German Foreign Policy and the Outbreak of the Yugoslav War

Seminar Paper, 2001
15 Pages, Grade: 1.0



1 Introduction

2 Neorealist and Pluralist Approaches to Explain Recognition Policy
2.1 Neorealist Arguments
2.2 Pluralist Arguments

3 A Constructivist Perspective of Recognition Policy
3.1 Theoretical Framework
3.2 Norms and Myths in the Discurse on Recognition Policy

4 Summary

5 Literature


Fig. 1 The German Discurse on Recognition Policy

Fig. 2 Chronology of Myth Employment

Fig. 3 Number of Appearances of Myths (21.02.-20.09.91)

1 Introduction

In the summer of 1991, Yugoslavia was on fire. Two of the Yugoslav republics – Slovenia and Croatia – had held referendums on independence from Belgrade. In December 1990 and May 1991, the great majority in both states voted for independence.[1] Since August 1991, Germany supported the recognition of Slovenia and Croatia actively.[2] Finally, on the 23rd of December 1991, the German foreign minister Genscher announced Germany´s recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as sovereign states. A long debate about what became known as “recognition policy” followed. Germany´s unilateral recognition was widely criticized as the most profound mistake of German foreign policy since 1945 or – as Horsley put it – “a deadly sin of German foreign policy”. The criticism not only came from the German political left, who accused the Kohl government of a retardation to a Bismarckian Machtpolitik. Even Germany´s closest allies in Europe criticized Germany harshly. The French foreign minister Dumas warned Genscher that a unilateral recognition by Germany “will set Europe back twenty years”.[3]

Uncertainties about Germany´s future role in Europe may partly explain the critizism. France and Great Britain were unsure whether Germany would continue its policy of self-restraint or if it would implement a more unilateralist policy, especially towards its new neighbours in the east. Unsurprisingly, only one year after reunification, the question of recognition was perceived as a paradigmatic case of a “new German foreign policy”. Was it the beginning of unilateralist power politics, a mere muscle play or just a diplomatic mistake?

It has since become obvious that the unilateral recognition was not the beginning of a “new German foreign policy”. Germany kept on the multilateral track. Today, more than a decade later, Germany is still a driving force behind the integration and enlargement of the EU. Nevertheless, the reasons why Germany acted the way it did, remain unclear. It is not difficult to understand the defection of Germany from multilateral cooperation in December - this is easily explained by a spiral of mistrust between Germany, France and Great Britain.[4] Germany had reasons to believe that the Badinter Commission – which was to formulate EC´s conditions for a diplomatic recognition – could have been used to delay the recognition purposely by formulating utopistic conditions.[5] More important seems to be the question why Germany supported the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia so strongly even against the resistance of its closest allies. The tenacity with which Germany defended its policy was rather unusual for the multilateral, consensus-oriented German foreign policy of the time.

In chapters 2 and 3 I attempt to identify the reasons behind Germany´s strong support for the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia as independent states. I reason in chapter 2 that arguments used in the past cannot explain Germany´s foreign policy. In chapter 3 I suggest that instead a constructivist approach to IR might help us to better understand German policy.

2 Neorealist and Pluralist Approaches to Explain Recognition Policy

2.1 Neorealist Arguments

Most of the literature on the recognition policy focuses on Germany´s “hard” interests on the Balkans. From this point of view, Germany´s policy is a classical case of defection from multilateral cooperation because of economic or geopolitical reasons.[6] On a theoretical level, this argument fits well within a neorealist worldview. Neorealists focus on a “third image” level of international relations and explain Germany´s recognition policy by changes within the international system, which is predominantly structured by the power of states.[7] According to Mearsheimer, Germany´s defection from multilateral cooperation should not be regarded as an exception, but as a logical consequence of its new power after reunification and new freedom to act after the collapse of the USSR.[8] Germany wished to exercise influence on traditionally German-friendly Slovenia and Croatia. Thus, unilateral recognition served Germany´s interest in a weakened Yugoslav federal state.

