03.08.2023

Everything under control?

Peace by Piece · Issue 03

What come to be regarded as foreign policy failures and fiascos are usually a kind of ex-post phenomenon. Processes or specific decisions are reviewed with a time lag, whether within the framework of public debate, parliamentary investigation or the evolution of a dominant discursive framing (for example, German policy towards Russia over the past 20 years is now deemed a failure). But if failures or fiascos are to be avoided, it’s important not to wait until the horse has bolted, but to adapt decision-making to the developing situation. "The best way to avoid fiascos is to open up the political decision-making process to a genuine contest of ideas.” This provides an opportunity to make necessary corrections.


Looking at the current war in Europe, it was inevitable that an exclusive circle of decision-makers would take charge of the immediate crisis response. But if it becomes increasingly apparent that the chosen strategies need to be adapted, the decision-making process and possible corrections need to be more inclusive and deliberative.

Currently, a protracted war of attrition between Russia and Ukraine, the latter supported by the West, increasingly seems the most likely scenario. The German government’s twin axioms since the outbreak of the war – that Ukraine’s victory is certain and the need to "manoeuvre between intentional conflict support and unintentional conflict participation" – are in question after more than 500 days of fighting.
This was not the most probable development at the outset, even after negotiations broke down in Istanbul. But as things stand, such outcomes as negotiating a quick end to the war or winning it outright seem far-fetched or even out of the question. Opening up to competing ideas would thus be an appropriate response to this changed decision-making reality. The aim should be to formulate realistic goals for German and/or European security in an ongoing war with ever-changing parameters, taking full account of the continuing dangers of escalation (horizontal and vertical). The result should be a pragmatic optimum, not some desirable maximum.

The German foreign policy framework remains challenging. On one hand, there is a seemingly “stable” (militarily and socio-economically) aggressor in Moscow, which is prepared for a protracted conflict. On the other hand, the Kiev government would welcome an internationalization of the war, with the USA coordinating Western contributions and a number of NATO and EU allies helping to shape policy responses. In this constellation of actors, German foreign policy has limited room for manoeuvre, and even less ability to control the situation.

To sustain current efforts and chart a stable course through emerging developments, more debate is needed. The general population is likely to be more understanding if the government clearly lays out the risks it is taking without fear-mongering. Ultimate political success or failure (and in the case of the war in Ukraine, outcomes are difficult to define) depends on many factors, other states and institutions. But there should be no pretence that everything is under control, as this could undermine the legitimacy of executive decisions over time. Rather, the goal should be to create spaces for political learning, aiming at better options that voters can get behind long term. That would prove, that democratic foreign policymaking is more sustainable than elite decision-making in autocracies, which tends to be more susceptible to groupthink.

About Peace by Piece

Peace is one of the major achievements on the European continent after 1945, yet it is barely being mentioned anymore. When it is, it is all too often accompanied by a connotation of appeasement and defeatism. That shouldn’t be the case. Peace is one of the most precious achievements for humankind. But building it and sustaining it requires effort, ideas, political will, and perseverance. However far out of reach it may appear, peace should nonetheless serve as the long-term aim of politicians in Europe. This series of comments provides ideas for a new European Security environment able to provide the basis for a more peaceful future in the face of new challenges.

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