From Berlin to Brazil


The 20th anniversary of fall of the Berlin Wall, should be an occasion to think about the enormous changes that have occurred in world politics over the past two decades. New “leading powers” have emerged on the world political stage. Strengthening and upgrading relations with these new leading powers is of paramount importance for Germany’s foreign policy. The “German Institute for International and Security Affairs” (SWP) seems to think that way.

By Michael Liebig

The heads of government of the 27 EU countries and Russian President Medvedev took part in the festivities on November 9th in Berlin. In the evening of that day, I enjoyed a wonderful concert at Berlin’s Protestant Cathedral in which works of Schubert, Beethoven, Schönberg, Wagner and Mendelssohn-Bartholdy were performed. The concert was live transmitted by dozens of radio stations internationally.

President Obama did not come to Berlin, he was represented by Hillary Clinton. A few days earlier, Chancellor Merkel had spoken before the US Congress in Washington. She emphatically expressed her gratitude for the constructive American attitude towards German reunification in 1989/90. However, while Merkel was delivering her speech, the GM board in Detroit decided to retain its ownership of Opel. Up to that moment, GM’s disposal of Opel to the Canadian-Austrian Magna Group and the Russian Sber Bank was seen as a “done deal”. The German government wanted the sale and the GM board had OKed it in early October. On June 1st, 2009, GM had gone into bankruptcy; simultaneously the US government became a 60% shareholder of GM. In order to prevent a follow-on bankruptcy of Opel, the German government provided a 1.5 billion euro emergency credit to Opel and took over 65% of Opel’s shares from GM as collateral. Thus, the surprise decision of GM not to sell Opel is not a „business“ affair – it’s a political matter.

It is to be feared that GM retaining Opel means the beginning of the end of Opel. The results will be very bitter for the Opel workers, because GM will shut down several plants. How far Opel’s “downsizing” will go, is not clear yet, but ultimately, only Opel’s research & development center in Germany might survive. (cf. Letter from the Rhine, Febr. 28, 2009: The Opel/GM Crisis as Pars pro Toto)

As far as the decision of GM and the US government is directed against Russia, the effects will be limited: Russia will procure German technology by cooperating with another German car manufacturer. On October 21, a group of German business leaders met with Prime Minister Putin in Moscow – Volkswagen and Mercedes-Benz were there.

GM and the Obama administration have snubbed the German government real badly. GM is virtually hated in the German public – not only with Opel workers. Obama may assure that he was not involved in the GM/Opel decision, but he has gambled away more of his political credit in Germany. In the German public, the GM/Opel affair carries more weight than other – foreign or security policy matters – in US-German relations.

The SWP study on “New Leading Powers”

The GM/Opel affair will not cause a crisis in German-American relations, but it will further add an ugly element to the loss of confidence in the reliability of the Americans. In turn, the GM/Opel affair will be yet another contributing factor for Germany to search for new partnerships in world politics – beyond the traditional euro-atlantic setting.

Germany’s most important “think tank “ is the government-financed “German Institute for International and security Affairs” (SWP). Just now, a new book by a SWP research team has been released: „New Leading Powers: Partners of German Foreign Policy?“. [Jörg Hussar, Günther Maihold, Stefan Mair (Ed.), Neue Führungsmächte: Partner Deutscher Außenpolitik?, Nomos, Baden-Baden, 2009]

One may wonder about the question mark in the title. My guess: The book is written by political scientists, and when they do a research project, the “research question” is obligatory – no matter what the research result is. Well, the result is:

“As a middle power, Germany can realize its potential in international affairs only if it systematically builds and maintains partnerships with the rising, leading powers and ‘policy partnerships’ promoting its interests.”

The SWP study tries to “measure” the foreign policy convergence/divergence between Germany and rising powers/“pivotal states”. To that end, 11 policy areas are selected (financial architecture, good governance, climate policy, conflict prevention, migration, non-proliferation, combating organized crime, security architecture, combating terrorism, environmental protection, global trade). For each policy field, convergence/complementarity is measured on an ordinal scale.

