second term in office (2002–2005). Germany also took the initiative for triggering institutional change. In July 2005 Germany, together with Brazil, India, and Japan (the “G-4”), presented a draft resolution on reforming the UNSC. However, the proposal was met with resistance, above all from the “Uniting for Consensus” group, whose leading members included Italy and thus a fellow EU member state. As a result, the G-4 proposal was not even close to obtaining the necessary two-thirds majority in the UN General Assembly (UNGA), let alone the unequivocal agreement of the five permanent UNSC members. Hence, Germany not only failed to accomplish its goal vis-à-vis the UN, but also strained relationships with some of its partners. Not surprisingly, then, the Schröder government’s policy was harshly criticized (see Hacke 2005).

The goal of obtaining a permanent seat in the UNSC has received less emphasis during the chancellorship of Angela Merkel. Yet this is not to say that it is no longer an aspiration. It still is, as corresponding stipulations in the coalition agreements, and thus governing programs, of all three Merkel-led coalition governments highlight. In all instances, a German seat is presented as a waypoint toward a European one. The 2013 coalition agreement reads: “Germany stands ready to assume greater responsibility at United Nations level, including taking over a permanent seat on the Security Council. We strive for a future permanent seat for the European Union” (CDU, CSU, and SPD 2013, 171). However, this re-emphasis on the European dimension does not imply that Germany would necessarily back down if its goals collide with those of fellow EU member states. Indeed, when the “Western European and Others Group” in the UN proved unable to agree on two candidates from the group for two nonpermanent seats in the UNSC for the 2011–2012 period, Germany did not yield to Canada and Portugal. In the end the UNGA voted for Germany and Portugal and thus two EU member states. Still, the fact that Germany pushed through its candidacy irrespective of the ambitions of another EU member lends only limited support to the country’s stipulated goal of a European seat.

Overall, since reunification Germany has for the most part proven to be a staunch supporter of the UN. The country is the third largest contributor to the organization’s budget; participates in a number of military operations conducted by NATO or the EU under UNSC mandates;4 and occasionally takes on a leading role in international diplomacy, such as the negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, in which Germany acts in concert with the five permanent members of the UNSC (“P5+1”). Having said that, somewhat reminiscent of the above discussion on European integration, it appears as if the unilateral benefits of multilateralism have increasingly gained prominence in Germany’s UN policy, as its (unsuccessful) efforts to obtain a permanent UNSC seat illustrate. To be sure, this is not to say that Germany has previously pursued multilateralism exclusively for altruistic reasons. Still, in multilateral fora like the UN, Germany seems increasingly prepared to engage in more self-regarding behavior even if doing so pits the country against some of its partners.

The Domestic Environment: Coping with Increasing Constraints

The previous section showed that on the international level, expectations for Germany to pursue a more active foreign policy have grown considerably since reunification. This section highlights that during the same time period constraints on German foreign policy decision-makers have increased on the domestic level. The overall effect is that foreign policy has become more contested and politicized in the domestic arena and that the leeway for German foreign policy has therefore become more restricted. Empirically, this claim is illustrated by examples relating for the most part to the foreign deployment of the German armed forces and Germany’s European policy. In those two areas, the “domestication” of German foreign policy (Harnisch 2009, 456–458) seems to be the most developed, and thus the constraints on the government the most pronounced.

Federal President

The federal president, in his capacity as the Federal Republic’s head of state, represents Germany under international law and concludes international treaties on its behalf (GG, art. 59, para. 1). The constitutional practice, however, is that these are purely formal and ceremonial responsibilities, which do not give the president material influence on German foreign policy (Jochum 2007, 169–171). Specifically, the president is bound by the foreign policy direction and guidelines set by the German government and has to coordinate all activities related to the external representation of the Federal Republic with the chancellery or relevant ministries. From this perspective, therefore, it would appear odd to include the president in any discussion of relevant domestic parameters of German foreign policy.

