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Leaving the Comfort Zone?

While Germany prepares for the UN Security Council, the majority of Germans continue to prefer restraint in foreign policy. By Julia Harrer, Editor THE BERLIN PULSE

Has Germany really done enough to end the war in Syria? Was EU Eastern enlargement in 2004 the right decision? And is China’s growing influence positive or negative? Half of the German population answers: “Yes!” The other half determinedly says: “No!” The results of Körber Foundation’s most recent representative survey on Germans’ foreign policy attitudes demonstrate that the German public is divided about certain foreign policy issues. At the same time, our numbers demonstrate that the majority of German citizens are strongly interested in foreign policy and want Germany to stand up for European values.

Even though almost two thirds of German citizens think that the European Union is not on the right track, Germans strongly believe in the value of Europe: preserving peace and securing freedom of expression, the rule of law and democracy is what the majority of Germans regard as the EU’s most important achievements. This might be one of the reasons why three quarters of them expect their country to work towards sanctioning EU member states that do not respect those fundamental values, for instance by cutting financial resources that these states receive from the EU budget. It might feed well into the stereotype about “strict” Germans who love rules and regulations.
Germany “has a certain tendency” to be a moraliser, as Polish researcher Marek Cichocki told THE BERLIN PULSE. However, the result could also be an encouraging sign that the majority of Germans are willing to defend a value-based system, especially at times when political polarisation is widening at home and abroad.

Since 2014, the “Munich Consensus” on Germany’s responsibility to take on a more active international role has defined the discourse and rhetoric of policy-makers and experts in Berlin. Four years later, however, the German public still does not seem to be convinced. Körber Foundation’s polls measure the German perspective on the question of involvement or restraint since 2014, and, over the years, our records do not display any change in mentality: while 41 percent of Germans believe their country should become more strongly involved in international crises (and 52 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds), 55 percent continue to prefer restraint (43 percent among 18- to 34-year-olds).

Considering the country’s past after the Second World War, it took Germany a long time to regain confidence in its international role. The question about involvement or restraint will hence stay with us. In an increasingly volatile international environment, the message that Europe needs to take its fate into its own hands (Angela Merkel) seems to have resonated at least in some regards: the number of Germans who think that Germany should increase its defence spending has grown from 32 percent in 2017 to 43 percent in 2018. This is a significant shift, also against the backdrop of the US’ continuous pressure on its NATO ally.

Despite tensions within the common alliance, two thirds of the German public have a “somewhat positive” or “very positive” view of NATO. At the same time, from the German perspective, the transatlantic relationship is in bad shape: taken together, 73 percent of Germans describe relations with the US as “somewhat bad” or “very bad” (compared to 56 percent in 2017), and almost half of the German population believes Germany should cooperate less with the US – a cold breeze is blowing over the Atlantic. In contrast, according to results of the Pew Research Center, seven out of ten Americans consider the relationship as somewhat / very good. Furthermore, only 38 percent of Germans think that having close relations with the US is more important than having a close relationship with Russia (32 percent).

Germany’s Foreign Minister told THE BERLIN PULSE that he stands ready to “defend multilateralism” and the rules-based international order. While Germany prepares for its non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council in 2019 / 2020, the majority of Germans do not seem ready to leave the comfort zone. Yet, Germany will be asked to react quickly to international crises and deliver on the promises it made to take on more international responsibility. For German policy-makers, the balancing act between international expectations and explaining its decisions on the ever-cautious home front will be an even greater challenge.

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