German Foreign Policy and the Concept of 'Civilian Power'

Essay, 2006

14 Pages



1 Introduction

2 Dimensions of Power in International Relations: Defining and Illustrating the ‘Civilian’ Component

3 Civilian Power as an Explanatory Framework in IR Theory: A Brief Discussion of Different Notions of Statehood in Contemporary Foreign Policy Analysis
3.1 The ‘Security State’: Neorealism and the Goal of Maximising National Power in a Context of International Anarchy
3.2 The ‘Trading State’: Neoliberalism and the Goal of Maximising National Welfare in a Context of Economic Interdependence
3.3 The ‘Civilian State’: Constructivism and the Goal of Promoting National Values in a Context of Normative Change

4 Germany’s International Role after the End of the Cold War: Promoter of Norms, Global Trader or Rising Military Power?
4.1 Identity (Re-)Construction and the Legacy of Internal Division
4.2 The Foreign Policy of the Federal Republic since 1989/90: Major Trends and Developments
4.3 Bosnia and Kosovo as Critical Junctures: Civilian Ethos and Military Engagement as Complementary or Contradictory Elements within Germany’s ‘New’ Foreign Policy Strategy?

5 Conclusion: A Self-confident but Prudent Actor on the World Stage



‘For the time being, we argue that Germany may be seen as a “gentle giant” within the EU. However, the term “gentle” relates to the character of German diplomacy and may mask the range of influence exerted by the EU’s largest member state’ (Bulmer/Paterson, 1996: 32).

1 Introduction

The end of the Cold War in 1989/90 did not only prompt a fundamental transformation of the international system as a whole; it equally changed the expectations and perceptions of key nation-states acting within that system. This was, as most scholars of International Relations (IR)[1] agree, especially true with regard to reunited Germany. In the run-up to the negotiations of the ‘Two-plus-Four Treaty’[2], many observers feared that the demise of the East-West confrontation—‘this great simplifier of European affairs’ (Janning, 1996: 33)—and the advent of ‘normalcy’ might encourage the Federal Republic to completely strip off its post-war restraints and use its revamped resources[3] and autonomy more forcefully. By the same token, some European leaders—notably French President François Mitterrand and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher[4] —voiced concerns that, more than 40 years after the end of World War II, a resurgence of German power politics seemed far from being just a theoretical possibility.

Indeed, some indications of a renewed German propensity to ‘go it alone’ emerged even before the legal and political terms of unification had been clarified. Chancellor Kohl’s ’10 Points Plan’[5] of November 1989 aroused deep scepticism (Horsley, 1992: 231-2). Even more alarmingly, German contributions to armed operations in Bosnia and Kosovo were perceived as incidents of a security posture ‘which accepts the need for […] military intervention outside the traditional NATO context’ (Maull, 2000: 56). Theoretically speaking, neorealist predictions about a united Germany striving for hegemony in Europe (Mearsheimer, 1990) seemed to have been moderately validated.

However, a vast majority of German politicians were eager to defuse their neighbours’ suspicions, emphasising that they would retain their commitment to a culture of ‘civilian power.’[6] In this regard, united Germany should simply be depicted as ‘West Germany writ large’ (Bach, 1999: 13ff.): the country would remain a driving force for deeper and wider European integration as well as multilateralism within the frameworks of the UN, NATO and the CSCE/OSCE. Yet, despite these efforts to address other states’ concerns, some observers doubted whether Germany would actually be willing and able to stick to its ‘leadership avoidance reflex’ (Bulmer/Paterson, 1996: 23) in the future. Almost two decades after reunification, it might thus be worthwhile to ask: is Germany still a ‘civilian power’?

To answer this question, I will first describe different dimensions of political power as they are treated in IR theory and illustrate what ‘civilian power’ means in this context (Section 2). Secondly, I will outline in how far particular concepts of foreign policy (FP) behaviour—the models of ‘security’, ‘trading’ and ‘civilian states’—are capable of grasping the notion of civilian power (Section 3). Section 4 relates these conceptual frameworks to important features of Germany’s actual FP conduct before and after the watershed events of 1989/90, and Section 5 offers a summary of findings.