However, it is in part precisely because the president is not involved in the making and implementation of government foreign policy that this office has become an important voice in the German foreign policy debate. Representing the “dignified parts” (Bagehot 1963) of the German constitution, the presidency is generally seen to be “above” party politics. This has allowed many office holders to establish themselves as respected and well-trusted moral authorities in German politics and society (Scholz and Süskind 2004). While this clearly depends on the personalities of individual presidents and how they conduct their office, it is primarily through their speeches that presidents can employ their political capital to shape the German foreign policy discourse. In the domestic arena, presidential speeches are significant focal points of the German foreign policy discourse, which can contribute to shifting perceptions of what is appropriate and “normal” in German foreign policy. On the international level, speeches of federal presidents are high-profile expressions of German foreign policy identity that shape Germany’s image in the world.

In particular, presidents have made significant—and highly controversial—contributions to the ongoing domestic debate about postreunification Germany’s role in international politics. This was the case, for example, when Horst Köhler argued in an interview in 2010 that the use of military force should sometimes be seen as a necessary means to secure German interests, including economic ones (Zeit Online 2010). These comments were widely seen as overstepping the president’s constitutional role and provoked sustained domestic criticism, in particular from the political Left, which ultimately led to Köhler’s resignation. No less controversially, the current president, Joachim Gauck, repeatedly called for a more active German foreign policy to make more decisive and substantive contributions to international security (Gauck 2014). On the one hand, these presidential interventions exemplify attempts at creating discursive space for adapting German foreign policy to rising international demands and expectations. At the same time, the debates sparked by the presidents indicate the widespread unease with moves toward a “normalization” of Germany’s international role in the domestic political arena.

Parliament, Parties, and Coalition Politics

The bicameral German parliament, consisting of a directly elected lower house, the Bundestag, and a representation of state governments in the upper house, the Bundesrat (Federal Council), is clearly subordinate to the executive in foreign affairs. As the Federal Constitutional Court (FCC) clarified in a landmark ruling in 1984, foreign policy is a core competence of the executive, which alone is seen as having the necessary organizational and political resources to adequately respond to changing international circumstances. While the federal government has the initiative and sets the tone in German foreign policy, the role of parliament is largely reactive. Still, the government needs parliamentary approval for certain types of foreign policy decisions, and the Bundestag, in particular, is an important arena for holding the federal government publicly accountable for its foreign policy.

Since the mid-1990s, moreover, the Bundestag has reasserted itself in foreign affairs and has become a more significant constraint on German foreign policy in two ways. First, it has seen an extension of its formal powers in the field at the expense of the government. Quite surprisingly from a foreign policy analysis perspective, which has very little to say about the role of courts, this development has been driven primarily by rulings of the FCC. Second, foreign policy has become more contested in the Bundestag, which is largely due to shifts in the German party system. Both of these changes in the Bundestag’s role in foreign affairs are particularly notable with regard to foreign deployments of the German armed forces and Germany’s European policy.

The German parliament has always played an important role in the ratification of international treaties. As a general rule, such treaties have to be approved by both the Bundestag and the Bundesrat (Geiger 2002, 130–137). In contrast, the powers of the Bundestag in authorizing foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr have only been clarified more recently and can be traced back to a landmark ruling of the FCC in June 1994. While Germany had already participated in several multinational operations in the early 1990s, it was unclear whether this was covered by the German constitution. Specifically, the question put to the FCC in 1994 was whether the participation of the Bundeswehr in operations conducted by the Western European Union (WEU) and NATO in the Balkans and the UN in Somalia was constitutional. The FCC decided that it was.5 According to the court, GG article 24, para. 2 not only empowered Germany to enter into systems of “mutual collective security” (which referred to the UN, NATO, and the WEU) and to agree to the resulting restrictions on its sovereignty, but it also comprised taking over duties resulting from membership in these institutions, including the foreign deployment of armed forces in military operations under their umbrella. At the same time, the FCC decided that such foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr require the prior constitutive approval of the Bundestag. Consequently, the practical details of the interaction between the federal government and the Bundestag were laid down in the Parliamentary Participation Act, which entered into force in 2005 (see Wagner 2010). As far as formal “war powers” are concerned, the decision of the FCC has made the Bundestag one of the most powerful parliaments worldwide (Peters and Wagner 2011).

