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Britain and Germany should ‘Dare More’ cooperation

Global Britain’s advocates will find much to cheer in the incoming German Government’s proposed ‘Coalition Agreement[↗]’. They should seize this moment to capitalise on a significant underlying convergence of values and interests, as well as fresh opportunities that come with the new administration, to deepen and widen cooperation between Germany and the United Kingdom (UK). British actors need to show how this cooperation would help answer Germany’s big questions and contribute to its strategic priorities. Doing so in a way that bolsters the two countries’ shared commitment to an open international order – and facilitates liberal outcomes – could foster a mutually beneficial and highly influential strategic partnership. 

Entitled ‘Dare More Progress’ (a nod to Willi Brandt’s ‘Dare More Democracy’ slogan) the agreement between the German Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats – the so-called ‘Traffic light’ coalition – has received a mixed reception. Some of Berlin’s burgeoning population of anglophone commentators have hailed it as a progressive shift[↗], while others foresee little likely difference[↗] in practice. For the UK, it is important to recognise that while some things will not change – Germany’s European Union (EU)-first rhetoric, commitment to collectively enforcing the Brexit deal and special relationship with France, for example – there is a lot to work with here. 

So how to make the most of the longer-term tendencies and emerging possibilities for cooperation? The key is to double down on the Global Britain agenda, which like the new German Government’s coalition agreement rests on a broadly liberal internationalist foundation. Despite exaggerated reports of the demise of the open international order (and the West’s commitment to it) in the wake of the Kabul debacle, it still has a lot to offer – not least to Britain and Germany. Realising this potential depends on the two countries finding ways to work together to resist intensifying geopolitical and systemic competition, especially by boosting liberal outcomes.  

Working to uphold an open and politically liberal international order 

The open international order has always been about jointly managing the challenges and harnessing the opportunities of complex economic and security interdependence to the advantage of liberal democracies – and to spread the advantages of liberal democracy to more people around the world. Since the end of the Cold War this approach has been increasingly dominated by the United States (US). Even if US hegemony were not waning, liberal internationalism would need to be more plural – it cannot succeed as a primarily American project. The US remains the key ally for both Britain and Germany and needs more effective support from them.

At the same time, the post-Cold War order’s politically liberal credentials have been undermined by both (economic) neoliberalism and by a willingness to tolerate illiberal tendencies in institutions such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the EU and their members. Furthermore, a focus on formal rules and procedures, rather than politics and outcomes, has been instrumentalised by illiberal regimes in the EU as well as by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Russia to largely neuter the United Nations (UN). 

Germany’s long-term structural interest is in bolstering political liberalism. Yet, too often, it has chosen to prioritise its other, mainly short-term, economic interests instead and has been reluctant to show political leadership to promote liberal outcomes. Moreover, Germany’s ‘Wandel durch Handel’ [‘change through trade’] approach to the PRC and Russia failed, mainly because it focused much more on the Handel than the Wandel

This is one area where we can expect at least a change in emphasis from the new coalition. The Social Democrats were part of the last two governments led by Angela Merkel but the combination with the Greens and Free Democrats is much more likely to enact liberal values in its foreign policy. Indeed, the coalition agreement repeatedly emphasises the importance of liberal democracy and human rights. It also explicitly affirms Germany’s ‘responsibility’ for promoting ‘peace, freedom and prosperity in the world’ and calls for a ‘value-based’ foreign, security and development policy in order to do so. The importance of this approach is also made clear: in a ‘systemic competition’ with authoritarian states, stronger action is needed to protect Europeans’ ‘liberal way of life.’

These are all goals and means that are or can be shared by the UK, which is namechecked in the coalition agreement as one ‘Germany’s closest partners outside the EU’. The agreement calls for ‘close bilateral cooperation’ including, specifically, in ‘foreign and security policy’. This reflects the view in Berlin that it would have been better had Brexit not happened but, now that it has, a liberal internationalist, ‘Global Britain’, is infinitely preferable to a ‘Little England’. With the latter apparently driving, for example, the UK’s high-profile and restrictive migration policy, more can be done to show meaningful   commitment to the former. Despite declining bilateral trade[↗] and the contrasting personalities of Olaf Scholz, the new German Chancellor, and Boris Johnson, the British Prime Minister, the two countries’ structural confluence of interests means they could – and should – cooperate more closely to make a more politically liberal – and more plurilaterally supported – open international order. 

