Germany, an emerging power in global development, remains a reluctant leader

Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany. Photo by: European People’s Party / CC BY

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is part 1 of a three-part Devex series that examines Germany as an emerging power in global development. Read part 2: German foreign aid is at a record high and rising. Here is how it works and part 3: How Germany's energy transition extends beyond its borders

BERLIN, Germany — Following the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote a letter that served as a welcome as well as a warning.

“You will assume office at a time in which our countries are jointly facing many different challenges,” she wrote then President-elect Donald Trump. “Partnership with the United States is and will remain a keystone of German foreign policy, especially so that we can tackle the great challenges of our time: striving for economic and social well-being, working to develop far-sighted climate policy, pursuing the fight against terrorism, poverty, hunger, and disease, as well as protecting peace and freedom in the world.”

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She set conditions for cooperation, offering partnership only on the basis of the common values that Germany and America share, which she defined as freedom, democracy, and respect for the rule of law and dignity of every individual.

It was a bold move that befit the times. Between the Trump presidency, the Brexit vote that preceded it, and the rise of nationalism and populism across Europe and beyond, many members of the international community are looking for a leader they can count on to carry the torch on the Sustainable Development Agenda. Could it be Germany, the third largest donor for development assistance after the U.S. and the United Kingdom, and its chancellor, who has taken a stand on issues ranging from climate change to the refugee crisis?

How the past informs the present

It is not likely to be that simple. While the Trump victory was part of what led Merkel to decide to run for a fourth term in the elections later this year, experts tell Devex she has no desire to replace him on the world stage, should his “America first” strategy lead him to walk away from the leading role the U.S. has played globally.

It’s impossible to understand how Germany views its role in the world — or really any topic regarding the way the country works — without considering how its dark past informs the present.

Scattered among the cobblestones in the streets of the capital city of Berlin are stolpersteine, which translates to stumbling stones. These brass plated cubes usually begin with the words hier wohnte, or here lived, then include the name, birth date, and date of death for victims of Nazi extermination. The stolperstein project is just one example of memorials across Germany that serve as reminders at every turn of the horrors of the Holocaust.

Germany’s Nazi history makes the country hesitant to go it alone on any issue, a dynamic that extends to its development cooperation.

“We are protected by our terrible history,” Joschka Fischer, a former foreign minister from Germany, recently told The Economist in one of several recent articles evaluating the changing role of Germany in the world. “You cannot say, ‘Make Germany Great Again.’”

But the country is in the midst of a transition.

“Germany finds itself in the middle of a fundamental transformation of its foreign policy,” said Jasper Eitze, coordinator for energy, climate, and environmental policy at Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, the foundation of the Christian Democratic Union, the political party chaired by Merkel. “Germany is coming to an understanding of the new global realities and has started to adapt itself to them.”

After regaining its economic strength with support from the Marshall Plan, Germany started its foreign aid in the 1950s, in part as a gesture of reparation and compensation to the world, Eitze said.* While German political foundations such as KAS promote Western values — from democracy to human rights to rule of law — the German government has steered clear of any language to suggest that it seeks to propagate its model to others. Germany has avoided mentioning the direct and indirect benefits of German development cooperation, opting instead for a narrative of altruism, Eitze said. Earlier this month, the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development, or BMZ, published further details on its new Marshall Plan partnership with Africa.

“You need diplomacy, but you also have to be able to say stop, not a step further, and this kind of boldness is lacking sometimes,” said Knud Vöcking, a program manager at Urgewald, a nonprofit organization that monitors the global activities of German organizations.

From patronizing to partnering

Hints of the deep-rooted fear of being perceived as trying to influence other countries came up in conversations with staff at BMZ and the German Corporation for International Cooperation, or GIZ.

For example, Franz von Weizsäcker, head of the Internet and Development Project at the German development agency, brought up the word patronizing twice in a single conversation. He reflected on his time as a GIZ contractor in Ramallah, Palestine, explaining that most decisions were made on site versus at headquarters, which allowed his team to adjust to the realities on the ground, a less patronizing form of aid. And he described the transition from the Millennium Development Goals to the SDGs as a recognition among other donors of the need to transition from patronizing to partnering.

“We are really close to the partners,” Christiana Hageneder, who works on energy efficiency in the Ukraine for GIZ, said of what drew her to the organization. “We are really expertise driven. This is what gives us trust from our partners because they see that we are hands on. We understand the problems and we try to work with them to solve them.”

Over lunch at the BMZ canteen, the conversation turned to Merkel’s open door policy toward migrants fleeing war zones. Most called it the right thing to do and said it benefits a country with an aging population, and provides an opportunity to the country to redeem itself from its past. But increasingly, BMZ is also framing its work to address the refugee crisis as a matter not only of humanity but also of security.

Dr. Friedrich Kitschelt — chairman of the GIZ supervisory board and a state secretary at BMZ, the primary funder of GIZ — opens the 2015 GIZ annual report saying that while the refugee crisis dominates headlines, the vast majority of people who flee remain in their own country or in a neighboring nation, and 90 percent of them in development countries. He outlines three BMZ special initiatives, explaining that each of them have the same goal: “tackling the causes of displacement and creating genuine prospects of a better life and future.”