A similar pattern can be observed for Germany’s European policy. Here, too, the Bundestag’s powers have been augmented as a result of decisions by the FCC, starting with its landmark ruling on the Maastricht treaty in 1993 (see Sturm and Pehle 2012, 132–155). The most notable court decision for our context, however, was the 2009 decision on the Lisbon Treaty. While the FCC ruled that the treaty is compatible with the Basic Law, it concluded that the accompanying laws were unconstitutional, because they did not sufficiently specify the participation rights of the Bundesrat and the Bundestag, for instance regarding changes to the European treaties.6 The FCC upheld and consolidated the Bundestag’s participation rights in subsequent decisions, for instance on the European stability mechanism (ESM) in 2012.

What is important to note, however, is that despite the significant extensions of formal parliamentary powers regarding the use of military force and European policy, it is still highly unlikely that the Bundestag will reject government proposals in these areas. This is because the main political fault line in Germany’s parliamentary system is not between the executive and legislative branches of government, but rather between the governing coalition, which includes both the federal government and the coalition benches in the Bundestag, and the opposition parties. Except under very unusual circumstances, such as narrow majorities in parliament and low party or coalition discipline, German governments can therefore expect to get Bundestag support for their proposed course of action. This is virtually a foregone conclusion in the event of grand coalitions.

At the same time, the strengthening of the formal powers of the Bundestag in foreign affairs has contributed to its increased profile as an arena for the public scrutiny and contestation of German foreign policy. For example, Bundestag debates on Germany’s participation in international military missions have become high-profile focal points in the German foreign policy discourse. The same is true for the Bundestag debates and votes on government policy in the eurozone crisis. Moreover, the role of the Bundestag in fostering public debate about German foreign policy is reinforced by changes in German party politics. These changes have increased the scope for foreign policy contestation in the Bundestag and have added to the overall domestic politicization of German foreign policy. While it was originally the Greens who challenged the foreign policy mainstream in the German party system, it is now the Left Party that is most vocal in the Bundestag in making the case for radical alternatives to the established lines of thinking in German foreign policy. This applies both to the Left Party’s categorical opposition to any German contributions to international military missions and to its critical stance toward European integration. Outside the Bundestag, recent successes of the Euroskeptic Alternative for Germany (AfG) only add to the picture of a foreign policy mainstream that is increasingly under pressure from the left and right margins.

Importantly, the increasing party political contentiousness of German foreign policy has also left its mark on interparty and intraparty relations at the center of the party system, including inside governing coalitions. Many of the highest-profile issues on the German foreign policy agenda over recent years have involved at least some degree of conflict between the government and the main opposition parties or within and between the government parties themselves. Cases in point include the divisions within the Red-Green government over Kosovo and Germany’s participation in the war on terror or the government-opposition divide over the 2003 Iraq War and over Germany’s abstention on UNSCR 1973, which authorized the international community to protect civilians from the Gaddafi regime in Libya in March 2011.

Consequently, while coalition governments have always been a core feature of the Federal Republic, the politics of coalition have become a more significant constraint on decision-making, insofar as foreign policy issues become increasingly contested between the coalition partners. Specifically, the division of authority in German foreign policy between different coalition parties is relevant in two closely related ways. First, it restricts the ability of the senior partner to implement its foreign policy agenda in full. The junior coalition partner, in particular if it is pivotal to the coalition, effectively constitutes an additional veto player whose interests have to be accommodated. The constraints imposed by the junior coalition partners are particularly notable if their preferences openly diverge from those of the senior partner. For example, the response of the coalition between CDU/CSU and FDP (2009–2012) under Chancellor Angela Merkel to the eurozone crisis was restricted by pressures from within the liberal junior partner to adopt a hardline approach toward European demands for further German financial contributions to resolve the crisis (Oppermann 2012, 511). Occasionally, foreign policy concerns of junior partners can threaten the very survival of a coalition government, as was the case, most prominently, when Chancellor Schröder had to rely on a vote of confidence to narrowly secure sufficient support from the Greens for Germany’s participation in OEF in 2001 (see above).