Where to Dare

Most importantly, Britain and Germany should work together to build a European pillar of NATO that can genuinely relieve the burden on the US, while keeping the latter involved in European defence. Meaningful burden sharing requires investment in military capabilities that meet NATO’s needs and political leadership to make the alliance more coherent as well as more capable. This means finding a proper division of labour with the EU and dealing appropriately with Turkey. If they can credibly build such a pillar, the European members of NATO that do so should demand commensurately greater authority over the alliance. Rather than pivoting to Asia, such an arrangement would allow the US to be the guarantor of and pivot between compatible, largely liberal-democratic security alliances in Europe and the Indo-Pacific. 

Playing a leading role in any such process is obviously in Britain’s interest but two questions immediately arise over Germany’s participation: first, Berlin’s willingness to spend on defence and, second, the distracting or even detracting effect of closer EU defence cooperation. The coalition agreement is clear on both counts: NATO is ‘the indispensable foundation of our security’, and Germany will ‘fulfil’ its commitment to NATO’s target – agreed in Wales in 2014 – to spend 2% of national income on defence, which is important to allies[↗], and continue participation in nuclear sharing[↗]

On EU defence, the coalition agreement validates Sir Paul Lever[↗]’s recent argument that, despite a sustained rhetorical commitment to upgrading the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), in practice Berlin knows that NATO is the bedrock of its defence. Accordingly, lip service is paid to CSDP and the EU’s ‘Strategic Compass’, but the coalition agreement talks not of ‘strategic autonomy’ (as Paris may have wished) but rather of ‘strategic sovereignty’ – and does not mention defence in this regard. There is, nonetheless, scope for a productive division of labour between NATO and the EU. Germany and the UK can coordinate a push for this to be meaningfully and practically reflected in the final draft of the ‘Strategic Compass’ and NATO’s new Strategic Concept. 

Bolstering NATO’s European pillar offers one way to share the burden of upholding  – and further liberalising – the open international order but is also a key element of two other potential dimensions of enhanced British-German cooperation: facing up to the challenge of Russia’s illiberal kleptocracy and, relatedly, strengthening ties to (and liberalism in) Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). Britain has been stronger in standing up to the Kremlin but Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s incoming Foreign Minister, has repeatedly signalled her intent to take a tougher line. British support in doing so will be welcome and can help stiffen German resolve in this regard, especially if any of the coalition partners were to waver. The coalition agreement also refers to the ‘Harmel plan’ principle of combining deterrence with dialogue and Germany has a stronger track record on the latter. This now needs to be made effective in delivering tangible and positive change. Pursuing a firmer and more productive approach will be easier together. 

The UK and Germany can jointly build on good relations with the CEE states. The coalition agreement notes Germany’s ‘deep friendship’ with Poland, which enjoys its second highest level of formal government-to-government  relations. Perhaps surprisingly, Czechia has the next highest level of such relations with Germany, via a (somewhat latent) ‘Strategic Dialogue’. The UK has developed close relations with both countries, including via its firm stance on Russia. People in CEE appreciate the UK’s support to the region – including recently on Belarus, as well as to Ukraine[↗] and in the Baltic states[↗] – which shows how to give practical expression to the coalition agreement’s commitment to ‘take the concerns of our CEE partners particularly seriously’. 

Yet there is a quid pro quo here: the CEE states have to take concerns over the growing influence of illiberal tendencies in their own societies – and, in some cases, governments – more seriously. A sustained British-German effort could pay dividends here – especially if overtly set in the context of their mutual commitment to liberalism’s victory in the current systemic competition – and making liberal institutions fit for this purpose. Practicing what they preach, the UK and Germany should also address their own shortcomings in this regard particularly on Russian financial flows and migration (in the former) and Nordstream II and Chinese influence respectively. They should work with each other to explore how these ostensible weaknesses can be transformed into sources of leverage or, otherwise, simply stopped. 

Looking further afield, the two countries should work jointly to strengthen the alliance of democracies, the D10 and D10+ (including bringing CEE into that fold) and help ensure the German ‘alliance for multilateralism’ achieves liberal outcomes rather than falling into the rules-focused, formalistic stagnation that bedevils other umbrella formats. A coordinated approach to engaging the ‘Quadrilateral Security Dialogue’ offers a solid opportunity for meaningful cooperation here. More specifically, integrating a German warship into the future deployment of the Royal Navy’s Carrier Strike Group would complement the forthcoming redeployment[↗] of British armour and ground troops to Germany and help signal a steelier and more coordinated approach to systemic competition beyond as well as in Europe.

Overall, in a new political era, Britain and Germany have much to gain by deepening their partnership to bolster the effectiveness of international institutions, defend freedom and openness and create liberal political outcomes. The expressed intent of the incoming German Government offers a particular opportunity for the two countries to cooperate more deeply – should they dare to grasp it.

Dr Benjamin Tallis is a Practice Fellow at the Hertie School’s Centre for International Security in Berlin, Germany.

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