2 Dimensions of Power in International Relations: Defining and Illustrating the ‘Civilian’ Component

Social scientists have been struggling with proper definitions of what constitutes political power for a long time. Whereas early formulations had focused on the idea of power as an attribute or a resource[7]i.e., a given characteristic of a single entity—, many authors have criticised such one-dimensional concepts and argued that power is always expressed within a relationship between two or more actors. Only in the latter case can it be translated into influence.[8] In any event, power implies reciprocity (in some accounts, also causality) and usually manifests itself in the classical sense that ‘A has power over B to the extent that A can get B to do what A wants B to do’ (Brown, 2005: 11). Still, influence may also be exerted by means of conditionality when threats/negative sanctions are combined with rewards/positive sanctions. Finally, critical theorists extend the view of power beyond the relational model and conceive of it as a structural feature: the ability to shape agendas before actual decisions are made.[9]

Turning to the concept of ‘civilian power’ as a special category[10], we can note that it comprises all three dimensions of power outlined above. First, it is assumed that ‘civilian powers’[11] have certain features of their own—the ‘monopolisation of force’, the ‘rule of law’ and ‘restraints on violence’ (Harnisch/Maull, 2001a: 4). When these domestic norms are externalised, they become relational, since ‘civilian powers’ try to replace ‘the military enforcement of rules’ with the adoption of ‘socially accepted norms’ (ibid.). Finally, as for structural aspects, ‘civilian powers’ deliberately restrict the scope for FP based on the ‘brute’ factors (Wendt, 1999: 97) of power politics. Conversely, they are inclined to utilise measures of ‘soft power’; the basic idea is to use incentives and persuasion so as to ‘get others to want what you want’ (Nye, 1990: 31-2).

3 Civilian Power as an Explanatory Framework in IR Theory: A Brief Discussion of Different Notions of Statehood in Contemporary Foreign Policy Analysis

How is political power turned into practical FP behaviour? Foreign Policy Analysis offers a number of frameworks. Among them, the notions of ‘security’, ‘trading’ and ‘civilian states’ are the most prominent ones.[12]

3.1 The ‘Security State’: Neorealism and the Goal of Maximising National Power in a Context of International Anarchy

Neorealist scholars of IR argue that states seek to maximise their national security in an anarchic international system. Due to the prevalence of zero-sum games in international politics, formal cooperation is neither deemed necessary nor desired (Wagner, 2003: 579-80). Adapting these core assumptions, modified neorealist approaches stress that security pressures are not necessarily exogenous to every situation, but can act as intervening variables, thus changing a state’s preferences from autonomy- to influence-seeking through international institutions (Rittberger/Wagner, 2001: 301).

3.2 The ‘Trading State’: Neoliberalism and the Goal of Maximising National Welfare in a Context of Economic Interdependence

Proponents of utilitarian neoliberalism assert that, rather than focusing on national security, states seek to maximise national welfare which is demanded by domestic interest groups (Webber, 1999: 7-8). Economic power is a crucial element of national power, and political cooperation may be used to exploit comparative advantages and prevent free-riding behaviour by other states. In terms of FP behaviour, neoliberalists thus hold that a ‘trading state’ should engage in formalised international cooperation.

3.3 The ‘Civilian State’: Constructivism and the Goal of Promoting National Values in a Context of Normative Change

Constructivist theories of IR stress the importance of ideas, values and norms in the process of interest formation (Harnisch, 2003: 338). Sociological institutionalists argue that ideas and perceptions shape state preferences in the first place (Hall/Taylor, 1996: 946-50), thereby catalysing the consolidation of distinct FP motives within a ‘civilian state.’ The underlying logic is not one of utility-maximisation, but one of norm-consistency, leading to a projection of national values and institutional experiences. In advanced democracies, ‘conflict civilisation and the pursuit of immaterial ends’ (Schrade, 1997: 262; translation J.-H. P.) are thus externalised vis-à-vis other states.[13]

4 Germany’s International Role after the End of the Cold War: Promoter of Norms, Global Trader or Rising Military Power?

Since the end of the Second World War, West German FP has been characterised by a distinct set of features—regarding the ideational content of policies, the procedural routines in implementing them, and the structure of its political system as a whole.[14]

4.1 Identity (Re-)Construction and the Legacy of Internal Division

Policies and Politics

The historical burden of Nazism resulted in ‘a fierce determination never again to allow German militarism and nationalism to threaten European stability’ (Maull, 2000: 56), and the discursive power of this narrative helped create a new identity that was increasingly defined in continental, not national terms.[15] Morally, the ensuing ‘Europeanisation’ of Germany allowed for a strengthening of civilian attitudes. Legally, this new normative spirit was fixed in the preamble of the Basic Law (Schöllgen, 1994: 45). Unilateralism was conspicuously disregarded, whereas multilateralism came to be seen as more than just a modus operandi in German FP. Brandt’s Ostpolitik had complemented Adenauer’s policy of Western integration, facilitating the adoption of the CSCE’s Helsinki Charter in 1975 and a gradual politicisation of NATO.[16]

The German Political System

As regards institutional structures, the executive branch is characterised by a multiplicity of federal ministries among which power is effectively—sometimes, in fact, too effectively—diffused.[17] The federal system allows for a considerable empowerment of the Länder, who participate in national legislation through the Federal Chamber (Bundesrat) and must be consulted whenever FP issues touch upon their legal competences as defined under the ‘European Article’ of the Basic Law (Knapp, 2004: 145). Procedurally, intra-coalition politics and the necessity for majority government have been used to label the German political system a ‘consensus democracy.’