Although these arguments were widely used, the question what kind of interests Germany has had in the Balkans remains unanswered.[9] Even under a realist paradigm, it is difficult to identify any “hard” interests of Germany at stake. Neither a “divide-and-conquer”-strategy nor an attempt to establish economic or even military hegemony became visible. Furthermore, Bonn´s approach to its other new neighbours in the east was obviously different. At the same time Germany followed its recognition policy towards Slovenia and Croatia, the Kohl government promoted extensive multilateralism vis-à-vis Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. Whereas Germany had indeed economic interests in the emerging markets of Poland or Hungary, the small economies of Slovenia and Croatia were of secondary interest.[10]

2.2 Pluralist Arguments

A second argument focuses on media pressure and interest groups in Germany who pushed for recognition, namely the Croatian community. Especially the “C”-parties (CDU and CSU) were thought to be vulnerable to the pressure of Croatian catholics and a campaign launched by the conservative newspaper “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”.[11] Theoretically, this could be described as a “pluralist” argument, which focuses on a “second image” level to explain state behaviour.[12] Foreign policy is seen as the – often incoherent – result of a struggle between different interest groups and the flaws of the institutional system of a state.[13]

In the case of recognition policy, the concentration on pressure groups to explain German foreign policy is misleading. On a theoretical level, the German political system is commonly described as a “closed system” that limits access of interest groups.[14] It would be very surprising if a single interest group could influence parties and the government so significantly. On an empirical level, the influence of Croatian migrants on German foreign policy should be assessed much lower.[15] Neither before nor after the recognition case, Croatian interest groups were recognized as a major player in German politics. The timing of support for recognition from different interest groups does not back pluralistic arguments, either. The first to support the recognition were the secular Socialdemocratic and Green Party. CDU and CSU were actually the last parties to support the recognition of Croatia and Slovenia.[16]

3 A Constructivist Perspective on Recognition Policy

3.1 Theoretical Framework

Why did approaches focusing on the national interest or interest groups in Germany fail to explain Germany´s support for independence of Croatia and Slovenia? To answer this question, it is helpful to highlight an important methodological restriction of realist and pluralist theories: Both are based on a strategic term of action. The behaviour of actors in the international arena is assumed to be the result of rational decision-making: Actors do have “material” interests, know their interests and try to realize them in a rational way.[17] Within this picture of a “homo oeconomicus”, cognitive factors like misperceptions, world views or ideology have at most the status of intervening variables. The case of recognition policy shows the limits of these theories.

In contrast to these approaches I argue that an analysis of foreign policy norms and the employment of myths can explain Germany´s foreign policy a better way. Germany acted the way it did because within the discurse over the break-up of Yugoslavia, the issue of recognition was positively perceived as a matter of self-determination. This interpretation prevailed over alternative norms like sovereignty, stability or multilateralism. This is due to the employment of the myth of reunification as a successful case of self-determination policy. This hypothesis is developed in the following.

Unlike realist or pluralist approaches, constructivist theory denies the existence of “material interests”. Rather than assuming that interests can be “discovered” by selfish, rational actors, constructivism stresses a process of social interaction that leads to a set of norms that an actor may call his “interests”.[18] Norms do have a regulative impact, because they define “appropriate“ behaviour. In consequence, the behaviour of a state is guided by a “logic of appropriateness” and not by a “logic of consequentiality”.[19] Therefore, in order to understand a foreign policy of a certain state, it is crucial to know its foreign policy norms. As the plural already suggests, there is not a single norm, but a set of norms that influences foreign policy. It is somewhat unpredictable which norm succeeds and defines “appropriate” behaviour vis-à-vis a policy issue. Moreover, it is likely that there is a competition between several of the norms.[20] This competition takes place in a discursive space.


[1] For a history of the Yugoslav crisis cf. Cohen (1993); Gow (1996), Funke/Rothert (1999).

[2] On August 24th, Genscher convoked the Yugoslav ambassador and announced that Germany would take unilateral recognition into consideration if the Serbian militias would not stop fighting.

[3] Washington Post, 7.7.1991.

[4] For a definition of multilateral cooperation cf. Keohane (1984): P. 51.

