The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany: Still a Civilian Power?

Seminar Paper 2009 10 Pages

Politics - International Politics - Topic: German Foreign Policy


The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany: Still a “Civilian Power”?

On May 8, 1945, when VE-Day was proclaimed, the defeated Germany was a nation devastated not only physically but morally[1]. For the newly founded Federal Republic of Germany, the historic burden of WW2 and the holocaust therefore translated into the leitmotifs of its early foreign policy, the European “Aussöhnung”, “Westintegration” and general democratization. Deeply skeptical towards anything militaristic and with the firm determination not to allow nationalism or fascism ever to rise again, the West German state settled into being, as Hanns Maull described it, a “civilian power”[2] – a foreign policy concept based on promoting multilateralism, institution-building and supranational integration in order to spread democracy and the recognition of human rights, while generally refraining from the use of military force in international relations[3]. However, with the advent of new global challenges following the German unification and the parallel demise of the Soviet Union in 1990, especially in the form of collapsing nation states, civil war, terrorism and other asymmetrical conflicts, a shift in the German political consensus about the legitimacy of the use of military force appeared to have taken place. Especially the politics of the red-green coalition of 1998 – 2005, which saw the commitment of German fighting troops to the wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan, have not least led to Maull’s “civilian power” thesis being put into question[4].

Hence it has to be asked whether Germany is in fact still a “civilian power” or if indeed there has been a change in Berlin’s foreign policy. To find an answer to this question, this essay aims to examine the state of German foreign policy by looking both at the traditions of the Bonn Republic as well as the more recent developments following reunification and in addition to take a critical look at the current definition of civilian power in political science.

The nature of Germany as a civilian power cannot be understood without first of all considering the historical background[5]. Given the horrors of WW2, the new Germany’s foreign policy faced a great responsibility. Under the impression of the holocaust and “total war”, German politicians as well as the majority of the German society developed a decidedly anti-militarist view together with the will, never again to allow German nationalism to threaten European stability and the “desire never again to break ranks with Western democracies”[6]. In order to regain the trust and recognition lost in the course of two World Wars, anti-militarism (“never again”) and multilateralism (“never alone”), together with the emphasis on European Integration became the new core elements of Germany’s foreign policy[7]. While these principles obviously reflected wartime suffering, the excesses of the National Socialist rule also contributed to a strong will to uphold democracy and basic human rights in foreign policy, as Maull puts it: ”Never again” thus also meant: no more concentration camps, no more genocide, no more coddling up with dictators and human rights abuses[8]. The new Federal Republic then was built more on co-operation than competition, on the pursuit of wealth instead of power, and with the Basic Law of May 23, 1949, it rested on a democratic foundation – an important step towards a more civilian society[9]. While the first years of Bonn’s foreign policy focused mainly on the Integration into Western society and defense structures and reconciliation with the western European states (“Westpolitik”), from the 1960s on, the eastern part of Europe, including the GDR as the other German state, became the center of attention (“Ostpolitik”). German foreign policy went on to be characterized by its emphasis on politics and not force while the strong desire to uphold and spread universal human rights, assuming their moral superiority, became a prominent guiding principle. This development climaxed with the Helsinki accords of 1975, following the CSCE process of the previous years. During all this time, the role of the German armed forces remained broadly unaltered: to protect NATO territory from an attack by Soviet forces, a phenomenon that can largely be accredited to the “cocoon” effect of the Cold War, which precluded deviation from the existing strategies[10]. In short, Germany’s rebirth as a civilian power became characterized by self-limitation, modesty and deference[11].

The lightning unification of the two German states came as a relative surprise to most spectators and once again the specter of a resurgent German militarism loomed. However, the fears proved to be unfounded as the “culture of restraint” prevailed in Germany’s foreign policy and the concepts of multilateralism and European integration remained the guidelines of its center-right government intent on continuity[12]. Even though the Gulf War of 1990 put considerable pressure on the Kohl administration that found itself trapped between solidarity with their Western Allies and the special German anti-militarist responsibility in the face of WW2, the “cheque-book diplomacy”[13] prevailed. But at the same time it did become clear, that facing the new post Cold War security issues, Germany’s answer could no longer be formulated as a straight “yes” or “no”[14].


[1] Hanns Maull, ‘Germany and the Use of Force: Still a Civilian Power?’, [http://www.politik.uni-trier.de/mitarbeiter/maull/forsch/uofforce.pdf] 16/10/2009

[2] Hanns Maull, ‘Germany and Japan: The New Civilian Powers’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 69, No. 5, (1990), pp.92,93

[3] Hanns Maull , ‘German foreign policy post-Kosovo: Still a 'civilian power?', German Politics 9:2, p.14 ; Henning Tewes, Germany, Civilian Power and the New Europe, (London, Palgrave, 2002), p.12

[4] Tom Dyson, The Politics of German Defence and Security (New York, Berghahn, 2007), p.1

[5] Henning Tewes, ‘The emergence of a civilian power: Germany and central Europe’, German Politics 6:2, p.101

[6] Hanns Maull, ‘Germany and the Use of Force: Still a Civilian Power?’

[7] Rainer Baumann et al, ‘Germany and the Use of Military Force: “Total War”, the “Culture of Restraint” and the Quest for Normality’, in Douglas Webber (ed.), New Europe, New Germany, Old Foreign Policy? (London, Frank Cass, 2001), p.68

[8] Hanns Maull, ‘Germany and the Use of Force: Still a Civilian Power?’

[9] Henning Tewes, Germany, Civilian Power and the New Europe, p.38

[10] Kerry Longhurst, Germany and the use of force (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2004), p.50

[11] Ruth Wittlinger et al, ‘No Future for Germany’s Past? Collective Memory and German Foreign Policy’, German Politics 16:4, p.485

[12] Kerry Longhurst, Germany and the use of force, p.57

[13] Adrian Hyde-Price, ‘Germany and the Kosovo War: Still a Civilian Power?’ in Douglas Webber (ed.), New Europe, New Germany, Old Foreign Policy? p.20

[14] Kerry Longhurst, Germany and the use of force, p.59


ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Durham University – SGIA
72 (distinction)
Deutschland Außenpolitik Zivilmacht Civil Power Kosovo Afghanistan Irak Germany Foreign Policy Politics Politik



Title: The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic of Germany: Still a Civilian Power?