[1] ‘International Relations/IR’ (upper case) is used here when referring to the academic discipline and ‘international relations’ (lower case) when referring to the subject-matter of IR.

[2] The parties to this treaty were the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG), the German Democratic Republic (GDR) and the former World War II allies (the US, the UK, France and the Soviet Union). It was signed in Moscow on 12 September 1990 and formally ratified on 15 March 1991.

[3] Bluth (2000: 160) identifies three major factors which contributed to a significant increase of German power: Germany now was (1) ‘the largest economy in Europe,’ (2) located ‘in the central position between East and West’ and (3) had ‘the largest population in Western Europe.’

[4] Whereas Mitterrand insisted that France’s approval of German reunification was conditional upon the FRG giving up its Deutsche Mark and thereby losing its monetary autonomy, Thatcher opposed the recreation of a German nation-state on a categorical basis (Larres, 2000: 14; 18). For a discussion of Russian reservations towards a rapid solution to the ‘German question’, see Baring (1994: 4-5).

[5] Kohl’s demand that Poland refrain from any future claims for war reparations in exchange for Germany’s permanent recognition of the Polish-German border was of special concern in this context.

[6] ‘Civilian power’ refers to a theoretical concept in foreign policy analysis (FPA) which asserts that states adopting this role model constantly aim at a civilisation of international behaviour in all fields of their external relations. Apart from post-war Germany, scholars have characterised post-war Japan as embodying the ideal-type civilian power model quite convincingly (Hill, 2003: 151).

[7] In IR and comparative politics, a number of attributes of a state’s power have been identified, such as ‘the size and quality of its armed forces; its resource base […]; its geographical position and extent; its productive base and infrastructure; the size and skills of its population; the efficiency of its governmental institutions; and the quality of its leadership’ (Brown, 2005: 82).

[8] Brown (2005: 81) distinguishes between ‘influence’, ‘authority’ and ‘control’ as dominant patterns of power relationships between nation-states in the international system.

[9] Some authors have emphasised that the ability to make ‘non-decisions’ and to control what ultimately comes to the negotiating table is often a more virulent expression of power (Bachrach/Baratz, 1970).

[10] What follows is only a brief description. For a detailed taxonomy, see Maull (2001: 124-6).

[11] ‘Civilian power’ may thus refer to a certain kind of power or to an actor exercising that kind of power.

[12] A discussion of this categorisation with regard to development policy is offered by Schrade (1997).

[13] As helpful and parsimonious as this threefold typology of FP motivations may be, we are likely to encounter mixed versions of these behavioural patterns in everyday politics. First, a ‘security state’s’ motives of influence-maximising can hardly be separated from the welfare-maximising intentions of a ‘trading state’ (Steinberg, 2002: 357). In this respect, concepts of economic realism (Harborth, 1993: 234) or hegemonic stability (Gilpin, 2001: 93f.) have a long tradition in International Political Economy. Second, the spread of democratic norms and liberty through trade as proposed by classical trade theory (Ricardo, 1992 [1821]) or the democratic peace thesis (Russett, 1993) hints to a plausible connection between ‘trading’ and ‘civilian’ motives. Third, the fact that arduous inter-state bargaining is practised in development policy just as it is in any other issue area (Forwood, 2001) illustrates that ‘power as responsibility’ and morality are often inextricably linked in modern politics (Bach, 1999: 70).

[14] The heuristic framework used to organise the following empirical material is ‘policy-analytic’ as it suggestively illustrates developments across dimensions of policy, politics and polity (Sabatier, 1988).

[15] Some authors go as far as to say that Germany’s European identity acted as a functional surrogate for its lost—and, in fact, never fully established—national identity (Bach, 1999: 182).

[16] As early as 1967, the Harmel Report, whose adoption had been vehemently supported by the FRG, introduced détente as a complementary political strategy next to NATO’s focus on nuclear deterrence. In the economic realm, Chancellor Helmut Schmidt’s and French President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing’s joint initiative for the creation of a European Monetary System in 1979 marked a further step towards a voluntary reduction of German sovereignty, both economically and symbolically (Emerson, 1992).

[17] There are frequent clashes of interest between single divisions within and across federal ministries. In European affairs, this is most often the case, with the European Division of the Foreign Office acting ‘versus’ the Chancellor’s Office acting ‘versus’ the Ministry of Economics (Hill, 2003: 91-2).

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German Foreign Policy and the Concept of 'Civilian Power'
London School of Economics  (Department of International Relations)
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Dipl.-Pol., MSc (IR) Jan-Henrik Petermann (Author), 2006, German Foreign Policy and the Concept of 'Civilian Power', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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