The second way coalition politics shapes German foreign policy comes from junior partner control of the Foreign Ministry (Kaarbo 1996). This influence rests on the decision-making authority and agenda-setting power junior partners enjoy in foreign policy by virtue of leading the most relevant department in this field (Laver and Shepsle 1996, 13–15). Being in charge of the Foreign Ministry, junior partners are well-positioned to “hijack” or foreclose the coalition agenda. As a recent example, Foreign Minister Westerwelle from the FDP employed the authority and resources of his office to effectively close down decision-making and to commit the coalition to a policy of nonparticipation in the military intervention in Libya in March 2011, irrespective of the preferences of the senior coalition partner, the CDU/CSU, and Chancellor Angela Merkel (Oppermann and Brummer 2014, 562–563).

Public Opinion

While public opinion should not be expected to dictate specific foreign policy decisions, it still sets boundaries on the range of alternatives German governments will find domestically feasible. Not least, public sentiments on foreign affairs sketch out opportunities and limits to the party political contestation of German foreign policy. As a general rule, public opinion is more likely to become an important decision-making constraint if foreign policy issues are highly salient in public discourse and can therefore affect the domestic standing and electoral prospects of the government (Aldrich et al. 1989). It is precisely the trends toward a more active role of Germany in the international arena and toward greater contestation over foreign policy in the German political elite that should also trigger a stronger mobilization of German public opinion on foreign affairs.

It is true that on average the salience of foreign affairs in German public opinion remains comparatively low. However, important landmark events in German foreign policy, in particular decisions about the use of military force, such as the Kosovo War, Germany’s support for OEF, and its opposition to the 2003 Iraq War, have all led to marked increases in public attention to foreign policy (Oppermann and Viehrig 2009, 933–937). More recently, the question of Germany’s participation in the 2011 NATO military intervention in Libya was highly salient in public debate and the most-covered political issue on the main German TV news programs at the time.7 In the field of European policy, the eurozone crisis has never been far from the top of public concerns since 2008. Almost one-third of the electorate considered the issue very important to their voting decisions in the 2013 general elections.8 Inasmuch as Germany will continue to become more actively involved in potentially controversial decisions on high-profile international issues, decision-makers will likely have to anticipate public opinion as a significant constraint on a more regular basis.

On a general level, the increasing role of public opinion in German foreign policy appears to facilitate a stronger German engagement in international affairs. In particular, opinion surveys show large majority support for a more self-confident approach to international issues in general and to European integration in particular. Along similar lines, a majority of Germans positively acknowledge that Germany has indeed become more self-confident vis-à-vis other countries (Hellmann 2000, 88). In contrast to the 1990s, a majority of public opinion also believes that Germany has a positive image abroad and that Germans should have a sense of national pride despite Germany’s past (Köcher 2009, 33–35, 92).

However, German public opinion has become altogether more lukewarm in its support for European integration since the early 1990s (Busch and Knelangen 2004, 83–88). The share of Germans who think that their country has benefited from the EU has fallen below the European average. According to the latest available Eurobarometer data, a majority of Germans (53%) do not trust the EU, and a plurality (39%) think that the EU is developing in the wrong direction (European Commission 2014). Both figures display slightly more negative views on the EU than average opinion across Europe and indicate that the German public no longer stands out as being particularly pro-European. Also, while national and European identities are clearly not mutually exclusive, the extent to which German national identity has been complemented by a European dimension remains fairly limited (Köcher 2009, 287–288). Insofar as the public discourse in Germany does display a genuinely European outlook, as it did for example in the debate about the eurozone crisis, it tends to project German norms and principles onto the European level and to set them as benchmarks for “good Europeans” (Galpin 2015).