A case study for the rest of the world

But even as Germany’s potential role strengthens internationally and in the development sector, Merkel faces some of the same dynamics at home that gave rise to Trump in the U.S. While Germany has not had a far right party in parliament since World War II, that is likely to change this year with the rise of the Alternative for Germany party, known as AfD. The party has built its popularity on opposition to Merkel’s open door policy, which some said might slam shut following the Christmas market attack in Berlin last month. The AfD also points to an overlooked fact regarding the rise of populism, which is that nearly every single one of these parties has embraced climate skepticism. What concerns Annalena Baerbock, a member of parliament from the Green Party, is not so much the party itself, but rather its potential to pull Merkel’s party to the right.

This could undermine Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition, a plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 95 percent and get 80 percent of electricity from renewable energy sources by the year 2050, she said. While the Green Party emerge to push an anti-nuclear, pro-renewable energy agenda, now there is mainstream political support for clean energy, which the AfD opposes. The parties in parliament will need to consider the path forward for coal workers and car manufacturers alike in order to meet their targets and lead by example, without adding fuel to the fire for those who oppose the Energiewende, she continued.

“If it succeeds, it could be a great case study for the world,” Sven Egenter, executive director of Clean Energy Wire, told a group of American journalists, including Devex, who traveled to Germany last month to report on the Energiewende. “And if it fails, it could be a great case study for the world.”

“There are strong connections between German domestic and foreign policy,” Michael Krempin, senior policy advisor in the corporate strategy unit of GIZ, told Devex, mentioning the Energiewende, as well as vocational training, which he said is turning “Made in Germany” into “Made with Germany.”

In the 2015 GIZ report, Kitschelt mentioned the Paris Climate Agreement as a mainstay of the country’s international climate policy, both in its own efforts to meet emission reduction targets, and in its work to help partners adapt to climate change. Beyond its own borders, Germany is leveraging its own expertise from the Energiewende by emerging as an influential voice in international climate negotiations while also promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy in its work in developing countries. Earlier this month, Germany released its National Sustainable Development Strategy, which builds upon the first strategy adopted in 2002, but is now based on the SDGs. It outlines how the SDGs have motivated Germany to step up its efforts on climate domestically and internationally.

Filling the vacuum

Former U.S. climate envoy Jonathan Pershing told Devex the NDC Partnership, an initiative co-chaired by Germany and Morocco launched at the COP22 last year, represents the kind of cross border collaboration that climate action demands. But Pershing seems to think that China, not Germany, is more likely to emerge as the de facto global leader on climate change. Last week, Chinese President Xi Jinping spoke at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, urging Trump to remain part of the Paris Climate Agreement from COP21, and indicating how the largest polluter in the world could become a leader in efforts to address global warming.

“The Chinese challenge is dramatic since the country is making use of all available tools in order to extend its global influence,” Eitze of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung told Devex. “This puts enormous pressure on Germany’s international cooperation.”

By pursuing geopolitical goals from securing trade routes to accessing raw materials to benefiting its own companies, China’s approach to foreign aid contradicts the values driven approach that Germany has taken, at least officially, Eitze explained. As Chinese foreign aid increases, there is growing pressure on Germany to use its limited resources more efficiently in order to limit Chinese influence, he said. This question of how Germany will respond to this new reality gets to the debate over whether Germany will be the “liberal West’s last defender,” as The New York Times put it.

“Post Trump, post Brexit, all eyes are on Germany, and all eyes are on EU-Asia relations, to step up and fill the vacuum of American leadership,” Justin Guay, program officer for climate at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, told Devex.

But he called that a failure of imagination, saying the most likely scenario is that several leaders will fill that void. In the near term, Germany plays a really valuable role in the climate change progress, but in the long term, other countries, China among them, could emerge as the global leaders on climate. “This might be the moment the West is eclipsed,” he said, echoing the words of the Berlin tabloid BZ, whose cover story following the 2016 U.S. presidential elections read: “The night the West died.”

“When you take the 800 pound gorilla out of the room, there is a big space to fill,” Guay said.

2017 is a big year for Germany. The country recently took the presidency of the G20, an international forum of governments from 20 major economies. And the COP23 gathering will take place at the U.N. Convention on Climate Change Secretariat in Bonn, Germany, this November. Leaders are only as strong as the movement that supports them, said Guay, so he will be watching not only what Merkel does, but also how the German people perceive her as part of this changing global power architecture.

Despite concerns following the Christmas market attack in Berlin last month, Merkel’s popularity has remained high. Before leaving the White House last week, former U.S. President Barack Obama made his last call as president to Merkel. But no matter what he or others may hope for as the U.S. faces an America first administration, Germany remains, at least for now, a reluctant leader.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The reporter traveled to Germany with the support of the IJP. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

* Update, Jan. 25, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify that Germany started its foreign aid in the 1950s.

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About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.