[5] Cf. Crawford (1996): “The unilateral action was caused by a spiral of mistrust that emerged in international negotiations in the face of German domestic pressure for a policy of diplomatic recognition”. P. 485. In early December 1991, France and Great Britain tried to engage the UN Security Council to solve the question of recognition. Germany perceived this step as an attempt to outrule Germany. Therefore, Germany was suspicious of any further involvement of other institutions besides the EC Council. Furthermore, the question of unilateralism has to be restricted to a much shorter time-frame than usually suggested. While Germany acted unilaterally in the last days of December, it was deeply involved in the multilateral process to find a common position regarding the break-up of Yugoslavia throughout summer and autumn 1991. Until December 1991, Germany clearly favored a multilateral approach. Cf. Kirste (1998): “Bonn showed a clear preference for a common policy inside the institutional frame of EC/WEU and CSCE, and Germany was ready to play a leading role to implement it.” P. 372 (Original in German) and Maull (1995a): P. 101.

[6] Cf. Maull (1995a); Horsley (1992); Axt (1993); Heinrich (1992).

[7] Cf. Waltz (1959, 1979).

[8] Cf. Mearsheimer (1992); Waltz (1994); Garton Ash (1992); Glenny (1995b); Le Monde (16.7.1993): S. 2.

[9] Cf. Calic (1996): P. 55; Grabert (1996).

[10] According to Axt (1993), German trade with Croatia was less than 0,02 per cent of trade with the East. Cf. P. 353. The problem of refugees , that resulted in political struggles in Germany after 1993, was not apparent in 1991. Cf. Axt (1993): P. 352; Maull (1995a): P. 117.

[11] Cf. Horsley (1992): P. 240; Maull (1995a): P. 123.

[12] Cf. Waltz (1959, 1979).

[13] Cf. Putnam (1988, 1993).

[14] Cf. Vogel (1988).

[15] Cf. Axt (1993); Heinrich (1992); Wagner (1992); Schoch (1992).

[16] Cf. Crawford (1996): P. 504.

[17] Cf. Jachtenfuchs (1995).

[18] Norms can be defined as “standards for the proper enactment or deployment of a defined identity” Cf. Jepperson/Wendt/Katzenstein (1996): P. 54. Cf. also Katzenstein (1996): P. 2; Kirste/Maull (1996): P. 299 f. The endogenisation of “interests” implies that the often quoted difference between interests and ideas does not exist – interests are ideas. Cf. Haas (1990): „Contrary to lay usage, interests are not the opposite of ideas or values (...). Interests cannot be articulated without values (…) I argue that the belief in the separation of ideas and interests is fundamentally flawed.” P. 2. Cf. Lepsius (1990): P. 43; Sikkink (1991): P. 5; Weir (1989); Weir (1992): P. 188; Risse-Kappen (1994): P. 208 f. In contrast to “homo psychologicus” approaches, like Allison (1971), Axelrod (1976), Holsti (1967, 1976); George (1969, 1979) or Odell (1982) use them, constructivist theories do not focus on ideas of individuals, but on collective ideas. Cf. Rohrlich (1987): P. 66.

[19] Cf. March/Olsen (1989): “A logic of appropriateness can be contrasted with a logic of consequentiality. In a logic of consequentiality, behaviors are driven by preferences and expectations about consequences. Behavior is willful, relfecting an attempt to make outcoems fulfill subjective desires, to the extent possible. (...) In a logic of appropriateness, on the other hand, behaviors (beliefs as well as actions) are intentional but not willful. They infolve fulfilling the obligations of a role in a situation, and so of trying to determine the imperatives of holding a position. Action stems from a conception of necessity, rather than preference. Within a logic of appropriateness, a sane person is one who is „in touch with identity“ in the sense of maintaining consistency between behavior and a conception of self in a social role.“ P. 160-161.

[20] Cf. Sikkink (1991): P. 2.

Excerpt out of 15 pages


German Foreign Policy and the Outbreak of the Yugoslav War
Free University of Berlin  (Otto-Suhr-Institut)
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In contrast to an earlier paper, this essay tries to explain German foreign policy with a constructivist approach.
German, Foreign, Policy, Outbreak, Yugoslav
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Ansgar Baums (Author), 2001, German Foreign Policy and the Outbreak of the Yugoslav War, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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