On the use of military force, Germans remain highly skeptical about foreign deployments of the German armed forces. While public opinion has become slightly more permissive in this regard and gave its support, for example, to Germany’s participation in NATO air strikes on Serbia in the 1999 Kosovo War (Maull 2000, 64–65), the Federal Republic’s traditional “culture of antimilitarism” (Berger 1998) clearly lives on in the general public. For example, the share of respondents who believe that Germany should keep out of international military missions almost doubled, from 34% in 2005 to 63% in 2008, when only 19% of respondents came out in support of further deployments abroad of the German armed forces (Köcher 2009, 318–319). More recently, 61% of respondents to a 2014 poll opposed government plans to expand Bundeswehr deployments in international crises.9

Conclusion: Germany as an “Uncertain Power”

Over recent decades the civilian power role has become less prescriptive for German foreign policymaking. Indeed, lacking a clear national role conception, Germany’s behavior in international affairs has become less predictable. This uncertainty is driven, in particular, by increasing tensions between growing international demands on German foreign policy on the one hand and a more constraining domestic decision-making environment on the other. Navigating the sometimes conflicting international and domestic pressures and avoiding collisions between the two has become an ever more challenging task for Germany’s postunification governments.

On the international level, the expectation increasingly is that Germany will act like a “normal power” in international politics. In particular, Germany’s international partners demand that Germany accept its enhanced responsibilities as a producer rather than only a consumer of international security and that it become more actively engaged in international affairs. This includes, most notably, taking on a greater burden in international military missions and providing leadership in European integration. Overall, the international expectations of German foreign policy make ever fewer allowances for the restraints imposed by the Federal Republic’s traditional “civilian power” role in international affairs.

Albeit reluctantly at first, Germany’s postunification governments have integrated these expectations into their own conception of the country’s international role. Thus, Germany has become involved in international military missions to an extent that would have been unthinkable until the late 1990s, it plays an increasingly prominent role in international crisis diplomacy, and it has moved center stage in European integration. At the same time, Germany’s more active engagement in international affairs has come with an increasing assertiveness of German governments in the international arena, even if this brings them into conflict with their international partners. It is precisely because Germany has taken on more responsibilities in international politics that governments have become less reluctant to invoke domestic considerations in order to reject specific demands of its partners, for example regarding German participation in particular military interventions.

On the domestic level, German foreign policy is being formulated and implemented in an ever more constraining political environment. Partly as a consequence of Germany’s more active role in international affairs, foreign policy decisions have become increasingly politicized and contested in the domestic arena, in both party politics and the general public. The Bundestag, in particular, has reasserted itself as a significant constraint on German foreign policy, above all regarding foreign deployments of the Bundeswehr and European integration. The domestic restrictions on German foreign policy, in turn, have sometimes provoked international criticism that Germany is still not doing enough to fully live up to its enhanced international responsibilities.

Altogether, the tensions between international demands and domestic constraints make for a less predictable and more uncertain outlook for German foreign policy than was the case when Germany’s “civilian power” role was still largely uncontested. German governments as well as parts of the German political elite have come to support the case for a stronger German engagement in international affairs and have tried to create political and discursive space for a more active foreign policy in the domestic arena. However, such attempts often face significant domestic opposition, which constrains the extent to which German foreign policy responds to international expectations and demands. This interplay between international and domestic pressures has become part of the new “normality” in German foreign policy.


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(1) However, during the course of ISAF the northern region became considerably more unstable. When ISAF ended in 2014, Germany had lost fifty-five soldiers (Bundeswehr 2015).

(2) For an academic discussion of a possible German resurgence, see Mearsheimer (1990).

(3) This article does not address Germany’s foreign policy toward other members of the so-called BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa). Next to space constraints, the main reason for this is that Germany’s foreign policy toward those and other emerging powers is somewhat lacking (see Husar, Maihold, and Mair 2009; Bundesregierung 2012).

(4) Having said that, Germany’s contributions to UN-led operations (“blue helmets”) are rather limited. In May 2015 Germany ranked fifty-eighth among the contributors to UN operations (United Nations 2015).

(5) The decision is reprinted in Grimm and Kirchhof (1997).

(6) The decision is available in English on the FCC’s website at (accessed June 5, 2015).

(7) For the full data see Institut für empirische Medienforschung, “InfoMonitor,” (accessed July 3, 2015).

(8) See Infratest dimap, ARD Deutschlandtrend, March 2012,; Infratest dimap, Umfragen zur Bundestagswahl 2013, (accessed July 6, 2015).