Such a “rating” approach seems problematic to me and that goes for the selection of policy fields as well. Both geoeconomic and scientific-cultural factors are missing – and both are key for a forward-looking, “agenda setting” approach. Nevertheless, the rating generates reasonable results. The SWP research team ascertains that, among the rising powers, Brazil has the greatest foreign policy complementarity with the „middle power“ Germany. In 8 of the 11 fields, the complementarity between Germany and Brazil is high or very high. The complementarity with Brazil is significantly higher than with India, which ranks second.

Now, what turns a state – be it a “rising” or a “middle” power – into a “leading power”? The SWP study looks at different conceptual approaches for the identifying “new leading powers”. The states most often listed are China, Indian and Brazil, followed by Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, South Africa, Nigeria and Turkey. Among those, the SWP study examines Brazil, India, Mexico and South Africa more thoroughly.

Important Analytical Tools

The SWP team then put forward their definition of leading powers:

“States, which, due to their competence and achievements, do possess the capacity to generate and shape initiatives in certain policy fields of international affairs, organize ‘alliances of responsibility,’ and mobilize blockades, if necessary. In doing so, they can induce and/or enforce acceptance and support for their foreign policy actions by other state or non-state actors”.

This definition of “leading powers” may appear cumbersome, but I think it is useful when trying to understand the current, multipolar world system. Of course, power hierarchy and status differentiations have not vanished in the international politics. But the current global power hierarchy does not resemble an Egyptian pyramid, because there is no hegemon at the top any longer. Rather, the world system resembles a step pyramid of the Maya or Mesopotanian type: On the top there is, roughly spoken, a plateau – with a growing number of leading powers.

A hegemonic power – at least the “ideal type” – covers a whole spectrum of the hard/soft power projection. In contrast, the power projection of leading powers is not “full spectrum,” but limited to certain policy fields, even if they were many. Thus, a state – be it a rising or a middle power – can only become a leading power if it is willing and capable to enter into formal or informal coalitions. Without coalitions, even a great power will tend to get isolated internationally. Such coalitions may exist in certain policy fields only, or they can have a general character, which is usually called „strategic partnership“.

The second dimension of a „leading power“ lies in the regional context, because a leading power usually is the (or a) leader of a geopolitical region. The SWP study obviously draws attention to the European experience when arguing that a regional power must adopt a „constructive leadership role“ towards the other, mostly less-powerful actors. While in Europe there are several regional powers – certainly France and Germany – , in Latin America the obvious regional power is Brazil. In the regional context, a tension exists between integration and competition, between national sovereignty and supra-national commitments. This tension can only be resolved by a complex and complicated combination of assertiveness and restraint of the regional power(s).

In the end, the requirements for “constructive leadership” in the regional framework are equally valid on the world political level. The post-1989 attempt of the USA to play the role of the hegemon has failed. And, for the foreseeable future no other great power has a realistic prospect of succeeding the USA in that role – even if that would be desired. Consequently, all great powers must adopt a course of action in foreign policy which roughly corresponds to what the SWP study defines as the characteristic mode of behaviour of leading powers, namely agenda setting and alliance building.

Of course, the precondition for being a leading power is an “efficient diplomatic apparatus,” which also involves civil-society actors. The diplomatic apparatus is the indispensable transmission belt for the realization of foreign interests and policy goals.

Germany’s Stance

Obviously, Germany, on account of both her endogenous resources and her intra-European and global “relational capability,” is a leading power. Nevertheless, the SWP study correctly criticises deficits in Germany’s „definition of its foreign policy self-conception“ and a lack of consistency – in personnel and policy content – in the foreign policy discourse in Germany. One spontaneously thinks of the new foreign minister Guido Westerwelle. Thank God, he got the competent and experienced foreign policy expert Werner Hoyer as his State Secretary. And, the basic directionality of foreign policy is anyway defined by Chancellor Merkel, who since 2005 has moved way ahead in her foreign policy learning curve.

