Diplomacy, economy, and militarypower: The strengths and weaknesses of German foreign policy and leadership in the Ukraine crisis

Written by Amelie Theussen, Ph.D. Candidate at Center for War Studies

In the Ukraine conflict Germany has taken the leading role in a major international crisis for the first time. Looking at Germany’s national interests, it seemed likely that the country would play an important role in the Ukraine crisis, but according to Ulrich Speck “the decisiveness and dedication with which German Chancellor Angela Merkel has taken on a leadership role on Ukraine came as a surprise”. 

In his article German Power and the Ukraine conflict for Carnegie Europe, Speck argues that the German leadership comes for three reasons: first, Germany’s power has been rising since its reunification in 1990. Next to being the biggest economy and most populous country in the European Union, Germany “also lies geographically at the center of the union and is deeply embedded in EU structures”. Second, the Ukraine crisis affects the geopolitical order in Germany’s East, thus being of vital importance to the country. Third, no other country has been able or willing to take the lead – Paris is weakened and London increasingly disconnected from the EU, while Washington is less involved in European affairs. And Brussels “lacks the capability to lead the EU on foreign policy”. 

Germany manages its leadership in the Ukraine crises multilaterally. By coordinating all steps with Washington, and through amassing a majority of support for its approach in the EU, Berlin has been able to build a joint Western position, which aims “to move the conflict from the military to the diplomatic and economic levels”. Germany’s strengths lie exactly in the economic and diplomatic fields. It has been successful in uniting Europe behind a tough sanctions regime against Russia, while at the same time pushing negotiations in several forums and formats, resulting in the two Minsk agreements of September 2014 and February 2015. 

However, Germany’s leadership and approach towards the Ukraine crisis also shows a fundamental weakness: a substantial lack of military power. On the one hand Berlin has been reluctant to discuss military solutions to the crisis, and is against permanent NATO deployment in its Eastern neighbors, while on the other hand being actively supportive of NATO’s internal reorientation and new rapid-reaction force. According to Speck, there are two reasons for this: “a message that there is almost nothing that the West can do on the military side of the conflict”; and the domestic rejection of military power as tool in foreign policy by a majority of Germans. Due to the lack of military power, Germany is vulnerable to threats and blackmail. The country’s options are limited to supporting the possible military actions of its allies, through preferably offering non-lethal support in form of training or equipment, and relying on NATO, which in practice often boils down to the military might of the United States.

Read more about how Germany’s strengths and weaknesses influence its leadership in Speck’s article German Power and the Ukraine conflictat Carnegie Europe here