The SWP study concludes that “German foreign policy must conduct a strategic dialogue with the new leading powers in international affairs – bilaterally and/or in a European framework.” The precondition for strategic partnerships between Germany and the new leading powers exist, if the following criteria are met:

  • Complementary with German positions and interests
  • An efficient foreign policy capacity of new leading powers
  • „Comparative advantage“ for Germany vis-à-vis other foreign policy actors

The last point needs some explanation. „Comparative advantage“ means that Germany should possess advantages in certain policy fields or a general advantage vis-à-vis friendly and/or not-so-friendly foreign policy competitors. For example, former colonial powers have comparative advantages (language, culture, institutional connections) with regard to the states which once were their colonies. However, this can also work the other way around. Of course, economic and technological capabilities offer an immense comparative advantage, in particular for Germany. On the other hand, France, a nuclear power, possesses advantages in the military and military-technological field which Germany lacks.

Germany and Brazil

We now turn to the section “Brazil – A Regional Power with Global Aspirations” in the SWP study, authored by Claudia Zilla. She first gives a condensed, but quite informative overview of the basic geopolitical, economic/technological, military, social and “soft power” facts concerning Brazil. This fact sheet on Brazil’s resources and capabilities is most helpful, even for well informed German readers.

On Brazil’s foreign policy, Zilla notes that the country – the third-largest democracy in the world – is not involved in any „active“ conflict with other states. Brazil’s foreign policy prioritizes multilateralism, while aiming at the same time at the democratisation of the international institutions, including the reform of the UN Security Council and Brazil’s permanent membership in it. Brazil pursues a policy of conflict prevention, peaceful conflict resolution, and strengthening International Law. It has signed most international treaties on arms control, including the non-proliferation-treaty (NPT), combating terrorism, against organized crime, money laundering, the Geneva Convention on Refugees, and the Rome Treaty on the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Brazil pursues a „multilateralism of the South“ (BRIC, South Africa and other African states, Arab and Asian countries). Brazil wants to create a global-strategic counterbalance to the USA and the EU through South-South cooperation, while remaining a reliable cooperation partner of the „North.“ Brazil wants privileged relations to the USA, while limiting Washington’s influence in Latin America; the SWP study speaks of „containment of US influence on the subcontinent“.

Brazil’s policy on regional cooperation in Latin America is called dissatisfactory. Declaratory positions and the actual implementation of regional cooperation differ widely. Mercorsur is stagnating, UNASUR a still a rather vague project, and the same goes for the regional developing bank Banco del Sur. Brazil has not productively resolved the policy conflict between regional integration and national sovereignty, states the SWP study.

Brazil possesses an historically grown, firmly anchored self-conception as a great power and a leading power. The Brazilian diplomatic apparatus is very professional and efficient, and is further strengthened by the system of chambers of foreign trade (Camex).

What is sourly lacking in Zilla’s text is an account of Brazil’s role in respect to the financial crisis since 2007, the transcendence of the G8 by the G20, and the consolidation of BRIC.

The SWP study sees the convergence of interests between Brazil and Germany as follows: „Brazil is by far the most important trading partner of the EU and Germany on the continent.“ Germany is the fifth-largest export market for Brazil and German imports into Brazil rank third. In terms of foreign direct investments, Germany is Number 5, but with a clear focus on the industrial sector. Trade conflicts with the EU about industrial imports (into Brazil) and agrarian exports (into the EU) are viewed as resolvable.

The German-Brazilian cooperation on environmental protection and energy efficiency has a big development potential, says the SWP study. „Germany and Brazil could come to an agreement not only on energy policy (and initiatives) at a global level, but should make energy security a strategic subject for scientific-technological cooperation.“ Also in the area of the educational and research cooperation, “Brazil is the most important partner of Germany in Latin America… Both sides would profit from deepening cooperation in the fields education, science, technology and innovation“.

The summary conclusion of the SWP study is: „The conditions for deepening the partnership between Brazil and Germany are very good. With respect to many questions of global politics they are of one opinion, and Germany supports the efforts of Brazil to develop a leadership role in the South America… In no other Latin American country, Germany finds better conditions for the strengthening of bilateral cooperation.“

One can only hope that the new Merkel/Westerwelle government picks up the SWP’s appraisal of the German-Brazilian relationship. Between the EU and Brazil already exists a „strategic partnership“ in which Spain, Portugal and France have developed a high profile. Germany should not stand back.

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